When he recalled how much he had built up the number in his mind, javelin thrower Yashvir Singh was surprised how quickly the elation of throwing more than 80 metres in a competition faded away. “When you are starting your career, you always think what it would be like to get an 80m throw,” says Yashvir who won gold with a personal best (PB) throw of 82.13m at the Indian Grand Prix 4 in Bhubaneswar in May. “When I got it, I was pretty happy. But once the feeling set in, I was thinking this can’t be the end,” the 21-year-old from Jaipur says.
While it might not be the end, it’s certainly a good start. Yashvir was the sixth Indian since March 2021 to have breached the 80m mark. Only the U.S. has more javelin throwers past this mark during the same 14-month period.
Prior to 2021, Olympians Neeraj Chopra (PB 88.08m) and Shivpal Yadav were already in the 80m club. Now, 20-year-old Sahil Silwal (PB 80.65m), 21-year-old Rohit Yadav (PB 81.83m), 22-year-old D. P. Manu (PB 82.43m) and Yashvir have joined them.
For a long time the 80m mark has been the benchmark for a world-class javelin thrower. At least it’s been that way as long as Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, the 74-year-old German who coached Neeraj to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, can recall. “80m is just a number. You might think why 80m, why not 79m or 81m? It’s probably something to do with the fact that humans have a numeric system and we humans like nice round numbers. It’s probably the same reason why the 8m is the benchmark in long jump or 20m the mark for shot put,” jokes Bartonietz.
More seriously, though, Bartonietz feels there is merit to a thrower reaching the 80m range. “There is some achievement in reaching that level. You might not win a medal at 80m, but are recognised as someone who reached a certain level as an elite thrower,” he says.
Bartonietz, however, will admit that while registering an 80m throw puts you among the world’s best, it doesn’t make you an absolute elite. For instance, 57 athletes threw over 80m last year, but only 17 went beyond 85m.
At the Tokyo Olympics, of the 12 finalists in the men’s javelin, 10 crossed the 80m mark, but the cutoff for the podium was 85.44m.
“Sometime ago, I heard (2017 world champion) Johannes Vetter say that 90m was the new 80m. That might be too much, but it’s clear that you have to do more than 80m,” says Bartonietz.
So, with four Indian youngsters clearing the 80m benchmark in the last few months, just what will it take for them to get into that special zone and start pushing for a place on the podium?
Four new Indian javelin throwers who have crossed the 80m mark in the last 15 months
What coaches and players agree on is that there’s no guarantee of a quick jump. “To go from 80m to say 88m is a 10 per cent improvement in the velocity at which you release your javelin. But there are many variables that determine your release velocity. An 80m thrower is already throwing at a very high level. So you have to find out what are those areas where you can make those improvements,” says Bartonietz. “The training starts getting harder and more intense. You lift more and (take) higher loads, but it is not necessary that you will throw higher numbers. It’s a slow process. For some it comes quickly but for most it will take from two to three years.”
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Statistics show Neeraj, who threw 86.48m just seven months after first crossing the 80m mark at the Inter-University Championships, is an exception. Vetter, for instance, first crossed the 80m mark in 2015 and breached the 85m mark two years later. 2019 World champion Anderson Peters first crossed the 80m mark in June 2017 before making his first throw beyond 85m in March of 2019. Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch took even longer. He first threw over 85m in 2015, six years after he crossed the 80m mark as a 19-year-old.
Kashinath Naik, the first Indian javelin thrower to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games, has a word of advice for the four new Indians in the 80m club. “One of the most important things these four youngsters have to learn is patience.” Naik has worked with both Neeraj and Shivpal and now coaches Manu, who set his PB at the Indian throws competition in April.
“These four guys are all 21 or 22. Right now we can’t push their workload too much. If we push them too fast, they will get injured. It’s important to keep them patient. Right now, we need to tell them it’s okay to throw 82-83m. They have another two years to the (Paris) Olympics. They have the potential to get to 85m and beyond, but it won’t happen if they get injured. If they stay healthy for the next two years, it’s almost certain they will cross 85-86m,” says Naik.
