A day after Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra urged people to not use his name to “further propaganda and dirty agenda”, fellow Olympians, including Tokyo Games medalist Bajrang Punia, came out in his support, saying sport should not be used as a medium to discriminate.
“Whether the athlete is from Pakistan or any other country, he represents his nation. He is a sportsperson first. So it’s not like we’ll say something against that person because he is from Pakistan. There should be respect for athletes,” wrestler Bajrang, who won the bronze medal in the 65kg weight class on the same day that Chopra won the javelin gold, told The Indian Express.
Chopra was dragged into a controversy after his comment in an interview, that Pakistani javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem was “moving around” with his javelin during the Olympic final, were twisted by people with “vested interests”.
मेरी आप सभी से विनती है की मेरे comments को अपने गंदे एजेंडा को आगे बढ़ाने का माध्यम न बनाए। Sports हम सबको एकजूट होकर साथ रहना सिखाता हैं और कमेंट करने से पहले खेल के रूल्स जानना जरूरी होता है 🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/RLv96FZTd2
— Neeraj Chopra (@Neeraj_chopra1) August 26, 2021
On Thursday, Chopra said on Twitter: “I would request everyone to please not use me and my comments as a medium to further your vested interests and propaganda. Sports teaches us to be together and united. I’m extremely disappointed to see some of the reactions from the public on my recent comments.”
Nadeem said the two throwers were “very good friends”. He told The Indian Express on Friday: “Neeraj bhai ne bilkul theek kaha hai. Hum dono bahut achchhe dost hain aur aisi cheezen nahin honi chahiye (Neeraj did the right thing. We are very good friends and such things should not happen).”
Chopra’s comments received backing from the wider sporting fraternity in India.
Rio Olympics bronze medalist wrestler Sakshi Malik said: “I completely don’t approve of athletes being dragged into controversies or being used for political reasons and to spread hate. And we are pulled into bizarre controversies. Like Neeraj has been very badly affected by what happened, and just thinking that a very small out-of-context remark blew up into such a massive controversy.”
“All kinds of weird questions are being asked and news channels turned a small normal act of the Pakistani javelin thrower using Neeraj’s javelin for one attempt,” Sakshi said. “I’d urge fans to support Indian athletes and understand at same time that our on-field rivalries do not ever equate to off-field enmity. They are our friends and peers from the same sport. And no athlete will be comfortable to be used for hate against another nation.”
Table tennis player Sharath Kamal called the incident “disturbing”.
“When we competed in the SAFF Games in 2004 in Islamabad, there was always police or army escort with us. It was always the same person, so we got talking, and both sides realised that what we are told is different from what the reality on the ground is. We’re all the same people,” Kamal, a four-time Olympian, told this paper.
He added: “We went shopping and he came along with us, showing us which shop to go to, what are the good things to buy, and what are not. That’s when we realised how much hatred is fed to people around, which is unnecessary.”
Chopra and Nadeem, who finished fifth in Tokyo, share a cordial relationship outside competition. Even before the final, the duo sat next to each other during their bus ride from the Athletes’ Village to the National Stadium, reliving old memories.
Bajrang said it was important for people to respect the spirit athletes share. “I haven’t seen Neeraj’s video, but sport teaches us how to remain united, instead of discriminating. When I meet wrestlers from Russia, USA, it’s always very cordial, it doesn’t feel like we are rivals; we are all like brothers. The competitive spirit is on the mat only,” Bajrang said.
His views were echoed by former India hockey captain Viren Rasquinha, who said sports and politics should not be mixed. “Whether I played against Pakistan or Australia or Germany… it’s all the same. It’s war on the ground, but I shake hands before the game and shake hands after the game. We don’t take anything outside the field,” Rasquinha said.
“I’ve always believed that we should play sport in its purest form. Give everything for the country in the match that we’re representing, but let’s not mix (sports and politics),” he said.
During the Tokyo Olympics final, Chopra, before his first throw, could not find his javelin before realising it was with Arshad. He asked for it and sprinted to the start of his run-up. “I was searching for my javelin at the start of the final (in Olympics). I was not able to find it. Suddenly I saw Arshad Nadeem was moving around with my javelin. Then I told him ‘bhai give this javelin to me. It is my javelin. I have to throw with it’. That is why you must have seen I took my first throw hurriedly,” Chopra told The Times of India.
Stories run by a few websites, based on this quote, and comments on social media portrayed Nadeem as the bad guy.
Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur, who finished sixth at the Tokyo Games, called Nadeem a “good person” who is always “eager to learn”.
“When on the field, I can understand that players compete against each other. But once off the field, we all are good friends,” she said. “Sport does not know any boundaries. Be it India, be it Pakistan, sports should be seen in the right spirit.”
With Shahid Judge and Shivani Naik
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