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The 1890s were a tumultuous time for the hammer throw. The event was quickly transforming into the modern version and the scene was so chaotic that there wasn’t even a clear world record holder. It was similar to how boxing currently has multiple world champions in each weight class due to the numerous sanctioning bodies. The problem in the hammer was that there were no clear rules. You had a world record holder for throwing different weights. For throwing a hammer with a wooden handle or with a flexible handle. There were record for both the 7-foot, and 9-foot circles, and for throwing from a square. The only constant in these times was the winner: without fail it be an Irishman.
Irish born athletes held the world records from 1885 to 1938. Once it was introduced as an Olympic event they won the title at 7 of the first 8 Olympics, often representing America since Ireland had not yet gained independence. They swept the podium in 1908 and won gold and numerous other medals in all the other throwing events (of which there were many since the discus also had a “Greek” style event in 1908, the weight throw was included twice, ambidextrous shot put, discus and javelin were also included in 1912).
Collectively the group was known as the Irish Whales, on account of both their physical size and their appetite. They were behemoths who often walked the beat as New York policeman after immigrating across the Atlantic. The name allegedly came from a waiter who served the throwers on the boat to the 1912 Olympics. After losing weight brining them more and more food for weeks he mutter “It’s whales they are, not men. ” According to the New York Times “They used to take five plates of soup as a starter and then gulp down three or four steaks with trimmings. That Simon Gillis would think nothing of having a dozen eggs for breakfast. But what fascinated me was the way he ate them. He’d put a dab of mustard on each and eat it whole, shell and all.”
The Whales were the subject of an hour-long documentary last month by TG-4, the Irish-language public television network, called “Lámh Láidir Abú.” The name comes from a war cry meaning “strong hand prevails.” National coach Dave Sweeney passed it along to me and I had finished it within the hour. It tells the story of how the Irish culture and country helped breed those strong hands and is full of many more tall tales and vintage throwing film Much of the film is in English, but it does include portions in Irish with English subtitles. The full film is no longer available online, but we have inserted a preview below.
As the film recites, the list of throwers and accolades is impressive. Here are just a few of the top hammer throwers among the Whales:
- With three Olympic gold medals (1900, 1904, and 1908), John Jesus Flanagan was won more hammer throw titles than anyone in history. He broke the world record at age 23 in Ireland, and then moved to America which he represented in three Olympics. He was also a technical innovator, helping to introduce the three-turn throw, which helped him add 37 feet in total to the world record over the course of his career. He also won a fourth gold medal in the weight throw.
- Matt McGrath, county Tipperary, was a contemporary of Flanagan and won silver behind him in 1908. He struck gold in 1912 at a record age of 36. But his career was far from over. In 1924 he captured silver again at age 48.
- Pat Ryan, of county Limerick, won Olympic Gold in 1916 at the age of 39. To this day he remains the oldest Olympic gold medalist in hammer throw. His world record of 57.55-meters (188 feet 9 inches) set in 1913 also lasted more than 25 years.
- Pat McDonald won gold in the weight throw in 1920. At age 42, he remains the oldest athletics gold medalist in history. He also won gold in the shot put in 1912 and was carried the US flag at the Olympic opening ceremonies in 1912 and 1920, the first foreign-born athlete to do so and the only American ever to receive the honor twice.
- Pat O’Callahan was part of the next generation of Whales. Coached by Flanagan, he competed for Ireland after the gained independence and won hammer throw gold in 1928 and 1932. O’Callahan and American Don Quinn were early pioneers of a new “heel-toe” turning technique introduced around 1927.
If the Olympics were not cancelled in 1916, these men would have surely won more medals. They also would have dominated the pre-Olympic times.
- Martin Sheridan won five total gold medals in the discus and shot put, as well as four more medals in the stone throw and jumping events.
- James Mitchell dominated the sport in the pre-Olympic era winning 9 US titles. He also helped develop what became the modern hammer throw and wrote one of the first guides to throwing “How to become a Weight Thrower” in 1916.
- Tom Kiely was just as good as Flanagan, but never competed in the hammer throw at the Olympics. In the early year, country affiliations were loose and he paid his own way to the 1904 Olympics to represent Ireland and won. Thereafter he vowed only to compete for Ireland and as Ireland did not have a team he did not compete in another Olympics.
- Con Walsh was another hammer thrower who held the world weight throw record at one time and won Olympic bronze representing Canada.
And the list goes on. These are just some of the most notable characters. Watch the documentary for some more about these big names and the culture that brought about their success and dominance.