The axis of power in the men's javelin in 2016 lay with Germany, which produced the Olympic champion and five of the world's top 20 ranked athletes. SPIKES goes in search of the magical formula.
Perhaps it was just a hiccup.
When Kenya’s Julius Yego won javelin gold at the 2015 Beijing World Championships, he broke a run of European dominance in the men’s event that stretched back to 1997. He ended the year as the best-ranked thrower in the world, following up on Egyptian Ihab Abdelrahman’s world leading exploits in 2014; it was the first time in history that the world’s best throwers had come from outside of Europe in consecutive years.
It felt like a shift. Memories were still fresh of Keshorn Walcott’s gold at London 2012, where the Trinidad and Tobago athlete became the first non-European winner of the men’s javelin since 1952. Speculation that the men’s podium at Rio 2016 would be completely non-European was not unreasonable.
But then came a backwards gulp of water cloaked in black, red and gold. 2016 will end with three German men in the world’s top five; the same three men all made the Olympic final; the man at the top, Thomas Rohler, the Rio 2016 gold medallist.
“People want to know what’s working in Germany,” Rohler says. Predictably, there is no simple answer. “It’s the combination of many, many talented young athletes coming up, [and] coaches that speak, coaches who are open minded.”
German domestic competition is the deepest in the world. Five men threw beyond 85m in 2016 and all finished in the world’s top 20 (the next best was Finland, with two). At the German championships, there were four men over 80m, making it comparable in standard to the Diamond League (Eugene, Stockholm and Zurich each had four athletes over 80m).
“We try to keep that competitiveness up always,” Rohler says. “No one can rest.”
But that cannot be the only reason for success. The women’s javelin in Germany is also strong: three athletes in the world’s top ten, three in the Olympic final – there wasn’t even room in the team for reigning world champion Katharina Molitor. Yet Linda Stahl’s European Championships silver is the only medal of note for a German javelin thrower this year.
“I’ve competed in this kind of environment for years,” says Christina Obergfoll, who won her first international medal with silver at the 2005 world champs, and most recently won the world title in 2013.
“Honestly I would have sometimes liked to have it a bit easier because it can be pretty debilitating,” adds Obergfoll, who will end 2016 as the third ranked German (9th globally). “But at the end of the day competition is good for business.” She raises cultural factors by way of explanation for the depth.
“We just have a big tradition in the javelin,” she says. “[Klaus] Wolfermann won the Olympics in ’72 and we have always produced great throwers as well as coaches. That tradition continues strongly.”
L-R: Rohler, Weber, Hofmann and Vetter, who are all 25 or under, and all threw beyond 85m in 2016
Obergfoll also points to the continued prominence of athletics in the German sports market. Though television coverage has been squeezed, this year’s national championships were still broadcast on free-to-air television: genuine role models beamed into living rooms across Germany. “It’s an incentive. They can say ‘OK, I’ll become a javelin thrower’.”
She is also experienced enough to know that dominance is, in part, down to talent, stressing that the German men’s javelin wasn’t so strong “a few years ago”. The key, she says, is “to identify young talent”.
But that is just the start. Nurturing the talent comes next, and Rohler says the national coaching set-up focuses on best harnessing each thrower’s individual qualities.
“Everyone has his unique advantages. We have many different characters. You see that on TV, on screen, we all look very different, so we all have different styles,” he says. “Javelin is a super individual event – I think we understand that in Germany.”
That philosophy is top down. “What we don’t do is use a single template – that would be fatal,” says Boris Obergfoll (née Henry), twice a world champs bronze medallist (’95 and ’03) and now Germany’s national javelin coach for men. “In Finland they did that a few years ago and it didn’t really work.”
Boris Obergfoll, who took wife Christina's surname following her world champs title, describes his role as fostering each thrower’s “distinct individualities”. With the help of the Institute for Applied Training Science in Leipzig, athletes’ biomechanics are analysed and strengths and weaknesses identified – a “huge advantage”.
“We intensively work with them to help eradicate those little errors and to bring about technical improvements individually tailored to the athletes,” he says.
“We see the results of the biomechanical analysis within 20 seconds on a screen in front of us, so the guys are looking at those results with great interest – and not just their own, because of course they are competitors as well.”
And Rohler agrees: “We try to understand the advantages the others have and try to put them in our system.”
Boris (then still Henry) embraces Christina Obergfoll at London 2012, where she claimed silver
Though it is a centralised operation, making sure none of the athletes regress requires maintaining open communication with local coaches.
“They come together but still follow their own philosophy,” Rohler says. If a technical change isn’t yielding results, it gets dropped.
Looking to the future, Germany’s next generation of coaches will likely emerge from the current crop of athletes. Yet Christina Obergfoll cautions that won’t automatically translate into continue dominance.
“There certainly are a few examples where it didn’t work out at all,” she says. A coach can’t simply impress their own technique on another athlete: their successful throwers “have been honed optimally” to maximize individual strengths. She says the most important thing is for former throwers “to pool their knowledge”, so that the collaborative approach and “wealth of knowledge” isn’t lost.
There is clearly a positive mood in Germany, which is understandable in the wake of the nation’s first Olympic gold in the javelin since Silke Renk at Barcelona 1992. And positivity is something else needed for quality to shine, whether that’s domestically or on the world stage. That is perhaps another mitigating factor against dominance for one country.
Between 2012-2014, no man threw further than 90m. Courtesy of Yego in 2015 and Rohler in 2016, the big throws have returned, and all the big fellas are happy about it.
“I think all over in the javelin we’re a big family,” Rohler is hasty to add. “We are friends, but we are competitors. This warm atmosphere is what makes people throw really far, I think.”