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Hammer Challenge Expansion Fixes Only Half the Problems

Since the IAAF Hammer Challenge was announced after the 2009 season the format has remained unchanged. That means that the flaws it had when it started still remained after its third season finished in September. Hammer throwers have been aware of the many problems, coaches have been aware, fans have been aware, and even the IAAF was aware. Over the past few weeks only people with the power to do anything quietly announced that several more meetings have been added to the series. This helps improve the series by bringing it up to 16 total meets and the World Championships. Not every meet will host both men and women, but the new schedule still almost doubles the number of competitions. Men will now have eleven chances to start and women ten. However while the changes solve two of the problems facing the Hammer Challenge, it falls far short of fixing the major issues confronting the circuit. Read more

Looking Back on 2012: Top Hammer Throwing Stories

In an Olympic year, naturally many of the highlights came from London. But there were many more great stories throughout the season. Here is a selection of the top hammer throwing stories from the 2012 season, both good and bad.
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Looking Back at 2012: Women’s Rankings

The women's hammer throw podium at the London Olympics.

The women’s hammer throw podium at the London Olympics.

Although we did not see another world record this year, the women’s hammer throw was perhaps the most exciting event in track and field with a handful of throwers brushing up against the barrier. The Olympic final had five women over 76 meters and eight over 74 meters making it by far the deepest competition ever. Below I’ve compiled my top ten female throwers of the year. Earlier this week I posted my men’s rankings. Check back next week when I will recap some of the greatest moments of the year. If you want some additional statistics for the season, check out the IAAF’s performance lists.


1. Tatyana Lysenko (RUS) – This year was an Olympic year. For hammer throwers more than anyone, London was truly a once-in-four-year chance at glory. As was the case last year, Lysenko had the right timing and convincingly won the Olympic final in the deepest competition of all-time. While Lysenko only won 6 of her 14 competitions, she also was on the podium in 13 of those meets and had the second furthest throw of the year. With a stronger overall season to add to her gold medal this year, she was able to move up a spot to number one.
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Looking Back at 2012: Men’s Rankings

Krisztián Pars remember his late coach Pal Nemeth after his victory in London.

Krisztián Pars remember his late coach Pal Nemeth after his victory in London.

Track and Field News will release their annual rankings soon, which are considered the international benchmark. Once again I can’t wait that long, so I’ve compiled my own year-end rankings.

My criteria is subjective, so let the debate begin. Feel free to post your own thoughts in the comment section below. If you want some stats for the season, check out the IAAF’s performance lists. Because both Ivan Tikhon (BLR) and Kirill Ikonnikov (RUS) have pending doping suspensions, I have not included them in the rankings.


1. Krisztian Pars (HUN) – While picking Pars as number one last year might have been a litte controversial, he is the clear number one this year. After years of frustration he not only won his first international title, but he did so twice by utterly dominating the competition at both the European Championships and Olympics. He won 15 or 16 finals and had seven of the nine best marks of the year (seven of the best eight if you excluding Tikhon). His season’s best of 82.28 meters might not rank him among the all-time greats, but even non-throwers agree his season was one of the best in track and field this year.
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The Way Forward

Sometimes the smallest moments can provide proof of what I have been thinking all along. Meet directors often like to say they have not included the hammer throw because it is not popular. But there is still a natural fascination with the event that they do not seem to get. My Sunday morning training this week took place at the same time as a kids’ relay practice. Throughout their training, I could tell many of the kids had their eyes on my throws instead of their coach, and as soon as they were done a handful ran over to the hammer cage. Without any prompting, they began to use their backpacks as hammers and then see who could throw the furthest with their impromptu technique. I posted a short video on Facebook. As you can see, the kids are naturally drawn to the event and have fun doing it. The same is true wherever I train. The hurdle the hammer throw faces is how to tap into this natural fascination in a larger and more systematic way.

