'Friends disappeared in tough times': Once Neeraj Chopra's peer, Shivpal Singh charts comeback
Shivpal Singh was counted alongside Neeraj Chopra once. Two years since the Tokyo Olympics, the 'dope-tainted' Shivpal is friendless, left wondering if there is something he could have done differently.
'Innocent until proven guilty' is possibly the most abused legal principle outside courtrooms. When it comes to doping in Indian sports, definitely so.
Ask Shivpal Singh. Once upon a time, he was counted alongside Neeraj Chopra. Two years since the Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj is known as one of the greatest athletes of all time; Shivpal is friendless, left wondering if there is something he could have done differently.
At the Tokyo Olympics, India had two javelin throwers - Neeraj and Shivpal. Both had thrown the spear over 85m in the lead-up to the Games. However, in Tokyo, Shivpal failed to reach the final, Neeraj won gold.
Shivpal's world, however, would come crashing down a month later, when he was handed a four-year ban for testing positive for the banned substance metandieonone.
“My failed dope test was because of a contaminated supplement. The real challenge was figuring out where I had gone wrong. I had been using the supplement for 10 years. Initially, I thought an injection I had taken for a shoulder injury was responsible. It only came out on examining my supplements at the Safdarjung hospital that the banned substance was there," Shivpal told The Bridge.
Shivpal had a successful hearing before NADA’s Anti-Doping Appeal Panel, who ruled that he had unintenionally procured faulty supplements from a shop and that his four-year ban be reduced to a one-year sentence.
But the damage had been done.
"Those who used to take selfies with me, vanished all of a sudden, who knows where they went. These were ‘friends’ only so to speak. During tough times, they all disappeared," Shivpal said with a sad smile.
"People are still backward in our village. Everyone started saying ‘he takes drugs'. People with no knowledge about me or my sport started saying I take drugs. It is hard to explain the mental pressure of something like that," he added.
Shivpal's return to 80m club after 2 years
The 2023 Indian Athletics Grand Prix meet in Bengaluru earlier this April was Shivpal's first competitive outing since his return to action. Two months later, at the Inter-state Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar, the 28-year-old Shivpal was back among the best. His 81.96m throw here put him at 3rd spot behind Rohit Yadav and Kishore Jena and ahead of old foe DP Manu.
“I’m happy to be back after a one-and-a-half year absence, these were my first competitions after the Olympics. My eventual aim remains to better my old personal best by at least 1 cm, with an eye on the Paris Olympics," Shivpal said.
Shivpal's throw of 86.23m from 2019 remains his best and the second best of all time by an Indian, only after Neeraj.
But a host of other throwers have come up in the last two years who have crossed the 80m mark.
“Neeraj Chopra has always been supportive. It’s because of him that javelin has now got a name in our country. There’s a huge craze, javelin has received a huge fillip thanks to him," Shivpal said about how the javelin landscape has changed in the country since he was last touching the 80s.
How dope taint follows Shivpal even now
Even as Indian javelin moves from strength to strength following the Tokyo Olympics, Shivpal now needs to chart his comeback trail in tough conditions because the taint of 'drugs' is not easy to shake off.
A non-commissioned officer with the Indian Air Force, Shivpal says he owes his entire sports career to them. However, he does not have any friends there now.
"The sports officer there is destroying sports. He tells athletes that sports is of no use. I have been posted in remote Naliyan in Gujarat, on the India-Pakistan border. For 11 years I have been winning medals at national events, how will I manage my training in a place like that?" he asked.
At the Asian Athletics Championships in Thailand this week, it will be Rohit Yadav and DP Manu who will be representing India. The boat for the Asian Games has left too.
Shivpal Singh and Neeraj Chopra both breached the 70m mark in the same year - 2014. Neeraj breached the 80m mark much earlier, but the two again found themselves as the only ones to register 85m+ throws between 2018 and 2021.
Now, Neeraj trains in the USA and competes in the world-famous Diamond League. Shivpal trains in remote Naliyan and struggles to get a second look at national competitions.
The race to get a second chance to appear alongside Neeraj at the Paris Olympics is what keeps driving Shivpal on as he sharpens his spear and takes aim, far from the spotlight that his old friend attained.