It was 1984 and Uwe Hohn wanted to go to the Olympics in Los Angeles which his country East Germany boycotted. Less than a fortnight before the Games, Hohn, in smouldering form, had broken the 100 metre barrier. That July, Hohn had a throw of 104.80 in Berlin. The LA gold was there for the taking.
“I was fit, focussed and had trained well. I was looking forward to participating in the Olympic Games. But in May that year the government decided to boycott the games. I was very disappointed and I spoke out against the decision of the government. But I was warned not to speak my mind. We did not have that kind of freedom to say what we wanted,” he recalls of the summer of 1984 behind the Iron Curtain, on a wintery Saturday in Patiala.
He’s witnessed the frigid tyranny of the state in controlling its sportspersons – athletes from the Soviet bloc countries lived through the worst peak of it in Cold War years when sport became the flagrant parade for a naked show of toxic nationalism and ideology.
What made the boycott even more difficult to stomach was the result of the men’s javelin throw at the Olympics. Finland’s Arto Harkonen won the gold by throwing a distance of 86.76 metres. Hohn’s missed Olympic medal at the altar of politics was only the start of this misery. The legend’s last coaching assignment was in China, where again he watched firsthand the claustrophobic stranglehold of the state machinery over its young athletes.
In China they got a few girls and told him he could choose who to train. “And those athletes got pushed to work with me even though they didn’t want to work with me. They were not motivated enough but the federation forced them, like what would happen in East Germany. Two athletes and a home coach left my group and so the federation banned them for a few competitions,” he says with a sigh.
It’s why as javelin’s greatest legend – the only man to throw over 100m in athletic history – takes on the India job, the 55-year-old is not too stressed about the country’s finest talent Neeraj Chopra choosing to train elsewhere. He would like the 20-year-old Chopra to join the national camp ofcourse but does not want to put pressure on the youngster. Javelin after all, is all about a free, smooth release.
A little over a year after his record breaking throw, the East German team was training in Cuba in the run-up to the European Athletics Championships in Stuttgart. The weight training equipment was very basic, Hohn recalls. “One of the bolts which hold the weights came off and it came crashing down on me. It was the end of my career.” The injury came on the back of the major setback of the East German boycott and the Cuban mishap robbed him of a medal in the future too.
In hindsight, Hohn believes it would have been possible to make a successful comeback from injury if he hadn’t been forced into a race against time to participate in the European Championships. “They (East German officials) didn’t want me to miss out on the gold. The back injury was not such a big issue in the first place but only became worse because they pushed me to prepare very quickly for the European Championships. They didn’t want East Germany to miss out on the javelin gold. My back only got worse,” he recalls.
Hohn went under the knife on four occasions, the last time being in 1991 – the one which saved him from being a life-long cripple. When Hohn woke up after the first surgery, his right leg was numb and he couldn’t raise his heel. “The doctors report after the surgery said that there was nothing wrong. But that was pretty much the end of my throwing.” Hohn raises the track pants over his right knee and points to his calf. “See there is no muscle left,” he says. Even today he hobbles on his right leg.
Three weeks after the botched surgery the doctors said they wanted to ‘correct something’. Hohn was back on the operating table but the numbness only got worse – it extended all the way to his hip.
“It was pretty difficult for me and I needed few years to really realise there was no way back and it was also hard for the family. If you step away from what you love it is also bound to affect you,” the coach says.
Hohn took up a day job and became a pen pusher but felt like a fish out of water. “I had an office job. It was nothing important. I had to fill forms. But I did not like it. I realised that I can’t do it for the rest of my life. It was not a fun thing to do.”
He got a lifeline when his coach asked him for help in training budding throwers.
Hohn regrets the fact that officials who ran the sports schools in the German Democratic Republic ‘controlled the athletes a lot’. “They would support you if you were talented but one bad thing was that you didn’t have enough freedom. You would have heard about the things the Stazi (state police) would do. If you had a party ahead of a competition and one of those who attended was part of the Stazi then they would report this and you would get a penalty. I got into trouble a few times, including when I spoke out against the decision to boycott the Olympic Games. We were not free, we couldn’t do what we wanted or say what we wanted.”
The GDR’s elite athletes were forbidden from any contact with anyone from West Germany. There were no relaxations to this rule, Hohn says, even if your father was terminally ill. He is talking about a visit from an aunt who had travelled across the wall to be with his father who was dying of cancer. “My aunt had come over to stay and to support my mother. I happened to be home that weekend. The first thing I did on Monday was to report to ‘my boss’ that I had a visitor at home from West Germany.”
Hohn says he didn’t try to hide the fact that he had interacted with a West German. “If they had found out on their own the penalty would have been even more severe. By reporting I was hoping to get a smaller penalty. I was warned. It could have been worse though. I could have been thrown out of the system. It happened to other athletes. However, this was 1988 and I had finished with my sport,” Hohn recollects with a chuckle.
Ask him about the systematic doping programme in GDR and Hohn has no qualms about admitting that it was prevalent.
“I believe that many athletes were doping. I was still young but I was not running around with my eyes closed. I knew there was something going on. But I believe that it wasn’t only in East Germany but also in West Germany. I am sure that in USA too they did it. And Russian athletes were doping till the Sochi Games.”
He does not remember exactly when but pin points it to sometime before he threw the 100-metre plus throw.
“They told me I should also take what others are taking. They tried to push me into it and said ‘you will get better’. But I didn’t agree to what they were saying. They accepted it probably because they didn’t want to lose an athlete like me. And after I threw more than 100 metres, they perhaps knew I didn’t need to take anything.”
