Last evening the Olympics officially came to a close, but not after ten days of exciting athletics action. From David Rudisha’s solo 800m world record to 19-year old Keshorn Walcott surprise victory in the men’s javelin, the week was full of amazing feats, surprises, as well as some disappointments. The hammer throw was no exception. Here are five thoughts I have on the hammer throw in London after watching the greatest show on earth.
1. The atmosphere was electric
When I approached Olympic stadium on the first morning of athletics, I was expecting a somewhat groggy crowd interspersed with empty blocks of seats. After all, the morning sessions rarely receive a capacity audience to watch various qualifying rounds. But as I made it up to my seat not only was the stadium packed, but they all had arrived earlier than me. The sold out crowd of 80,000 fans watched impatiently as 40 shot putters slowly progressed through qualifying and 35 women’s triple jumpers meandered into the stadium. And they were enjoying it more than me. Their energy spiked, however, at the sight of British heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis; when her name was announced and again as she crossed the finish line the volume would have blown off the roof it their had been one.
The energy continued throughout the session and throughout the week. The only thing I have witnessed comparable was perhaps a college football rivalry game, except the level of intensity in London was maintained for eight hours a day, ten days in a row. London brought an energy to this competition that made it one of the most memorable competitions in a generation for both the athletes and fans there. Athletes often complain that the world only pays attention to us every four years. It’s true, and it’s a valid complaint. But we also have to admit other competitions can rarely match this atmosphere. If track can somehow bring this energy to more competitions it would definitely spread its appeal.
2. The women’s hammer may be the most interesting event in athletics
I am definitely biased when I make this statement, but it might just be true. Words can’t really describe how high the level was for the women’s hammer throw competition, so I will have to turn to numbers. Three women broke 77 meters for the first time ever at the same competition, four women (and eight throws) were at or over the Olympic record, five women broke 76 meters, and it took 74 meters just to place in the top eight and get to take the final three throws. According to the indispensable stats website Tilastopaja, the London Olympics featured the best marks ever for second through eleventh place. In other words, never has someone ever thrown so far yet placed so low. Before London a throw of 75 meters had never been left off the podium at any level. In London, two throwers with marks of 76 meters were left off the podium. The only thing that was missing was a world record, and even that was not that far off. With so many women currently at such a high level the 80 meter barrier must finally be close to falling after more than a decade of anticipation.
3. Traditional powerhouses underperform
Two of the recent strongholds of hammer throwing, Belarus and Germany, looked ready to dominate in London. But both failed to live up to expectations in their own ways. Problems on the Belarus team started before the stadium even opened as world leader Ivan Tikhon withdrew from the games after a retest of his drug test from the 2004 Olympics came back positive. Their next highest ranked thrower Pavel Kryvitski placed a dismal 29th and failed to make the finals. Valery Sviatokha was the sole Belorussian to make the final and he placed just 11th. The women’s competition was just as ugly too. Defending Olympic champion and world leader barely made it into the finals and placed just seventh while Alena Matoshka threw nearly ten meters under her personal best to place 30th. The shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk was the only Belorussian thrower to live up to the expectations, and she was then subsequently stripped of her gold medal for testing positive. For a team that was hoping for multiple gold medals in the hammer, they had to leave extremely disappointed.
The Germans, on the other hand, brought a small but strong contingent of three hammer throwers and overall their performance was only a slight disappointment considering the circumstances. Markus Esser entered the season coming off of a strong fourth place finish at last year’s world championships and Betty Heidler is the women’s hammer throw world record holder. But as with any small team, they had little room for error and just before the Games things started to go wrong as Esser had to withdraw due to injury, leaving the country without any participants in the men’s hammer. Heidler turned in a solid performance in the women’s competition, yet had to settle for third place after a mismarking controversy (discussed below) loomed over her final attempts. Kathrin Klaas was the sole thrower really turn in a superb performance with her personal best of 76.05 meters and while that would have won a medal in any other competition, it was just fifth place in London. The Germans always have high expectations and after winning gold in the shot put and discus, a mere bronze in the hammer was a disappointment.
