Hungarians know and love the hammer throw. The country is steeped in tradition and has produced four hammer throw gold medalists (third all-time behind the Soviet Union and America). Their state-owned television company has even produced a documentary on a notable hammer throwing coach. It came as no surprise when Hungary offered to host the hammer throw at the World Athletics Final from 2003 to 2005 after the infrastructure in Monaco was deemed unable to host the hammer. The challenge facing the event now is that many people, including myself, feel the event’s exclusion from top meets has put it on the periphery of track and field. And, yet again, it comes as no surprise that a Hungarian is one of the first to offer a possible solution to the problems facing our event.
Sándor Eckschmiedt is more than just your average university professor. At one time, he was among the world’s best hammer throwers. Track and Field News ranked Eckschmiedt in the world top ten on four separate occasions: 1964, 1967, 1968, and 1972. He also made the Olympic final in both 1968 and 1972, placing a career-high fifth in 1968. But now he sits on the Faculty of Physical Education and Sports Sciences at Semmelweis University in Budapest. His most recent work has been to publish a proposal for saving the hammer throw. A copy of this report is available below.
Eckschmiedt identifies two problems facing the event: the hammer throw is dangerous to host in a stadium since it goes so far and the cages required to contain such throws are prohibitively expensive. He proposes changing the implement to address these problems. His recommendation is for the men to switch to an 8-kilogram, 60-centimenter long implement and for the women to throw a 4.4-kilogram, 60-centimenter long implement. Currently, the men throw a 7.26-kilogram, 121.5-centimeter implement and then women throw a 4-kilogram, 119.5-centimeter implement.
In Eckschmiedt’s opinion, the men’s world record would be around 50 to 55 meters with the new implement. This would obviously fix some of the safety issues and require a smaller, less expensive cage. Even a sector foul at that distance would not endanger anyone on the infield. He also asserts that the best throwers with the current hammer would continue to be the best with the new hammer, so no one will gain an unfair advantage due to the change.
Shortening the distance of the throw would also help throwers find places to train. There are numerous facilities I have run into that only have 60 meters of landing area. Even the only place to train in the Seattle area is just about 64-meters long down the left sector line. With a shorter implement, however, I could find a half dozen places to throw near town and in other major cities facing similar issues. This would be a big bonus in my book.
While the history of the event should be preserved if possible, I personally do not think it would be the end of the world if the implement were changed. The pole vault switched from bamboo to fiberglass and carbon fiber poles without any long-term issues. Both the men’s and women’s javelins were also changed to reduce distance and improve flight without any major problems. Even the discus has continued to see technical advancements without a complaint. Something needs to be done to save our sport and if it means starting a new era, then I am all for it. I’d rather the sport continue in another form than die off. In addition, a new implement means new world records, more press, and more attention for the event.
But, before we make a big change we need to ask if it is worth it. Is the event really that dangerous that it needs to be changed? Most recent track and field accidents have been in the pole vault and javelin. Officials might cite safety as one of the reasons they exclude the hammer, but I doubt that is their only concern. The hammer has been successfully staged at the Olympics and World Championships during the main portion of the meet without incident. And it is not like throwers are breaking new barriers; the men’s world record is now 24 years old.
Ask any meet director, and there are several other issues facing the event that an implement change does not address. For instance, the hammer damages the turf upon landing. The officials in Monaco stated they could not host the hammer since the field is built above a parking garage and they were worried about potential structural damage. Zurich chose to host the hammer outside of its stadium for the Swiss Championships last summer due to worries that the event would cause damage to an underground pipe system used to keep the turf from freezing in the winter. Whether or not these concerns are legitimate, Eckschmiedt’s proposal does not address them.
In addition, even if the hammer is added back into big meets, they may still remain on the periphery. The Prefontaine Classic is one of the only Diamond League competitions hosting the hammer throw this year. Still, the hammer throw cage is adjacent to the stadium. Most big meets are now using a condensed 2-hour schedule. With six long throws (the men’s and women’s discus, javelin, and hammer), there is not enough time to host all of those events inside the stadium. Inevitably some of the events must be cut or pushed outside the stadium. The hammer throw must not only change itself, but also find a way to fall into favor with meet directors.
Finally, if we are to change the weight of the hammer, I think we need to use different adjustments than those Eckschmiedt recommends. When the javelin was changed, the weight stayed same; the only change was to move the center of gravity 4cm forward. Eckschmiedt is proposing to increase the weight of both the men’s and women’s hammers by approximately 10% and shorten the implement by 50%. By shortening the implement drastically in proportion to the increase in weight, the feeling and rhythm of the event will be completely different for the thrower. Because of this, I am skeptical of his conclusion that the throwers at the top now will continue to be those at the top. He notes that “different size hammers (length, weight) have been used for decades in the preparation of the competitors”, but I have never met anyone that trained with a 8-kilogram 60-centimeter hammer. A slightly longer hammer would still accomplish the same goals, as would a hammer that is heavier and just as short.
Something needs to be done to return our event to the upper echelon of sport. Exclusion from the Diamond League hurts, but more than anything it puts us down a path that we don’t want to go down. However, in my opinion, we shouldn’t just choose a solution that only solves half of the problems. While Eckschmiedt’s proposal will help, officials that dislike the hammer throw will continue to use other excuses to exclude the event. The optimal solution is one that solves all these problems. But no one seems to be coming up with other ideas and, frankly, I don’t have any on the tip of my tongue either.
If we do pursue Eckschmiedt proposal, we should first contact meet directors to see if they would actually be receptive to the change. If they are, we should also determine if his weight and length suggestions are appropriate by holding some exhibition competitions to see how the results transfer over to the new implement. Perhaps these competitions could be showcased at larger meets to help generate some interest for the event and give meet directors a chance to see the new implement in action. I’d be all for trying it out since I’d love to prove myself wrong. In the meantime, we have to continue to think of ways to help the sport. Any suggestions?