It’s the potential for injury in javelin that worries Naik the most. “Our sport is probably the most injury-prone event. Almost every joint in your body, your ankle, knee, back shoulder and elbow have so much force going through them. Almost every top thrower has picked up some injury or the other,” he says.
This is not an irrational worry. Neeraj missed the entire 2019 season after undergoing a surgery on his right elbow. Rio Olympics champion Thomas Rohler and 2019 world silver medallists Magnus Kirt, who were among the favourites for the Tokyo Olympics, didn’t even participate because of injury.
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The risk of injury is a persistent one for Indian throwers. Bartonietz says, “It has something to do with the mentality of training here. The major problem is overuse, coupled with bad technique. Overuse of your joints isn’t so much of a problem when you are throwing 60 or 70m. You are putting a lot less force through your body. But once you are throwing above 80m, it’s a lot more challenging and if your biomechanics are not in order, you are going to pick up some injury.”
Sahil, for instance, has already started dealing with the effects of the extra load his body is being put under. He crossed the 80m mark in December last year but has since fallen back to the mid-70m range owing to persistent back pain.
The youngsters have no option but to simply take time to get stronger, according to Naik. Some of the athletes know this themselves. Rohit puts it in perspective. “Ultimately, the stronger you are, the farther you can throw. When I compare myself to someone like Neeraj, I’m a lot weaker. My PB in the snatch lift is around 85kg; Neeraj usually lifts around 110kg. My squat PB is around 120kg; Neeraj does 200kg easily.”
Rohit’s relatively weaker squat has a direct impact on his throwing technique. The squat not only strengthens the leg, but also the posterior chain, which includes glutes, lats and rear shoulder muscles, among others.
“Because I don’t have that kind of power in my leg, I can’t block (for Rohit, who throws with the right arm, the block is the moment his left leg comes to a complete halt after the approach run and acts as a pivot point around which the throwing side of the body accelerates to release the javelin) properly. Instead of locking completely, my knee bends a little. I’ll only be able to lock that knee when I have that kind of strength in my leg,” he says.
Rohit has made his peace with the fact that he won’t be uncorking mammoth throws just yet. “I was talking to Neeraj bhai (brother) and he said I shouldn’t try to push myself so much right now. I agreed,” says the Uttar Pradesh thrower.
In the heat of a competition, however, such clarity is often lost. Yashvir acknowledges this. “You know that at this level you just want to focus on your technique, but everyone tries extra hard during a competition. And, as you try to push a little harder, it’s hard for all the techniques to fall in place,” says Yashvir.
The most common mistake is in the angle of release, says coach Naik. “Ideally you want to release the javelin at an angle of between 33 and 38 degrees. That’s when you get the maximum distance. But when you are trying to put as much power (as you can) behind the javelin, your throwing arm drops a little and the angle of the javelin’s release isn’t great,” he says. Naik reckons Manu released his javelin at around 41 degrees when he set his PB.
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As the throwers gain experience, Naik says their mental strength will also be tested. “In two years, I think, Rohit, Yashvir and Manu will be able to match Neeraj in strength and technique. But where they are still far behind him is in mental strength. Neeraj was absolutely fearless in big competitions. I’ve never seen any Indian like him. It’s one thing to be able to keep your technique sharp during practice, but it’s different to be able to do that in competition when you know the person next to you is very strong as well. Neeraj has the ability. We have to see if these youngsters have it as well. That’s what separates the really top athletes from the rest,” says Naik.
At the moment, Naik believes what the young throwers should focus on is to try and ensure they have their technique nailed down. “Right now they have PBs of around 80 to 82m, but they aren’t consistent. They should try to be consistently in the 82-83m range. Then, one day, when their body is feeling good, the angle of release is perfect, and the wind is favourable, they can easily add another 5m to their PBs and get to the 85m range,” says Naik.
Yashvir is confident this is what is going to happen. “When I was starting out, throwing with a wooden javelin, I used to think how special it would be to make an 80m throw. When I actually did it, I felt ‘what’s the big deal.’ I feel there is so much more I can do,” he says.
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