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Explained: Why big javelin throws may be a risk

German Johannes Vetter has just thrown the javelin 97.76 m, only a little short than Jan Zelezny's world record 98.48 m. Does a javelin that flies extraordinarily far pose a risk to other athletes in the field?

Written by Nihal Koshie | New Delhi | Updated: September 10, 2020 8:09:43 am
Johannes Vetter, Johannes Vetter javelin throw, Johannes Vetter Javelin record, Javelin throw, Javeling throw risks, Javelin throw olympics, Indian Express Johannes Vetter has been consistently crossing 90 m. (World Athletics)

On Sunday (September 6), Germany’s Johannes Vetter, 27, produced the second longest javelin throw in history at the World Athletics gold level series event in Poland.

His effort of 97.76 m was just 72 cm behind the event’s G.O.A.T Jan Zelezny’s celebrated world record throw of 98.48 m in 1996.

Vetter’s monster throw that landed not far from the shot-put area has thrown up a number of questions.

Will Vetter’s throws in the future pose a risk to the other athletes on the field, and also on the track? Is there a need to modify the javelin again so that it dips early and does not fly beyond the throwing area and on to the track? And can a present-day thrower break the 100 m barrier?

What made Johannes Vetter’s throw special?

Other than the fact that it was the second best ever, the 27-year-old German has proven in the past that, when on a roll, he can be amazingly consistent with the long throws.

His fourth-round effort on Sunday evening at Chorzow, Poland, too was impressive, at 94.84 m.

In 2017, he registered 94.44 m in Lucerne, Switzerland. During this series of throws in Lucerne, he produced three 90-plus-metre throws.

Before Sunday, Vetter had crossed the 90-metre mark twice in August – throwing 91.49 m and 90.86 m.

And how good was Jan Zelenzny, the world record holder?

The Czech thrower is the only man to have won three consecutive Olympic golds in 1992, 1996, and 2000. In 1988, at the Seoul Games, he won silver. He also won the world titles in 1993, 1995, and 2001.

Vetter or any other world-class athlete will find it hard to match his consistency. Zelenzny has 34 throws over the 90-metre mark, the most by a male javelin thrower.

Five of the top-10 all-time throws have been by Zelenzny: 98.48 m (WR), 95.66 m (Rank 3), 95.54 m (Rank 4), 94.64 m (Rank 5), and 94.02 m (Rank 7).

In addition to the world record, Zelenzny also holds the World Championship record of 92.80 m set in 2001.

So why should the increase in the number of 90-plus throws worry track and field officials?

In most track and field events, the long-running javelin throw competition takes place while the rest of the arena is crowded. Runners are focused on their events, even as the javelin is flying around on the field.

Although marshals and officials are in place, long throws mean the javelin overshooting the area designated for the event, and posing a risk of injury to athletes on the track, or even officials.

Instances of officials or athletes being struck by a javelin are rare, but have happened at smaller events. In 2012, a German official died after being hit by a javelin when he went towards it to measure the distance even before it had landed.

Has anyone crossed the 100 m-mark, and have officials done anything to keep the track and field safe?

Indeed, back in 1984, East Germany’s Uwe Hohn registered the longest-ever throw of 104.80 m in Berlin. Although this feat is referred to as the “everlasting record”, it is no longer officially recognised by World Athletics.

This is because in 1986, the centre of gravity of the javelin was moved forward by 4 cm to reduce the risk of 100-plus throws landing on the track at the other end of the field and putting runners at risk, as track and field events are often held simultaneously at a stadium.

Modifications also helped the javelin land more vertically, rather than sliding at the point of impact, thus making it easier for officials to measure an accurate distance.

“This shortened throwing distances by approximately 10 per cent by bringing its nose down earlier and more steeply,” World Athletics states on its website in reference to the redesign of the men’s javelin, which weighs 800 g. In 1999, the women’s javelin too, was redesigned.

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So how far would Uwe Hohn throw the redesigned javelin?

Soon after his 100-plus-m throw, Hohn, who is currently the javelin coach of the Indian team, could not participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics because East Germany decided to boycott the Games.

A year later, an accident in the gymnasium resulted in his career being cut short because he wasn’t given enough time for rehabilitation.

Today, taking into account strides that have been made in training techniques, Hohn believes he would be a 95-plus-m thrower. “I don’t know, it is difficult to say. If I look at javelin throwers who throw 90 metres plus now and what strengths they have and their throwing power, I guess I would also throw pretty far. Can’t say 100 metres, but probably 95-plus,” Hohn told The Indian Express.

Hohn says the method of releasing the old and new javelins are also different.

“Maybe the old javelin was a little bit delicate to throw. I couldn’t throw with that much power that many throw these days with the new one. I could probably only use 90 per cent of power. So that is a little bit different. The body-mass point (in the new javelin) shifted four centimetres forward, so it gives the javelin a more stable flight. Even if you are not really perfect, it corrects itself a little more than the old javelin. In the old javelin if you didn’t get it right, it did not correct by itself,” Hohn said.

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Does Vetter’s mammoth throw reduce India’s chances of an elusive track and field medal at Tokyo Olympics next year?

Neeraj Chopra, the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold medalist, and Shivpal Singh, an Asian Championships silver medal winner, are India’s best bets at the Olympics.

Both had qualified earlier this year, but are yet to enter the elite 90-metre club. Chopra has a best throw of 88.06 m, which puts him 42nd on the all-time list, while Shivpal tops at 86.23 m (81st).

In a year that has seen sports events, including the Olympics, cancelled, Chopra (87.86 m) has had the second best throw, and Shivpal (85.47 m) the sixth best, in the world. However, 2020 is not the best yardstick, as athletes in most parts of the world are only easing back into competition, with the Tokyo Games another 10 months away.

The field at the Summer Olympics will have established stars like Andreas Hofmann and Thomas Rohler, both Germans who have crossed 90 m, and the experienced Czech Jakub Vadlejch, who remains a force.

Belarus’s rising star Aliaksei Katkavets could be one to watch out for, as he has the potential (personal best of 86.05 m in August this year) to upset the established stars.

Yet, in a big final it boils down to who can hold their nerve better. The gold at the 2019 World Championships was won at 86.89 m by Anderson Peters of Grenada.

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