The purpose of this post is to outline how I think the hammer throw can move forward and look for your input on how to streamline my various efforts and focus them in a more systematic way to address the needs of the sport. It doesn’t sound easy, and it’s not. That’s why I am asking for your feedback.
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Bad Excuses Die Hard

Some things in life are timeless. A good wristwatch is one. Another is a bad excuse. Bad excuses, unfortunately, are too often repeated. A case in point was an article sent to me recently by Bob Gourley, America’s top high school hammer throw statistician and also a fine youth coach.

Olympic champion Fred Tootell was an adopted son of Maine.

The article was written in 1939, but could have just come from the mouth of Lionel Leach 70 years later. Back on February 17, 1939 the Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal printed an article titled “Maine Principals Ban on Hammer Draws Fire.” In it, the paper responds to what turned out to be true rumors that the Maine Principal’s Association was going to cut the hammer throw as an event at the state championships. During the 1920s and 1930s, more than half of the states had the hammer throw as a high school event. But within the ten years all but Rhode Island would have eliminated the sport.
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Diamond League Finally Speaks About Hammer Throw

Weltklasse Zurich meet director Patrick Magyar.

The third season of the Diamond League has come to an end, and once again the hammer throwers have had to watch from the sidelines. As the only track and field athletes excluded from the Diamond League, hammer throwers have always protested the current state of affairs. Through the efforts of those like Kathrin Klaas, the movement has slowly gained more publicity. And, after three years, the Diamond League has still never given an official statement as to why the hammer throw has been excluded; the closest thing to that was a footnote to the initial press release stating that the hammer throw would be excluded for “infrastructure reasons”, whatever that means.

As time has gone on, Patrick Magyar, the outspoken director of the Weltklasse Zurich Diamond League meet, has let out some snippets of his views on the hammer throw. Magyar is a man we need to convince about the hammer throw since he not only runs the biggest Diamond League meet, but serves as vice chairman of the Diamond League and was CEO for the 2014 European Championships. Last year in an interview with the Basler Zeitung, Magyar said that the future of athletics should include less events, particularly the heavy throwing events since he does not feel they are as entertaining in a stadium. The hammer throw, for example, has fewer and fewer athletes so it makes less sense to include it in the big meetings. Swiss-Australian coach Jörg Probst has the full translation here. As I told Jörg, is it that the hammer should be excluded because it is not popular, or that the hammer is unpopular because it is so often excluded? As I documented in detail, the hammer throw has grown quickly in both popularity and participation once it started to be included in more meets in America. Maybe meets like the Diamond League are causing the problem instead of just reacting to the current trends in the sport.

In September of this year, Magyar spoke again and directly addressed the Klaas’ criticism in an interview with the German magazine Leichtathletik. The bad news is that he stated the hammer throw will not be in the Diamond League for 2013 or 2014. But on the other hand he provided the first ever explanation of what the “infrastructure” problems are (translation from German by myself and Jörg Probst):

Leichtathletik: The hammer throwers, led by Kathrin Klaas, have recently pushed very hard for the inclusion of their event in the Diamond League. Will this occur in 2013?
Magyar: No, and not in 2014 either.
Leichtathletik:Why?
Magyar: We had to take over the shot put from Brussels due to an international football match taking place there. The shot put was not approved because of the pitch. This demonstrates the problem. When a stadium belongs to the city, it gets difficult. Furthermore the heating under the grass is always getting closer to the ground. If it gets damaged, we start talking about repair costs in the six figures. On the other hand is the requirement for an extremely tall cage. This means the hammer throw has become an unfeasible event for a meet. In Zürich the hammer competition would have to be concluded before the stadium opens so that the cage can be dismantled.

Zurich has been an extremely strong supporter of the hammer throw. I train at a city-owned and -maintained facility. There we have the only facilities managers that have ever asked me what they can do to help me, rather than place limits on what I can do. Every Friday a three-person crew spends the whole day to repair our throwing field by replacing divots and keeping the field in great shape even though it is used exclusively for track and field. Our cage net has been repaired and replaced before it is even needed. They also installed a temporary net that we can throw into when there are conflicting training times. Rather than telling us not to train at those times, they developed and implemented this solution and have seen been coming up with ways to improve it before I could even give them feedback. They truly think of the athletes first.