4. English-speaking countries show signs of life
On the other hand some traditionally weak countries stepped up at the Games. Specifically, English-speaking countries had a strong representation than has not been seen since the 1984 Games (and there the results were artificially inflated due to the absences of the Soviet Union, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and other countries). In all, three athletes moved on to the finals: Kibwe Johnson(US), Alex Smith (UK), and Sophie Hitchon (UK). All three had nerves of steel in qualifying. Facing elimination on her final attempt, the 21-year old Hitchon used the roar of the crowd to launch a new UK record and become the youngest athlete to make the finals. Kibwe Johnson had two fouls entering his last attempt before tossing a season’s best to easily move through. Smith started his last attempt three times after slipping, yet amazingly still managed to come close to his best throw. He had to anxiously wait another few hours for the second group to complete their qualifying attempts, but in the end he became the first Brit since 1984 to even make the finals.
Smith and Hitchon placed just 12th in the finals, but Johnson was slightly better with a ninth place showing. He was the first American since 1996 to make an Olympic or World Championship final and dating back to Harold Connolly’s 1956 gold medal only a handful of men have even placed in the top 10 at the Olympics. His performance puts him in good company alongside only Lance Deal, Harold Connolly, Ed Burke, and Bill Green (at the boycotted 1984 Games). The hammer throw is far from where it could be in these countries, but the London Games marked the first sign of progress in a long time.
5. Officiating scars legacy of otherwise great Olympic
I can’t end a summary of the Games without discussion the officiating. Since both of my parents are officials I am normally hesitant to criticize officiating; mistakes do happen after all. But when I see multiple major problems at one competition it is a cause for concern. Mistakes by officials cause a large distraction and athletes should be afforded the opportunity to solely focus on their own throw on the world’s largest stage. The officiating problems started early with some sketchy fouls called during the men’s qualifying round. One throw by Oleksiy Sokyrskyy sailed over 77 meters on his first attempt, clearly good enough to move on to the finals before a red flag was waived. After he protested the call the officials determined he did not foul, but rather than measuring his original throw (which had long since passed) he was awarded with another attempt. Obviously shaken by the error, he struggled to find his form on the rethrow and subsequent attempt before finally qualifying with his last throw. Thankfully, no harm was done in this case. The men’s final was also slowed down by a hammer that got stuck in the cage. The hammer posed no safety risk and there is no rule that requires it be brought down immediately. In addition, there were plenty of hammers for every one to use. But rather than waiting until after the competition, or at least until the end of the round, the officials stumbled around and stopped the competition for 10-15 minutes to retrieve the hammer. The end result was not merely a less viewer friendly competition, but also an unneeded distraction for the athletes.
Things only got worse in the women’s hammer. The first thrower in qualifying, Sultana Frizell, did not get her throw measured since the laser was not working on her first attempt. As opposed to a hammer being stuck in the cage, here is an example of where the officials should have actually stopped the competition to realize the problem. But instead they moved on without recording a mark and rather than later remeasuring the mark when Sultana protested the error, they simply gave her another throw. After such a distraction she was not able to produce a better mark.
But even Sultana’s fiasco was nothing compared to what happened in the women’s finals when an Olympic medal was on the line. World record holder Betty Heidler sat in just eight place entering the fifth round when she launched a throw well over the 75 meter line and just inches short of the gold medal mark. But the measurement read five meters less and the officials moved on to the next thrower. Dumbfounded, Heidler immediately approached the officials and it became clear that they messed up. The first solution was to give her another throw. This was wrong and the stress of the situation only caused her to foul and then produce a poor final throw, hardly compensation for such an injustice. In the end they were able to remeasure her correct throw and give her the bronze medal, but not until after her competition. Not until Zhang Wenxiu took a victory lap for what she thought was a bronze medal performance. Not until Heidler spent 15 minutes arguing with officials and lost all focus on her own throwing. Not until that throw became her best result rather than something she may have built upon with her last attempt. There is no way to know how the competitions would have turned out without these issues and that is the problem. Athletes do a good enough job creating controversy and distractions on their own; there is no need for the officials to get into the business too. The errors seem at least partly due to technical problems caused by the Omega equipment, but the officials should have a measuring tape on hand or another way to handle these situations in a equitable and efficient manner. There is no need for this many mistakes at any competition, let alone the Olympics when a medal is on the line. Unfortunately poor officiating will also be one of my strongest memories of this Olympic Games.