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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Tokyo 2020: 90+ new normal for Johannes Vetter, but javelin star still wary of odds

In the three decades since the current javelin models have been in use, only 20 different men have crossed that hallowed mark. Vetter alone has done it a jaw-dropping 17 times.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: August 7, 2021 12:35:39 pm
Johannes Vetter,Johannes Vetter, of Germany, is airborne as he competes in the qualification round of the men's javelin throw at the 2020 Olympics. (AP Photo)

Johannes Vetter has his own definition of the ‘new normal’.

He tries not to show off but the giant German breaks into a self-satisfied smirk. “For me, throwing 90m is like riding a bike,” he says. “Normal. Really easy.”

It isn’t, really.

In the three decades since the current javelin models have been in use, only 20 different men have crossed that hallowed mark. Vetter alone has done it a jaw-dropping 17 times, seven of those attempts coming in the first seven months of this year. His monstrous 97.76m effort last September in Poland was the longest javelin throw for more than two decades.

This hot streak has catapulted Vetter into pole position to win Saturday’s gold medal. So much so, that the discussion, before the qualifying round at least, was not ‘if’ he would win the gold. Rather it was centred more around: one, by how much distance would he win, and two, if he would go for the world record and possibly the holiest grail – the 100m mark. Vetter isn’t obsessed with these ideas. But he is comfortable talking about it. “I would love to,” he told The Indian Express, days before the qualification round. “But it depends on the conditions that day.”

Javelin throw, he says, is like going to a casino. “The odds are against you.”

Vetter experienced that on Wednesday. In a closed stadium, enduring heavy, humid conditions, throwers, including Vetter, struggled to hit their stride. Crossing ninety looked a distant dream as the season’s second-best performer Marcin Krukowski of Poland and 2012 Olympics champion and Rio Games bronze-medallist Keshorn Walcott crashed out while Vetter himself made it with his final attempt.

Neeraj Chopra, looking to become India’s first track and field medalist, topped the first round. That won’t mean a lot on Saturday, when they begin with a clean slate.

Vetter, who finished fifth at the Rio Olympics, has been following Chopra’s progress closely. “On the one side, he was throwing really far in 2016, throwing 86.48. Now he is able to throw 88, so the improvement is not big. But he is a talented guy so if he stays healthy and gets a little more relaxed in competition, then he can throw 90m,” Vetter says.

The German favourite is in awe of the Indian sensation. “Neeraj is doing a lot of track and field. I did not think of India as a track and field country but then a few years ago, we did not think there would be a world champion from Kenya (Julius Yego),” Vetter says. “In India, you have a lot of guys playing cricket so you know how to throw fast. The technique is different but with the right guys, you can throw javelin far as well.”

Vetter and Chopra have started to forge a bonding outside competition. “We spoke a lot in Finland about our lives. I asked him if he has a girlfriend, a favourite holiday destination, the different cultures… I don’t like talking about javelin all day.”

So, the conversation drifts towards his other big interest: politics. Vetter is already active in the field as a member of the city parliament in Offenburg, where he lives. The idea of a career in politics excites him. “I am trying to get some connections and then take a look at where my life is going,” he says. “But right now, I want to just compete and keep throwing.”

With his short, seven-step approach, Vetter has turned javelin into a work of art.

He spot-jogs to get into a rhythm. Then, he lifts his spear at an angle of 37 degrees – a little higher than most others, he says, but it assists him when there’s tailwind; on days when there’s a headwind, the angle is a little lower. This is followed by a sideways-facing seven-step run-up, when he gets his throwing arm, chest and shoulder in perfect alignment, then stretches his left leg long before planting it into the ground violently just before releasing the javelin to get the correct ‘block’ – that transfer of weight happens in a couple of hundredths of a second.

A block is to javelin what downforce is to a Formula One car in the corners. “You are running in fast. In my case, the left leg lands on the ground and I am throwing with the right. So, you want to break the speed. The block does that. Better the block, more power it transfers to the javelin, chest and shoulder.”

A couple of years ago, none of this was coming together for him. “I had some really difficult years in 2018 and 2019. My mom died in November 2018 and I had a lot of struggles in my left ankle because there was a free piece of bone,” he says.

He went under the knife, remained out of action for months but when he returned, Vetter says he trained relentlessly under his coach Boris Obergfoll to sharpen his ‘two weapons’: chest and shoulders.

Vetter’s workouts are intense: heavy and light ball exercises, throwing javelins on the grass, on the surface indoors, using simulators… “It’s like always repeating, repeating, repeating.”

That’s how he has progressed from 79m in 2014, when he joined hands with Obergfoll, to making 90+ look ridiculously easy.

In 2020, after surgery and rehab, he returned as the beast. The new normal for him in a post-pandemic world was hurling the javelin at a distance of 90+ metres for fun, peaking with the second-longest throw of all time.

Vetter doesn’t remember much about that day other than his feeling when he released the javelin. “I felt a lot of pressure in my whole body because I had a really strong left block. Because of that, there was a lot of power in my chest and shoulder. The rhythm in my run-up was really dynamic… that’s what I can remember.”

On Saturday, Vetter will stand on the top of his run-up inside Tokyo’s majestic National Stadium, hoping to get a similar feel. After Tuesday’s qualification, he looked a little perplexed. “There’s something in my technique, which isn’t falling into place,” he says. “It’s been happening for a couple of weeks now so I hope to sort it out before the final.”

Yet, he insists he is in the best shape of his life. But the glorious uncertainties about the Olympics keep him on his toes “Sometimes, some newcomers are coming up in such big competitions. Sometimes, some big guys are losing,” Vetter says. “My goal is to throw over 90 and I am pretty sure I will be able to throw over 90. Real easy.”

Will it be?

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