It is true that the rise of heated pitches might pose a problem for the hammer throw. However the pipes in Zurich (and most stadiums) are not as close to the surface as many would make you think. I am not an expert on this topic, but at a depth of 27.5cm (11 inches), the piping should be safe from damage. Because the field is used for athletics, the heating is actually deeper than most fields. I have never seen a hammer sink half that far into the ground of a well-maintained field, either in a dry Zurich summer or even in the wettest of conditions. As the grounds crews in Zurich have already proven to me, they can repair anything, even a field that receives tens of thousands of throws a year. A half-hour competition should be no problem and should cause less damage than a soccer match played in heavy rain. In those cases, they often need to resod the field entirely. This is a risk that likely could be insured against and is obviously a risk Zurich is willing to take in 2014 since the hammer throw will take place at Letzigrund stadium for the European Championships and it would make sense that they should at least test the field before then with another hammer competition (it would be terrible for a pipe to burst mid-competition, create a lake or fountain in the middle of the stadium and delay the internationally televised event).

The cage is another issue mentioned by Magyar, but again I do not see a huge problem. The cage used for the women’s discus at this year’s Weltklasse Zurich is the same cage I use for hammer training and hammer competitions in Zurich without any problems. In fact I had to train for one week without a cage in August as they borrowed it from our training facility. It did not seem to hinder the meet too much this year as it was quickly taken down before live television coverage started. Even if a new cage is required, the cost would be a sliver of the multi-million dollar budget of his meet. And several other Diamond League facilities have hosted the hammer throw in the past few years already, thus proving they are able to do it (off the top of my head at least half of the the stadiums have hosted hammer since 2000, including Eugene, New York, Doha, Birmingham, London, Helsinki, and Stockholm). The Diamond League only includes each event at half of the meets, so even if a few facilities could not host it there is still a chance for the event.

As I’ve said many times, there would likely be less debate about the hammer throw if I or another Swiss thrower broke 80 meters. It is feasible to host the hammer, but the meets are not under enough pressure. The two Swiss diamond league meets are always looking for local stars to showcase and now there is no Swiss athlete among the world’s top 10. Organizers would go out of their way to accommodate a Swiss star. Even an emerging star such as young shot putter Gergori Ott was allowed to throw his junior implement against the world’s best shot putters in Zurich for the past two years. But this will not happen soon and none of the countries hosting a Diamond League meet have their top stars in the event, let alone an Olympic medalist or finalist. But creating this type of pressure will take a long time. What we can do now is continue to show everyone there is not a good reason to exclude the hammer throw and keep building support for its inclusion.

A Case Study in Resurrecting an Event

Here in Switzerland you can see first hand that the hammer throw has been declining over the past decade. Youth participation is so low that the hammer throw was cancelled at the national under-23 championships for lack of participation this year. But the problem isn’t isolated in Switzerland; neighboring Germany has seen youth hammer results in decline recently and what was once the strongest hammer throwing nation had results of 70 and 60 meters win medals at this years national senior men’s and women’s championships in the hammer throw. But while many countries are struggling, at least one has not just witnessed growth, but a growth level perhaps unmatched in history. That country is the United States.

Spearheaded by the efforts of Harold Connolly and many others in the mid-1990s, the number of US youth hammer throwers has increased fivefold at beginning and elite levels by almost every measure. This success is remarkable and something that other countries and other events can analyze when trying to replicate such success.
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Harold Connolly: Grit Personified

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has done some interesting research into what personality traits can be used as predictors for success in school and other ventures. IQ, for example, is actually a poor indicator of how high a student’s GPA will be. Duckworth’s early research showed that self-control was a much more reliable predictor, but even that was not a good predictor of higher successes. As a lengthy New York Times piece summarized “People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word ‘grit.'”

When I think of grit, I think of one man: 1956 Olympic Champion Harold Connolly. Read more

Reflections on the London Olympic Games

I may represent Switzerland, but I still cheer for my friends first.

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. Read more