You could have been excused for not noticing Chinese javelin thrower Zhao Qinggang at the last IAAF World Championships – he managed just over 77 metres in qualifying and failed to make the final. But following his phenomenal throw of 89.15m to win the 2014 Asian Games title, the 29-year-old has set his goal on a podium finish in Beijing this summer.
On the penultimate day of the Asian Games athletics programme in the South Korean city of Inchon at the start of October, not only did Zhao take continental honours but he also shattered the Asian record of 87.60m set by Japan’s Kazuhiro Mizoguchi, which had stood for more than 25 years.
It was the second-best result of 2014, only six centimetres shy of the world-leading mark unleashed by Egypt’s Ihab Abdelrahman El Sayed at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai earlier in the year, which Zhao saw with his very own eyes although he had to settle for ninth place in that competition with a modest 78.09m.
“At the Asian Games I improved my PB by more than six metres. I have to admit it was also far beyond my expectation,” said Zhao, whose previous best of 83.14m came when he claimed the title at the Chinese National Games in 2013.
“I do not know whether I can throw over 89 metres again in 2015, but I think if I can keep on throwing over 85 metres then I will have a big chance for a podium finish at the Beijing World Championships,” said Zhao, speaking from a training camp in Hangzhou, where he has recently been based before travelling to Australia in the coming week.
Born in the coastal city of Dalian, often known as the ‘Soccer City’ in China, Zhao also wanted to become a soccer player at an early age, just like most of his peers.
But he had to gave up his soccer dream because training for athletics was much cheaper.
“Soccer is so popular in my home town that a lot of kids wanted to join the soccer team. As a result, the training fee for soccer was much more expensive than other sports. And the training equipment and boots would also cost a lot of money,” said Zhao.
“The track and field coach in the city's sports school discovered that I was good at throwing, so I was invited to join the track and field team.”
Zhao started to compete at national level in 2006, just after leaving the junior ranks, and caught the eye that year with what was then a personal best of 68.07m at the Zhengzhou Grand Prix meeting.
From there, the trajectory was upwards and he soon managed to establish himself as one of the country’s top throwers in senior events, hurling a personal best of 77.20m at the Good Luck Beijing Olympic test event in May 2008.
Although Zhao failed to make it on to China’s team for the 2008 Beijing Games, his progress continued steadily over the next two years.
He finished second at the 2009 National Games and went on to win a silver at the East Asian Games with a personal best of 79.62m.
In May 2010, he improved his best again to 79.80m to win the National Grand Prix in Kunshan.
But 2011 witnessed a low point in Zhao’s career. He failed to improve that year with his season’s best mark being only 78.40m.
The turning point came at the end of that year when Zhao started to train under the guidance of former world record-holder, Germany’s Uwe Hohn.
“Hohn really helped me a lot in terms of techniques which led to my fast progress in recent years,” said Zhao.
In 2012, he claimed his first national title at the Chinese championships in Kunshan with a personal best of 81.74m, his first performance beyond the elite benchmark of 80 metres. He further improved his best to 83.14m the following year to win the gold medal at the 2013 National Games before successfully defending his East Asian Games title with a throw of 82.97m.
However, much to his disappointment, Zhao could not confirm his improved form on his first appearance at a global contest, the World Championships in Moscow.
“The Moscow World Championships were in August and the National Games were in September. It was difficult for me to prepare for these two competitions at the same time,” Zhao explained, giving a hint of how important the National Games are to Chinese athletes.
However, in 2015 there are no National Games to act as a distraction and with pride at stake as the 2015 IAAF World Championships will be on home soil, Zhao is looking to compensate for the disappointment of two years ago.
“Hohn once predicted that I can throw about 87 to 88 metres. Now my best of 89.15m has gone beyond his prediction. I think if I can work on to improve my approach, maybe I can throw over 90 metres,” said Zhao.
“But, as I have already mentioned, what I need to focus on for now is stability; 85 metres has to be the baseline if I want to win a medal in Beijing.”
Vincent Wu for the IAAF