Two years later, existing javelin records were wiped off after the centre of gravity was shifted by 4 centimetres to avoid flat landings of the sphere. Jan Zelezny’s 98.48 in 1996 is the official world record yet Hohn remains an idolised athlete-turned-coach.
Hohn is currently at the National Institute of Sport (NIS) where a dozen athletes, including World Athletics Championships finalist Davinder Singh Kang, are based. On this Saturday afternoon Hohn is honing the technique of a thrower who he has taken under his wings. This woman athlete is making a comeback after becoming a mother and is delighted that the legendary German is tutoring her. “I never imagined I would be coached by the only man to have thrown the javelin over 100 metres,” she says even as her eyes light up.
The six foot six inch German is someone whose reputation precedes him.
Kang can’t stop gushing about the German and compares him to a God-like figure for javelin throwers. The German’s aura is such that Kang, who has stayed away from the national camp, agreed to be part of the system. Kang’s fanboy moment came during the World Championships in London when he clicked a selfie along with Zelezny and Hohn.
Kang says he has already benefitted from training with Hohn. The 50 throws he completed during a single training session without discomfort in his right shoulder has convinced Kang that he is in the right hands.
“I have been carrying a right-shoulder injury since March. I hardly used to practice throwing because of the pain and would directly throw during competition. But now my shoulder is fine because Hohn has made me do gymnastic routines on the rings, which has strengthened my shoulder. I was not aware that gymnastic drills could help me recover from a shoulder injury,” Kang says.
The injury had resulted in him slipping into a fast bowler’s action but Kang says Hohn is working on ironing out his technical flaws. “According to me he is the God of javelin throw. If we can’t learn from him and improve then no other coach can help us. I wish he had come to India earlier.”
The Athletics Federation of India had first contacted Hohn during the Beijing World Championships in 2015, but nothing came of it because the German had a contract with the China national team till the 2016 Olympics. However, when Garry Calvert, Hohn’s predecessor in India took up the China job, the AFI turned to Hohn who was looking out for a new posting.
Still finding his way around NIS, Hohn hasn’t been afflicted by the smoker’s cough yet nor have his eyes been itchy but within a fortnight of arriving in the capital and travelling by road to Patiala, the 55-year-old is worried about the effects of poor air he and the athletes breathe. “Here in Patiala the air is not as bad but when I arrived it was not very good. It has affected us all and we can’t ignore it. I stopped smoking 20 years ago, because I thought it was not good for my health but here I feel like I smoke a packet a day,” says the German.
Hohn is convinced the air quality in some parts of north India is worse than Beijing. He is thankful that camps were held outside the capital where the air was cleaner when he coached the China team – from 2011 till the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There’s nothing he can do about the air quality but convincing the authorities to add equipment to the strength training centre is one of his priorities. He also wants to bolster the Achilles’ Heel of Indian athletes – a weak core and lower body.
“The throwers here have strong upper bodies but the legs are not very good. They don’t do ‘good running and good jumping’. They also need to work on their core muscles and back muscles. I am surprised that some of them are able to throw the distance they have with such a physique. Indian throwers are talented and I am not talking only about Neeraj Chopra. Davinder is not the youngest guy but he can still improve,” Hohn says.
The dozen athletes Hohn is currently coaching are split into two groups though Chopra, the 2016 World Junior Champion is reportedly training in Germany under Werner Daniels. Hohn is not too keen to talk about the situation, though he stresses the youngster needs to tweak his technique else he could injure his elbow.
“I met Chopra during the world championships in London. I have watched his videos and I would say he is very talented and has good speed but his technique is ‘rather wild’,” Hohn says.
The German is worried about how Chopra is using his throwing arm, specifically his right elbow. “In 2016 during the competition in Poland (World U-20 championships) his elbow position was good but even back then the elbow was a bit too deep. But last year the elbow went much lower. If you develop an elbow problem, it can affect you. It is not like a muscle tear which will heal eventually. You have only one elbow and it can get very difficult.”
Hohn also has a word of caution for those expecting Chopra to win medals overnight. “He is a young talent and has to build up carefully and not only look directly for results, I would not try to make him throw 95 metres next year. We must protect his body and do good technique work. If we do this he will improve automatically. There is no need to rush him.”
With the Commonwealth Games just five months away, Hohn is aware that time is of the essence. He has chalked out a plan for the throwers to have camps abroad and hopes to hear from the officials sooner rather than later. In his short stint in India, the German has realised that ‘yeah’ with a nod of the head does not necessarily mean ‘yes’.
Hohn was hopeful that officials would allow him to fly business class for air travel over four hours because he finds the leg-room inadequate in economy. It was one of the pre-conditions, he had set before agreeing to coach the Indian team. But at the eleventh hour, he had to make do with the extra legroom offered by the emergency exit seats as he flew from Berlin to New Delhi with a stopover at Istanbul. His large frame and long legs also don’t fit into the bed at his apartment. “I have informed them that I need a new bed. They said ‘yeah’, ‘yeah’ with a smile.”
What has pleased Hohn is the desire the athletes he trains have shown in improving and learning. “It is different here compared to China. The athletes here are coming to me and like to work with me.”
Hohn is happy that he has started off on the right note with Kang, who is known to have a mind of his own and is outspoken.
For now, he is hoping the Indian javelin throwers get used to his training methods, just like he is starting to develop a taste for the tea served at the NIS – though it is a bit too sweet for his liking.