Dr Klaus Bartonietz, a biomechanical expert, first started working with athletes in 1978 when the Socialist Party of East Germany wanted science to be brought closer to the playing field. In his career spanning more than four decades, the 73-year-old has trained heptathletes and javelin throwers, including Johannes Vetter’s coach. Bartonietz tells what worked for Neeraj Chopra in the men’s javelin throw final at the Tokyo Olympics and the effort that went into making an Olympic Champion.
When you started with Neeraj towards the end of 2019, what did you work on first?
It was a step-by-step process. We slowly increased the load up to the normal load (Neeraj had undergone an elbow surgery). The injury takes time to heal. What I saw (as the reason for the injury) mainly was overuse. Maybe at a young age, doing too much throwing and not being well prepared. The philosophy for athletes in Germany who are at the age of 10, 11, 12 is to do sprinting, long-distance running, swimming and even skiing. Some Indian athletes do the javelin throw but they never sprinted the 100 metres or did the long jump.
How much of the focus was on arm-related exercises?
In 2016 he became the junior world record holder, which means that he was pretty good already. He needed some development. He won the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games with 88 metres (88.06 metres), and that was awesome. But we had to bring him back to that level. We did a lot of arm-related exercises among other things.
See, you throw with the arm but the ankle must be strong and coordinated so you can do complex things. The throw is built up from the legs. Legs must be strong and the legs start with the ankle and the toes. All little joints are involved in building up the throwing movement from the bottom.
I like a quote from Bruce Lee (martial arts expert and actor). He said take the power from the ground through your legs, the waist and into the arm. That is what you have to do. Some people jump out and throw. It may work in the shot put but not in the javelin. In the javelin, you must be grounded. Only then can you bend like a bow.
You have spoken about the bow and arrow in terms of javelin throw?
A javelin thrower’s body has to be the bow and he has to release the arrow (javelin). Neeraj was fastest (in the final). The other guys were strong in terms of lifting weights. Neeraj is also strong but he was the fastest in the run-up. The body has an elastic component and it has to be stretched and then the energy can be released into the arm and the javelin. If Neeraj’s block (of the braced leading leg) was better, he could have gone over 90 metres.
How does an athlete develop elasticity in javelin throw?
Elasticity can be developed by good stretching exercises. So, you are not just getting stronger but more flexible. In some pictures you see bodybuilders (with big muscles), but they cannot even bring their arms together. That does not work. You need to be strong as well as flexible.
To bring the components of (throwing) together is the tricky thing. When you do lifts (weights), the next day you cannot throw your best. The body is tired and then you need to stretch and get rested. It is the timing of the different training sessions which matter. If you do weights today, you need to follow up with core exercises, sprinting and jumping and then after one-and- a-half days, you can throw.