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Too difficult to change anything with people at SAI or AFI: India’s javelin coach Uwe Hohn

India’s javelin coach Uwe Hohn minces no words in a broadside at the Sports Authority of India and the Athletics Federation of India.

From not doing enough to send track and field stars overseas for training and competition before the Tokyo Olympics, to not providing the right supplements to TOPS athletes, to threatening to withhold the salary of coaches unless they signed contracts. Uwe Hohn, India’s javelin coach overseeing top medal prospects like Neeraj Chopra and Shivpal Singh as well as the only man to throw over 100 metres, minces no words in a broadside at the Sports Authority of India and the Athletics Federation of India. Excerpts from an interview on Monday to The Indian Express.

Most track and field athletes have been at national camps without top-level competition. How will training without competition affect athletes ahead of the Olympics?

I understand that we are in an extreme situation (Covid-19). We are not only missing competitions but also preparation camps like we had in previous years. The training conditions in Patiala are far from international standard even though people in the Sports Authority of India (SAI) or the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) will call it the best in the world. But anyway we are still trying to make the best out of it. We are missing competitions the most. Competitions are not only to throw personal bests but to practise the technique they learned over the last year under more extreme situations.
Many athletes had their last competition in 2019 and only Annu (Rani) Shivpal (Singh), Neeraj (Chopra) and Rohit (Yadav) had one competition (overseas) in 2020 in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

It is summer in Patiala, where the throwers, including Shivpal Singh who has qualified for the Olympics, is based.

The temperatures in Patiala are pretty extreme and we can only practise early in the morning or after 6pm. It is difficult to keep the motivation up in these conditions. Also, recovery needs much longer time compared to the weather conditions in Europe now.

Neeraj Chopra, before leaving for France/Europe earlier this month, had spoken about why it was important for an athlete to participate in competitions. Could you elaborate?

If you compete against the top javelin throwers in the world, the experience will help. It will help in increasing confidence and provide motivation. It also helps an athlete to know how to prepare for a big competition and how to warm-up.

While Chopra has gone abroad with Dr Klaus Bartonietz (biomechanics expert), you and Shivpal have had to train at NIS Patiala. Don’t you think Shivpal should have got the same opportunity as Chopra?

There are athletes who should have the same opportunity to compete and travel to Europe. Athletes like Shivpal, Annu (Rani), Rajender (Singh), Rohit (Yadav) and also Sahil (Silwal). Even young athletes like Sahil or Rohit should compete in international competitions because they are our talents for the future.

Any particular reason why Chopra was able to travel and others, including Shivpal, could not? Did the AFI or SAI do enough?

I’m actually not sure how exactly it (Chopra going to Europe) happened, but I guess it was with the help and connection of JSW (JSW Sports which manages Chopra). Definitely nothing from SAI or AFI. They both definitely did not do enough to get our athletes to camps or competitions (overseas).

How could AFI, SAI and the sports ministry have planned the foreign trips of track and field athletes better in an Olympic year?

AFI and SAI knew our plans for the preparation very early and agreed with it. At least, I didn’t hear that something got cancelled in advance. But one after the other camps got cancelled. Surely, it’s difficult with many travel restrictions and restrictions on visas. But they definitely missed using personal contacts and diplomatic contacts in other countries, for example. We only hear how well-connected AFI is internationally, but nothing has happened so far.

How do you rate the chances of India’s top javelin throwers at the Olympics and do you think a 90-metre throw will be needed to win a medal in the men’s javelin throw final?

I think Neeraj still has a good chance to win a medal but for Shivpal and Annu reaching the final will be a success. But you also saw in the past that in big competitions athletes nobody thought would win have won.

There will be a high-level of pressure on both Neeraj and Shivpal as both will be competing at the Olympics for the first time? How can they manage the pressure better?

That’s also the reason why competitions are needed in preparation for Tokyo. To get confidence and to know themselves that they are well prepared. Neeraj should be able to manage this (pressure) anyway because he has always thrown good (well) at the important competitions since 2016.

You have been the javelin coach of India for over three years now. How do you rate the support for athletes in India?

The support before the pandemic was good but it is now not enough for world-class results. The plan that Volker Herrmann (former high-performance director) introduced here was very good. It was a way out of this unstructured support for athletics.

When I came here, I thought I could change something but it’s probably too difficult with these people at SAI or AFI. I don’t know if it’s lack of knowledge or ignorance. Beside camps or competitions, even when we ask via our nutritionist for supplements for our athletes, we don’t get the right stuff. Not even for TOPS athletes. If we get something, we are very happy!

Are you satisfied with the level of equipment for training available for Indian javelin throwers in India? Recently training equipment used by Germans (KTG) was installed at the NIS. What other equipment do Indian throwers need?

During the last few years and especially during the time with Volker Herrmann we got some equipment here but we are far away from international standard. The KTG arrived and was installed at the NIS (National Institute of Sports). But first it isn’t the time to start with this (training) and second we have to modify it a bit. Like the sled is not going smoothly yet and the sled has to get lighter. Finally it would be good if the athletes could use it from sitting position also. AFI has a long list (equipment) Klaus and I prepared to lift the level of training. You have definitely a lot of javelin talents in India.

Chopra has called for the setting up of an indoor throwing facility in India because of the harsh weather.

I think it would be beneficial for many javelin throwers, especially if it is all perfectly set up and if planned very well also for other athletes. It will be beneficial also during winter. Patiala can be very cold in the morning

How do you rate the food at canteens for athletes at national camps? Has it improved from the time you first came to India?

The food has definitely improved but is still very far from what top athletes need.

In the past, you have spoken about performance-based bonuses for coaches when they sign or renew contracts. Are you happy with the terms and conditions of your current contract?

I’m not happy with the new contract I signed in the beginning of April, I think. We (he and biomechanics expert Dr Klaus Bartonietz) got blackmailed into signing it otherwise we wouldn’t have got paid anymore. Klaus and my contracts were running out at the end of August last year. We tried over the whole time to get the contract changed to get some benefit for good work. We sent AFI and SAI so many emails with options saying we could talk and discuss. But we always got the same version of our old contract back.

After that, we said ‘we will not sign.’ But they answered that ‘we won’t get paid anymore’ (if we don’t sign).
They said they would review our coaching in April and then increase our salaries. Like all promises before, these were only empty words. This is not the way you work with people and coaches who like to help Indian athletes to get closer to their potential.

Looking back, how do you rate your time in India? How would you have liked things to be different?

I think I didn’t have much impact, at least not as much as I thought I could have. The work with Neeraj in 2018 and beginning of 2019 was good. From a wild throwing technique, which he had in 2016, to improving it in a good way. But Neeraj and his advisers thought differently. The decision about his surgery… I wasn’t really happy with it but people around him thought they knew the best for him. But even they don’t know what other options are possible because they are not reading anything…no books, no reports, no articles. So how will they know what’s the best for this wear-and-tear problem? But anyway people around him seem to know what’s best for him and how to throw a javelin.

What are the best practices the Indian sporting system can learn from say Germany or China, where you coached earlier?

Structure, invest in the youth, in knowledge, in good equipment, good sport medicine system. If you hire foreign experts then listen to them.

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