He might not be able to go anywhere these days without a hundred cameras trained on him, but remarkably no footage exists of Olympic javelin champion Neeraj Chopra’s biggest ever throw. That’s because it didn’t come in competition. Only a few people were around to see it — at a practice session in Tokyo just before the Olympics in 2021.
“It was actually the last training session before the competition. It was a real long throw,” says coach Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, who has been working with Neeraj since 2019. Being a training session, Bartonietz never got out the tape.
Here is his estimate: “Neeraj was throwing from one end of the field and it landed right at the edge of the other end. One inch more and it would have gone into the concrete. It was over 90m for sure,” the 75-year-old recalls.
In the last few years, 90m is the magic mark on the minds of Indian athletics fans. The clamour started seven years ago when Neeraj first announced himself as a star to watch out for, winning the Junior World championships with a throw of 86.48m.
The barrier seemed approaching ever so close when he threw 88.07m at the Jakarta Asian Games. It was only temporarily forgotten when he won Olympic gold with 87.58m, and was back as a talking point when he threw 88.39m at the World Championships in Eugene last year.
Beyond the Tokyo training ground, the closest Neeraj got to 90m was at the start of the 2022 season when he threw 89.94m at the Stockholm Diamond League. That’s massive, but as Neeraj would himself admit, it isn’t 90m.
When you consider he is the Olympic champion, Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist, World silver medallist, Diamond League winner, it’s fair to wonder just how important is it for Neeraj to cross the 90m barrier! Perhaps, it’s a fallout of the lofty standards he has set.
It’s clearly significant for Neeraj himself. “In this new year, I hope I will put an end to this question,” he said at the start of the 2023 season. “I could have done that (in Stockholm) if I landed my foot just a few centimeters ahead. It’s just a matter of six centimeters, but it is a magical mark for an athlete. Whenever you talk about a top athlete, we all say he’s done 90m.”
The aura of 90m
From that perspective, 90m is indeed the gold standard, possibly, far more so than the 10-second barrier for the 100m sprint. Only 23 humans have ever thrown the 800gm javelin beyond 90m. In contrast, 149 athletes have run the 100m inside 10 seconds. Just this year alone, 33 sprinters have gone sub-10 seconds, while the 90m barrier is yet to be breached in the javelin.
Javelin world record holder and three-time Olympic champion Jan Zelezny puts into perspective how monumental the feat is. “90m is more or less a psychological barrier of joining the very best athletes,” says Zelezny. Incidentally, early in his career, Neeraj modelled himself on Zelezny, who made a remarkable 33 throws over 90m.
Zelezny is also mindful of the role conditions and luck play. “Ideally, you should break that (90m) as soon as possible because once you do that, you do not want to throw less. Tailwind and perfect weather are inevitable parts of the performance. You have to be in the right place at the right time.”
Even that might not be enough. “At that level, it is extremely difficult to add even a few centimeters. 90m is not something you throw every day,” Zelezny says.
Using the principle of projectile motion, it’s a fairly straightforward calculation to know what it takes to throw the 800gm carbon fibre javelin 90m. While the optimal angle is not precisely 45 degrees since the javelin is aerodynamic as well, the general principle holds true.
The formula reads, where V is the velocity at release, α is the angle of release and h is the height of release.
“If you take out wind resistance from the equation, and if your release point is about 1.8m above the ground, then velocity of the javelin at the time of the release to throw 80m is about 27.8 meters per second (m/s) or about 100km an hour (km/h). If you want to throw 90m, then you have to throw about 29.44m/s or about 106km/h. This doesn’t seem like much, but it is a lot of improvement,” says Bartonietz.
So, how do you get that improvement?
“It’s the same principle as if you are in a rocket or car. Kinetic energy translates into distance. If you have a car then to go from 100km/h to 106 km/h, you either change the fuel or you change the capacity of the engine,” explains Bartonietz.
