A promising young athlete, returning to sport after failing an anti-doping test, wants to procure a good javelin. This is an article on amateur runner Sabhajeet Yadav and his son Rohit, who was gold medalist in javelin-throw at the 2016 World School Games.
March 1, 2018. Tucked away in the sports section of the morning newspaper was a report about a 29 year-old Indian athlete returned positive under anti-doping tests conducted by the newly set up Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU). The sport in question – yet again javelin-throw – reminded of another incident less than a year ago.
A farmer from Dabhiya in Uttar Pradesh, Sabhajeet Yadav, 62, is known in the world of Indian amateur running as a consistent podium finisher in his age category. He counts on the prize money he gets from running as additional income stream. One of his personal projects has been training his son, Rohit, to become an athlete of repute in the javelin-throw. Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Terminus is where this blog catches up with Sabhajeet. Having come for a marathon in town, secured a podium finish and with an hour to spare before train to UP departs, he would sit down for a chat and cup of tea. On some of these occasions, he had mentioned his desire to see Rohit participate in the Olympic Games.
Javelin-throw is one of the oldest disciplines at the Olympics. According to Wikipedia, it was part of the pentathlon at the ancient Olympic Games. In those days, it was judged for distance and target. Javelin-throw became part of the modern Olympics at the 1906 Intercalated Games held in Athens, an event that has stopped being counted as an official Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While we are used to seeing the javelin thrown with one hand, in the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, there was a phase when judging at competitions was based on the aggregate best a person could achieve throwing separately with the right and left arms. This practice featured at the Olympics just once, in 1912. After that, it faded. Three countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland – have dominated javelin-throw in the men’s category. They account for almost 50 per cent of the Olympic medals given out so far in the discipline, for men. Women’s javelin-throw was added to the Olympic program in 1932.
As interesting as the sport’s history, is the evolution of the javelin. For a long time, javelins were made of wood with a steel tip. In the 1950s, pole vaulter-turned javelin thrower, Budd Held of the US, introduced the `Held Javelin,’ which was hollow and aerodynamic. Its later models were made entirely of metal. These new javelins flew farther but they also tended to land flat, making for some landings that were difficult to measure accurately, Wikipedia says. Experiments to redesign started in the early 1980s. They were fueled by one more concern – the javelin was now being thrown by athletes so far that it threatened to exceed the dimensions of a normal stadium infield. In 1984, Uwe Hohn of East Germany (since unified with West Germany to become Germany) had set a record of 104.80 meters. The redesigned javelin, approved in 1986, saw its center of gravity moved forward marginally, the surface area in front of the center of gravity reduced and the same behind, increased. These innovations helped contain the distance traveled and ensure that the projectile landed stuck in the ground. Interestingly this design was also tinkered with in the competition to achieve longer throws. In 1991, the authorities outlawed javelins with serrated tails and reset records with retrospective effect.
According to his profile, available on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Rohit Yadav was born in 2001. News of him training in his village appeared in the media some years ago in a report following Sabhajeet’s podium finish at the Mumbai Marathon. The report engaged as window to the family’s drive and ingenuity. Unable to afford a modern javelin, Rohit trained with a homemade one. In times when the javelin’s design and engineering are as important as athlete’s ability to extract a world class throw, a homemade javelin is inadequate means to train. “ I made that javelin from bamboo. I had a photo of a javelin to guide me. I did not follow any established specifications about size, weight or anything like that. The crudely made javelin was not good for the hands. Rohit used it for two years,’’ Sabhajeet said. The path Sabhajeet and Rohit took, of making their own javelin, would be what India calls jugaad. Happening in underprivileged circumstances, jugaad addresses a need with none of the finesse or elegance that marks well made, well designed products. What shows through is refusal to be stopped. The underlying curiosity shouldn’t be dismissed. It was the same curiosity – albeit in a different, more sophisticated environment – that yielded the Held Javelin.
Prior to the 1950s, nearly all the best throws in the world had been with javelins made in Finland, using northern birch. Budd Held, who was studying engineering at Stanford University, observed one day that one of his Finnish javelins traveled farther than the rest. As per a detailed account available on the Internet, Held studied that javelin closely, took accurate measurements and discovered that the front section of the javelin was slightly larger in diameter than the tail section. The wood in the front section was also bit softer. All this was probably an oversight in manufacture but the improved travel resident in that single specimen and subsequent analysis of it, was what led Held to come up with his own design – the Held Javelin. Training with homemade javelin didn’t stop Rohit from graduating through the ranks. It helped him reach state level-events, where better javelins were available for athlete. “ We then bought a javelin for Rs 12,000 from Patiala,’’ Sabhajeet said. By July 2016, Rohit had secured a gold medal at the World School Games with a throw of 72.57 meters. In May 2017, he got silver at the second Asian Youth Athletics Championship held in Bangkok.
Then disaster struck.
In May 2017, the media reported that Rohit had failed a dope test conducted by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA); he had tested positive for the banned substance stanozolol and was set to be stripped of the silver medal he won in Bangkok. The news shocked Sabhajeet; it was keenly tracked by those in the amateur running community, many of who knew Sabhajeet. Eventually, Rohit was given a one year-ban. According to Sabhajeet, the ban is from May 21, 2017 to May 21, 2018. At the time of writing, Rohit’s best throw on record – as available on his IAAF profile – was 76.11 meters (for comparison, the national record is 86.48 meters set by Neeraj Chopra while the world record is 98.48 meters held by Czech athlete, Jan Zelezny). When we brought up the subject of Rohit a few months after he was banned from competing for a year, Sabhajeet was in tears, unable to handle the topic. He claimed his son was innocent and the family had no idea how stanozolol had got into him. Over time the setback appears to have got processed in the head. By the time we met him for a chat after the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (where he earned a podium finish for the seventh time), Sabhajeet was more hopeful and imagining the way ahead once Rohit recommenced competing at events (he would have to work his way up all over again). The father-son duo’s plan is to attempt the qualifying round for the 2018 Youth Olympics scheduled to be held in October in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “ The qualifying round will be held two months ahead of the Games. If he qualifies he will be sent for the Games by the government. As of now, he will continue to train here in the village. If he does well and we get a reliable coach, then he will be sent for training,’’ Sabhajeet said.
One of the things Sabhajeet would like to have for his son’s journey ahead, is a modern, competition-standard javelin to train with. The best javelins are manufactured overseas. According to data on the Internet, leading names in the business include Nemeth Javelins (company founded by Miklos Nemeth, Hungarian athlete who was gold medalist in javelin-throw at the Montreal Olympics), Nordic Sport and OTE javelins. The javelin will have to be imported and Sabhajeet believes that the cost could be anywhere between Rs 80,000 to 100,000. Mumbai based-businessman and amateur runner, Bhasker Desai, has been Sabhajeet’s benefactor for several years. He has stepped in to do the needful. But the intervention, while addressing an immediate need, will have limited relevance because Rohit will move into the senior category in a couple of years’ time. There is disparity in specifications (mainly, weight) between competition javelins used in the senior category and the one, Rohit can use now. A mechanism to support his journey in a more sustained fashion will need to be looked into.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are freelance journalists based in Mumbai. For more on Sabhajeet Yadav please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/11/28/a-farmers-dream/)