Back home in the village of Oberschlettenbach in the Rhineland, Germany, biomechanics expert Dr. Klaus Bartonietz is still coming to terms with the fact that the man he coached - Neeraj Chopra - is an Olympic champion. Even as he takes a well-earned break growing vegetables in his family plot, he took time out to speak with ESPN about what made Neeraj Chopra an Olympic champion.
What is special about this Olympic gold?
I've been working as a coach for many decades and written several books about biomechanics. Although my students have become excellent coaches themselves, I've never had a lot of success with my own throwers. I had a junior win a silver medal at the European Championships but an Olympic gold is crazy. I'm already 73 years old. With this Olympic final, I think I've come closer to my life's final but in a very happy way.
How important was that first throw in qualification?
In a way, it was lucky that Neeraj qualified early. It was also lucky for Neeraj that (Johannes) Vetter struggled in his qualification throws. If Vetter had thrown 95m in qualification, it would have been a little disheartening because you know that 95m is not my level. But the opposite happened. In the final, he came in the last because he was at the top of the qualification phase, so he could react to the others. I told Neeraj a phrase which he had taught me - Maje karo. It means enjoy what you do. And when you do that, you can do it well. Of course he enjoys it.
After the first throw in the final, were you confident of a gold?
I wasn't certain about a gold until the last throw. The rest of the field was just 91cm behind him. At the 88m level, this is nothing. It is about 1-2 percent difference. If Neeraj was throwing a little bit worse angle and the other guy was a little faster or had a fraction of a second more arm delay, he would have gone a metre or two further. In 1972, I remember the gold was won by just about two centimetres. In some events, 1cm will make the difference. We were not sure until the Pakistani athlete (Arshad Nadeem) - a really good athlete - had finished.
There is a notion that Chopra peaked at the Olympics where someone like Vetter (who was throwing over 90m) didn't. What do you make of that?
I'd say we peaked a little too early. We were doing 88m at the start of the year. Going into the Olympics, we knew that the top six were all medal contenders. We knew that at the Olympics, even someone with an 85m Personal Best (PB) could throw 88 metres or more. Before the competition, we were confident that he was ready for throws around his PB and we wanted to have a new PB and maybe touch the magic 90m mark. He wanted to have a big first throw and then put some pressure on the other athletes. That worked well. We were confident about our training, our preparation, our training results, the conditions we had worked in. We were without stress and, most importantly, without injuries.
What stood out to you in your first meeting with Chopra?
I like that he is a nice, modest person. When I met him for the first time, he was already the Junior World Record holder, the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games champion. He never mentioned it. He never said, 'You have to address me in any special way'. He isn't like, 'I am a maharaja (king)'. That's a sign of his character.
Were there any fears for Chopra's future following his elbow surgery in 2019?
There were, of course, concerns but we had to keep a positive face so that he would remain confident. It was in October that we started throwing again. But we steadily gained confidence as his recovery went well. He was throwing 86m in South Africa (in January 2020 when he qualified for the Olympics). The South African result convinced us that he was well prepared. Even though he threw 86m, his angle of the javelin was not correct. He could have easily thrown 88m to 90m if his angle was correct. But because of the break and the surgery, he was missing the feeling for the implement.
What's next for Chopra?
I haven't spoken much to Neeraj after he won gold. Our last conversation was in the Olympic Village. It was about our plans now for our next competitions. We had planned to compete in the Lausanne Diamond League finals, then the Olympic festival in Berlin. But after the gold, we were thinking of skipping this because you would need some sort of preparation going for these tournaments. We had an idea that if something good happens in the Olympics, we should skip these European tournaments because next year we have the Commonwealth and Asian Games. These are some challenging tournaments.
At his level, there is also a fear of injury. The Olympic champion in 2016 (Rohler) could not compete this year because he had a back injury. This can happen to anyone. He was also well prepared, but sometimes you come to your limit. You have to try and be ready for these things.
The key is not overdoing training. A lot of athletes pick up injuries because of overuse. Vetter gave statements that he will throw 100m at the Olympics. He did not even qualify. For Neeraj, the next goal is to break the 90m mark. I think (the podium) at the next World Championships can also be in the range of 88 to 92m. It's not happened for some time but I think there is a good possibility that this will be the range.
How much credit would you take for Neeraj's success?
When I came in 2019, he already had the Junior World Record with coach Garry Calvert. Then he became the Asian Champion and Commonwealth Champion with coach Uwe Hohn. It was not me who developed him to this level. When I came, he was in the pre-surgery stage. He got the surgery in India and then he had the recovery with physio Ishan Marwaha. His physio was not just a colleague but also a friend. This is a reason the rehabilitation went well. And of course, the surgery was well done. I was pretty nervous after the surgery but the physio had a great way of dealing with these things. He said, 'Coach, it's no longer in our hands'. If the coach and physio around him are confident, its good.
Of course we were nervous but we could only hope the doctor did well. And it was. Of course it wasn't cutting off his arm or anything. All of these deserve as much credit as me.
How would you compare Chopra to other German throwers like Vetter and Rohler? Are they at a similar stage of development?