The human body isn’t a car engine, though. For the javelin, Bartonietz likes to compare the body to a bow. Just like the arms of the bow, the human body has to be both strong to store energy and flexible enough to be bent without breaking, to get the best result.
“He will become a member of a very exclusive club, but one which doesn’t have a president or any financial reward or even a WhatsApp group.”Dr. Klaus Bartonietz about consequences if Neeraj crosses the 90m mark
A key variable that determines distance is velocity at the time of release. “You can get that by either running in faster or developing a faster arm release. Neeraj can try to run faster so he develops more kinetic movement,” says Bartonietz. But this comes with a challenge.
“If a bow is stronger, it becomes harder to bend. If you are running in faster, you have to block even harder in a shorter time. It’s only a few milliseconds, but makes a big difference,” he says.
The angle of release is an equally important variable. “If you want to throw further, then, basically, you have to release the implement harder. At the same time, your release has to be right since it’s an aerodynamic event. There is no point releasing the implement faster if it’s too steep or too flat. It has to be on the right trajectory. That is the compromise you have to make,” says Bartonietz.
Blocking — the moment Neeraj (a right-handed thrower) breaks his forward movement with his left foot and transfers the built-up kinetic energy to the javelin — is another critical factor. Think of a motorcyclist being pitched forward on the seat with force after braking hard suddenly at high speed. The faster you get on the runway, the harder your block has to be.
How hard is this?
The strains on the body are enormous. Germany’s Johannes Vetter who has the second-best throw (97.76m) of all time once said, “There’s so much pressure on the body. I mean, on our right leg, if you throw with your right hand, it’s like four to five hundred kilos; and on the left leg, it’s more than a ton of pressure, which we have to hold.”
It isn’t just the blocking knee where these forces are at play. At this extreme of human performance, injuries are inevitable. Vetter, who had multiple throws over 90m in 2021, is currently a shadow of his best, having suffered a shoulder injury last year. A world champion in 2017, he hasn’t qualified for the worlds this year.
Former Olympic champion Thomas Rohler (PB 93.90m) throws around 20m less after a back injury in the lead up to Tokyo Olympics.
Another German thrower, Andreas Hoffman (PB 92.06m), is also out with a knee injury. Neeraj too has had his share of injuries. He underwent surgery to his elbow in 2019, and saw his 2022 season curtailed due to a groin injury. He suffered another injury in the groin region earlier this year, but returned with a throw that is among his 15 best of all time.
It takes time and effort for the body to be conditioned to tolerate such immense loads. “When we are training, we are working to improve his strength capacity for sprinting, jumping and lifting weight. As the body becomes stiffer, we are also making it more elastic. Stiffer but also able to bend. You need more power to bend a stiffer bow. When Neeraj achieves this, the javelin will go further,” says Bartonietz.
Neeraj is pushing himself hard, but isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel, says Bartonietz.
“The training doesn’t not change, but the level, quality and intensity of the exercise does. If you have to compare Neeraj to where he was before, he is definitely faster and the specificity of his training is a lot better. If he snatched 100kg a few years ago, now he lifts the same weight but a lot faster.
“He is more explosive. If the guy who is throwing 80m can perhaps jump 2.80m in the standing long jump, Neeraj can jump between 3.20m and 3.40m, and, at best, 3.60m. So, he is more explosive. Earlier, he was about 86kg. Now, he is about 90kg. So, he is more powerful, but also more elastic,” says Bartonietz.
A fine balance
The act of conditioning the body for heavier competition load comes with its own limitations. “When you are throwing 90m, you can’t train the same way as when you are throwing 80m. If you can do 50 throws in a training session when you are throwing 80m, you can maybe do 10 when you are throwing over 85m,” says Bartonietz.
“You want to avoid injury, but some are caused by overtraining or faulty movements. You are stressing your elbow, shoulder and back and there are so many breaking forces on your spine. Sometimes, less can be better. The recovery has to be watched. The longer you throw, the longer the recovery takes. There is no science which says this is optimal. This is by trial and error. It is an individual thing.”
