Like most hammer throwers, I was shocked to learn yesterday that former world record holder and Olympic champion Sergey Litvinov unexpectedly passed away. I only had the chance to meet him once, but he had one of the biggest impacts on my development as a thrower and coach; right up there with my two main mentors Harold Connolly and Anatoliy Bondarchuk.
If you want to debate who is the greatest hammer thrower of all-time, the list contains just two names: Litvinov and his main rival Yuri Sedykh. History has often relegated Litvinov to second position, as it was Sedykh who claimed the lasting world record. It seems like many just remember the silver medal Litvinov won at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart, rather than the other highlights throughout his career. When you look at the bigger picture, Litvinov has just a strong a claim on being the sport’s GOAT. That loss in 1986 was his only loss to Sedykh at a major championships over a five year span at the height of their careers, with Litvinov coming out on top at the 1983 World Championships, 1987 World Championships, and 1988 Olympics. His Olympic record still stands 30 years later.
Even in his loss in Stuttgart, Litvinov threw an astonishing 85.74 meters on his first attempt. Think about that: he threw 85.74 meters and lost! Leading up to the competition he had reached over 87 meters in training, perhaps the farthest throw the world has even seen in or outside of competition. In 2016 I wrote about the competition on its 30th anniversary and he shared his recollections on the meet:
“Sedykh always threw very far in the first attempt and I tried to find a counter method. My goal was to do my maximum in the first attempt to destabilize him. I threw 85.74 in the first attempt. Physically and morally I lost a lot in this attempt. I knew that Sedykh would have to throw close to a world record to win and he did it, well done.”
He knew he had to do something incredible, and he did it. It wasn’t enough, but he went all in.
A man on fire
This “all-in” mindset is why so many people fell in love with Litvinov. In the 1990s, the growth of the internet meant that a generation of young hammer throwers had access to videos from classic 1980s competitions. None of us knew anything about Litvinov or Sedykh personally, but watching Litvinov’s throw was enough to let you know his mindset. Sedykh was the stable thrower. His technique was almost too good to relate too. How could he do in three turns what no one could even manage with four?
Litvinov’s technique, on the other hand, had a bit more flair. Watching Litvinov throw, you have the constant feeling that he is on the brink. He allowed subtle imperfections to sneak in – a slightly higher posture, head leading the hammer a bit, and longer single support – but they all seemed inconsequential as he was able to keep his seductive rhythm without ever letting that things tip over the edge. He turned like a man on fire: conscious of his goal and doing everything within his power to reach it.
I admired Sedykh’s technique, but I wanted to have Litvinov’s technique. Whenever I would visualize my ideal throw, I would see it looking like Litvinov. In fact, to this day I can still pinpoint the exact throw I would see over and over in my mind:
Litvinov the coach
Unlike other champions, Litvinov’s accomplishments didn’t end as an athlete. He went on to become one of the world’s top coaches. And that is where I had the chance to meet him back in 2004. While taking a language course in Vienna I wrote to his then 18-year old son, Sergej Litvinov Jr., on a whim and asked if it would be possible to visit for a training camp. Surprisingly, he said yes, and a week later I was on my way to Belarus. This was 2004, but it still felt like a trip behind the Iron Curtain. I had to request a special visa in person from the Belorussian embassy, using my Swiss passport as Americans were not that welcome in Minsk. Upon arrival we drove down wide streets lined with massive apartment blocks, through dense forests, and finally arrived at the remote Stayki Olympic training center. There I got to meet the man himself.
He didn’t say a lot during my visit, which likely says less about his personality than the fact that we were conversing in a language, German, native to neither of us. He was critical of my technique too, and he could make a quick dent in a pack of cigarettes, but he cared about the sport and was optimistic about my ability to improve. I was a green, 60-meter thrower from America and he had no reason to know who I was, let alone be so helpful. But he took me in, he coached me for free, and by the last night I was sleeping on his sofa before heading back to Vienna with a national team uniform packed in my bag as a parting gift.
I learned a lot about technique and training during that camp. Still 14 years on I’m using his examples of the hammer orbit with my athletes. His trainings were also the first chance I got to see Russian methods up close, and led me down a path to search out Bondarchuk the following summer. But it was on the off days that I learned the biggest lesson from him: I learned about the hammer community. At Stayki we had a half-dozen throwers isolated together in the remote forest. This was something completely new to me as previously I had learned the event alone and primarily trained by myself. On those off days we would play soccer, eat together, or we would go to the sauna, where we used dried birch branches to beat ourselves. In short, the training was hard, but everyone had fun.
The feel of the throw sucked me into the sport, but it was getting a first taste of this community that has kept me so motivated to continue to give back to the sport. I never got to truly repay Litvinov for this gift, and I regret that the most. He motivated me; all I can do now is pay it forward.
We all just want to be Litvinov
Litvinov was by no means a perfect man and had his share of controversy in his life, at the center of the Soviet system during the 1980s and as coach to the controversial Ivan Tikhon for a large portion of his career. Yet his legacy will live on as long as the videos of his throwing do. The throw speaks for itself, and even today another generation of throwers browsing YouTube are thinking the same thing I did: we all just want to be Litvinov .