They are at totally different stages of development. Rohler and Vetter went through a system of youth development in a sports school and then at 14-15 specialised in javelin. Vetter was told he would never be an excellent javelin thrower and so he left his sports school and went to where he is now. Rohler was an excellent high jumper. Neeraj never had that development. This was not an advantage at all. Because the all-round preparation early on will help you later to be able to make changes in technique. These kids in the villages, like in Neeraj's, would have done some sort of training. They would have gone swimming. They would have played soccer or cricket. This means that they weren't missing any sports but they weren't organised.
Think of (former Olympic women's javelin champion) Christine Hussong, her father was recording her performances from the age of seven. It doesn't mean she started to do sports at the age of seven but her father was recording how far she throws the balls at the age of seven. Then the way you go is more structured. It was more structured for Vetter and Rohler and the American athletes who do sports in high school. In India, the school sports should be developed if you want higher performances in the future. Neeraj started to throw informally and then with the help of the coaches, he became an all-round athlete who threw the javelin very well. Then as he became stronger, he became a model athlete.
What was your philosophy behind coaching the javelin throw?
The mistake people make is they think you need to be very big and strong to throw the javelin far. If you think deeply, you realise that you might be tall and strong, but the javelin is only 800 grams. The shot is 16 pounds - seven and a quarter kilograms. Strength plays much more of a role there than in javelin, where you start with 600gm as a boy, then move to 700gm and then finally throw 800gm as a man. The acceleration of this light implement is the main thing. So when you lift weights, you should have not just lift thinking, 'I have to propel this bar with a velocity of 2m/s', but speed it up. The javelin travels at something like 30m/s. That's like 15 times faster than however fast you lift weights. Acceleration matters, not just strength.
There are other principles too. The run-up is the most important. You must be fastest immediately before the throw. It makes no sense to start very fast and then let it go when you are slowing down. This technique will not be good. The legs will not be active enough. The upper body and the arm are involved too early, you rush the throw and mess it up. And don't bring out your potential. We are still teaching him to be the fastest at the end by this impulse stride - the penultimate stride. The penultimate stride must be the very active one coming in - the very perfect body position for the throw. This is what athletes can miss because they are not active enough.
It is not just the speed of the javelin that matters, but also the direction of the javelin. From physics, we understand that distance is determined by both velocity and direction. The javelin must be directed well. I think when Neeraj was younger, he didn't focus on the angle of his release. When you see other athletes messing it up, they could throw three or four metres more by their speed but they don't have the direction. The aerodynamics (of the javelin) depend on how you release it. The release must be perfect. It starts with the impulse stride when you come to the correct position for the final acceleration.
The performance level differs with external variables. When the wind blows from the head, you must throw a little flatter. Otherwise the javelin will go up and then go down very steeply. If you have wind from behind, you can throw higher, the javelin will fly further because of the wind flowing from behind. It can be ahead by centimetres or by several metres.
"An Olympic gold (with Neeraj) is crazy. I'm already 73 years old. With this Olympic final, I think I've come closer to my life's final but in a very happy way." Dr. Klaus Bartonietz
How did that translate into how you worked with Chopra?
We focused a lot on sprints and horizontal jumps. The javelin throw starts with a run-up. You speed up the body. And you must not do so much vertical jumps. The horizontal element must be there. The specificity of the training depends on your event. That is my basic philosophy. It is like throwing a matchstick. You don't need to be hugely strong to throw it. But with the perfect technique, you can throw it 40m.
We didn't ask Neeraj to throw a matchstick but as a step towards this, Neeraj was throwing a 700gm javelin in the last stage of Olympic preparation. In our final session in Uppsala (Sweden) with the 700gm javelin, he threw it exactly 90m. One more inch more and it would go into the concrete. That is absolutely great. That's why we knew he had the feeling. Of course in the Olympic competition, he was pretty excited. So it didn't happen exactly that way.
Why do you have to use the lighter javelin?
We also throw heavier weights. We also use the 800, 900 and even a 1000gm or even 1500gm weights to develop power. But we use the light stuff to get the body, the nervous system, adapted to the higher speeds. This higher speed is the result of this extremely fast neuromuscular training.
I've compared the javelin thrower's body to a bow and the last step before release is as if you are pre-stretching the bow. The body is a bow and the key to a good throw is to release the javelin at a high speed. Not release it at a normal speed like an 800gm javelin or release it with a lesser speed like a 900gm javelin.
Would this change in the future?
There are, of course, 900gm and 1000 gm javelins and we did use them at a low level. But in the future, it is one of the tools of the training measures Neeraj should use to improve his throwing power to becoming a stable 90m thrower. But we used the 700gm javelin because of the neuromuscular thing, setting higher demands for this high speed production. It is to get used to extremely high acceleration.
We threw the 700gm in Bhubaneswar. He did 84.5m there. That was a record for him too. He had thrown the 700gm when he was younger. The first time he wasn't so excited because it did not go well. You must learn to throw this lighter implement well. But he learned to control it so perfectly that he could touch 90m. The next step is to go lower to the 600gm women's javelin and throw this in the 100m range.