It takes time to find that optimum level, according to Bartonietz. This is why he rarely has the 90m conversation with Neeraj. “Our conversations are technical: how to get the most out of the body, and how best to control the javelin. When he threw 89.94m in Stockholm, we spoke about where his angle of attack was.
“I didn’t yell why he couldn’t have been 6cm closer to the line. It makes no sense to focus the athlete on this bloody difference. It’s not good for your mindset. If you come to a competition thinking, we should chase 90m, it will, almost certainly, not happen.”
Bartonietz is happy that Neeraj is consistently throwing in the upper 80m range. “That consistency in performance is an effect of neuronal stability at a corresponding high level. What this means is that the neuronal circuits that control all these actions that take fractions of seconds are more stable for Neeraj. His brain is able to steer the process at a higher stability. When these things come together, his maximum throw will be improved.”
Should Neeraj cross that mark, Bartonietz is realistic about the aftermath. “Nothing much will change. Some statistics will change. If you break the Finland national record at the Paavo Nurmi Games, they give you an island or a Mustang car. But I don’t think Neeraj needs that (he bought one on his own after the Olympics). He will become a member of a very exclusive club, but one which doesn’t have a president or any financial reward or even a WhatsApp group,” jokes Bartonietz.
“It will happen when it has to. It could have happened last year or the year or the year before that, but maybe God has kept a perfect time and place for it.”Neeraj Chopra on reaching the 90m mark
For those who wonder at the long wait for Neeraj’s 90m throw, Bartonietz suggests patience. “At Neeraj’s age you should see how much Zelezny threw. He wasn’t throwing 95m then,” he says. Indeed at 25 years old — Neeraj’s age right now — Zelezny’s PB was 87.66m. The Czech legend got his first 90m throw when he was 26 years old. “If Neeraj can throw for a long time like Zelezny (who retired in his 40s), he will have a great career,” he says.
That’s Zelezny’s assessment as well. “Neeraj just needs to stay healthy. Besides this, it is just a matter of a time. There is no reason why he cannot do that (cross 90m). He is young and talented and knows how to manage pressure well. After winning the Olympics, he became a superstar and handled it perfectly. Again, if he stays healthy, he is going to throw even more than 90m,” Zelezny says.
Zelezny has an insider’s take on where the 90m throw should feature in Neeraj’s list of priorities. “It was great to throw over 90m, but it is just a number. Sometimes the goal is to throw far, sometimes the goal is to come back from an injury. When you are at the Olympics, the goal is winning because it’s a competition between several athletes and in the end, there is only one winner. So, every achievement is unique,” he says.
Bartonietz concurs. “In one way, we shouldn’t care about the 90m throw. We care because we are in the metric system, so we see jumps of 10m. If we measured in feet and inches like the Americans, then some other number like 295 feet or 300 feet might be important. At the major competitions, it is, of course, (podium) placement that is more important,” he says.
But, at the same time, Bartonietz knows why the barrier matters. “If you can’t throw 85m, then it’s difficult to qualify for the final. And when the gold medals go above 90m, then you want to know that you have the capacity to throw over 90m. Maybe, you won’t have to throw it on the day, but you want to know that you can,” he says.
That was probably the case for Neeraj’s unrecorded Tokyo throw as well. “He actually made it with a 700gm javelin. It’s lighter than the one they use at the senior level, but that makes it harder to control. So, when he got that throw, it was clear he was having the right feel for the implement,” says Bartonietz.
Could the big one come in Budapest? It well might. The runway is hard, it’s a balmy 30 degrees in the evening and there haven’t been any reports of cross breeze.
Neeraj is not going to stress himself much. “It will happen when it has to. It could have happened last year or the year or the year before that, but maybe God has kept a perfect time and place for it,” he has said.
If it does happen in Budapest, one thing is for certain. There won’t be a lack of cameras to capture it.
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