Neeraj Chopra’s pilgrimage: meeting Jan Zelezny, who won gold and silver in javelin-crazed Finland
Neeraj Chopra has been on a pilgrimage these days, and on this spiritual journey he has picked up some sparkling memories. Within a week, he won a silver and a gold medal – after breaking a national record by finishing second at the Paavo Nurmi Games, the reigning Olympic champion was on the top step of the podium at the Kuortane on Saturday.
A few months ago, while training in Turkey, he met Jan Železný, the supreme deity of the javelin devotees. Now he was making headlines in Finland, the country where spear throwing is a national pastime and the wildly popular Keihaskarnivaalits – they have a designated word for javelin carnivals – have a kumbh mela-like fervor.
It is a mass village sport for amateurs, and also a serious pursuit for pros. Over the years, the Finns have won 26 Olympic medals, including 9 gold, in what is considered the most taxing sport for members.
Chopra’s corner of the country was not Finland, by any stretch of the imagination, at least then. But after gold at the Tokyo Olympics, things would change. The dusty towns of Haryana would see children carrying spears through the village fields, but we are getting ahead of the story.
Like all pioneers, when Chopra took the road less travelled, he had no signage to guide him. Becoming addicted to a sport that had no connection to his remote village near Panipat came with obvious difficulties. The smartphone would be useful.
Železný’s YouTube videos regularly ate up most of Chopra’s mobile data.
The Czech world record holder’s 17-step pre-launch routine would become an obsession for the teenager from Khandra. In the world of athletics, the Železný swing is considered a work of art. For biomechanics working with elite athletes, it’s a fascinating study of human movement.
His first 15 steps had the perfect rhythm. Železný was fast enough that his momentum gave the javelin a significant thrust, just before it left his hand and flew high. He was also slow enough in his approach, as he had to pull off the last tricky but complicated maneuver involving his limbs.
The last two stages of the momentum are said to be the soul of Železný’s incredible javelin throw. This caused him to throw the spear a distance of 98.48 meters, roughly the length of a football field.
The quasi-balletic rhythm of the arms and legs has made physicists marvel at the smooth and efficient transfer of kinetic energy from the body at javelin-like speed. Železný on the track looked like a turbine working as a rotor system to ignite the spear in the sky.
In an extraordinary YouTube documentary, World Record Jan Železný, experts delve into these mystical final stages. They tell how in the final phase of the race, after planting his left foot firmly on the ground in front of him, the three-time Olympic gold medalist would put brakes on his body, arch his back to take the shape of a bow.
Železný’s final recoil would send the javelin into a great rainbow that the world watched in awe. Wide-eyed boys and girls like Chopra stared up at the sky and dreamed. The sight would make them believe in themselves. Looking at the barely six-foot Czech with a physique that looked more like that of a swimmer than a pitcher, the seeds of the ‘yes, even I can’ resolve would sprout even in puny teenagers. the most clumsy. Železný was their Messiah who gave the message that to throw the javelin great distances required an elasticity that could be achieved by hard work and not the huge frame one was born with.
The secret to Železný’s success was not brute strength, imposing frame or DNA. It was a well-refined throwing technique and hard rods that sent the javelin flying out of his hand, taking him to lofty heights. Unlike other throwing events, the javelin was not the monopoly of the burly, tall or naturally muscular.
In the documentary with automated English subtitles, Johan Kloeck, a Belgian 80m+ thrower, talks about Železný opening the gates of the javelin arena to the world. “We now see that the field of competitors has become much wider. Now there are little Chinese, Japanese and Indians throwing over 85m. It kind of shows us that they’ve studied it and come to conclusions and they’re capable of achieving success as well,” he says.
They certainly did, Chopra being the prime example.
Železný often surprised his fellow pitchers with what he did during his training. Those who saw him train say there would be days when the star would spend most of his time and energy repeating a very simple exercise.
He would start by standing in a posture as if in the last stride of his momentum – left leg in front, right behind at a right angle. For long hours, he repeated the subtle rocking motion forward. What seemed like an unimpressive warm-up was actually a rehearsal of when everything clicks into place for a javelin thrower.
On a loop, he was tracking the drive at the precise moment each twist of his muscles, tendons and ligaments combined to push the javelin further. Looking like a Tai-chi master, Železný tapped his left front leg and twisted his right ankle as if crushing an insect on the ground. He would constantly live and relive that microsecond, when power flowed from the legs, back, hands, and finally the javelin.
Belgian coach Patrick Bosschaer often traveled to South Africa during winters to visit training centers where Železný would also have his base. He remembers the champion pitcher constantly doing Tai-chi exercises. The perfectionist would keep working on it until his muscles had the switch by heart. He wanted the planting of his left foot to signal that the body transforms into a catapult and launches the javelin new distances.
“He wanted the motor ability (of that body) to be able to kick in without thinking,” Bosschaer explains in the documentary.
Watch Chopra at the top of her game, ahead of her historic gold medal throw in Tokyo. Holding the javelin with both hands, he too shoots at the body. He also taps his left foot and does the “crush the insect” routine with his right. Hats off to Železný, the man who modeled modern javelin throwers, opening up the sport to all body types and making javelin throwing an equal playing field.
Chopra’s gold was a great announcement to all Indians that it could be done. After Tokyo, the javelin was no longer the preserve of Scandinavians, those who endured extreme geography and a violent history.
Not far from Chopra’s house, a small village in Haryana called Bangaon was soon to take on a new name – Little Finland. This is because the boys and girls of the region occupied the podiums during the national competitions. A village physical education teacher, Hanuman Singh, was the reason children in shorts, t-shirts and spears converged on a chicken farm every morning and evening.
On a much smaller scale, Bangaon has a Keihaskarnivaalits feel. There are plenty of videos of javelin carnivals where children, under the watchful eyes of old masters who constantly point out their technical flaws, run flat out and flawlessly tumble face first after dropping the javelin – just like Zelenzy and Chopra.
Peak Performance website, while theorizing about the centuries-old supremacy of the javelin in Finland, quotes sociology professor Paavo Seppanen. He talks about the country’s tradition of allowing children access to open fields. “Throwing things – as well as lifting stones, throwing punches, wrestling with arms, climbing trees, etc. – has always been part of the Finnish tradition of physical exercise,” he writes.
During the pandemic, Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen, in a delightful article for the Sunday Times, had profiled her nation and explained how self-isolation and social distancing came naturally to them.
“Over the decades, Finland seems to have produced a formidable collection of conductors, Formula 1 drivers, architects, fashion designers, ski jumpers, long-distance runners, directors, composers and world-class writers. And if you see a trend here, you might not be alone. The truth is that they are. Alone in their cockpits, on stage and on the podium, writing in their armchairs and running in their shoes. Always alone – and fervently keeping their social distance long before it became the norm.
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Tuomainen and Seppanen could speak well of Haryana’s love of the outdoors and the independent character of their strong, barely speaking and quiet champion athletes.