All sports have rules. Rules are there to standardize competition, making it both more safe and fair for the competitors. Rules define the playing area, implement, procedures, and more. Rules can go overboard, but the idea is that the rules make sure the winner determined by physical and tactical components, rather than luck. In the throwing events various rules define the size and weight of the implement, where it must be thrown, the design of the cage, and the structure of the competition. However one there is one big gap in the rules: the throwing surface.
The evolution of throwing surfaces
Throwing surfaces have evolved over the last century. Like the Highland Games, the throws used to take place from a grass ring. This transformed into hard dirt or cinder circles. In the 1950s concrete then became the standard. This change helped increase throwing results. As a result, it brought rule changes to the size of the sector and cage design, but the throwing surface remained fairly unregulated. If you crack open the current 259-page World Athletics Competition Rulebook, just one sentence in rule 32.6 covers the throwing surface for the shot put, discus, and hammer: “The interior of the circle may be constructed of concrete, asphalt or some other firm but not slippery material.”
A broad interpretation fo the rule would mean it is completely legal to show up to a competition and still find a hard dirt circle in the stadium, so long as it was not too slippery. The World Athletics Track and Field Facilities Manual goes into more detail on many of the processes, but very little on the consistency of the throwing surface.
Of course, any thrower with a little experience knows how inconsistent circles can be. Show up to one competition and you’ll find concrete as rough as extra coarse sandpaper. The next competition could featured sealed concrete as smooth (and slippery) as glass. There have been several proposals to standardize the rules covering throwing surfaces, but with no success. I coach my athletes that this is an occupational hazard. We take the Scout Motto: always be prepared. There are no bad rings, just bad preparation. This is a tragedy (because there truly are bad rings), but that is the reality of our sport.
Trouble in Tokyo
Why am I bringing this topic up now? Because the Olympics made clear what kind of issues this rule gap can cause. The Olympics present a unique challenge since, ironically, despite the size of the event, it is more difficult to “always be prepared” for the throwing surface. Athletes are not allowed to throw in the ring before the competition, and as Shaun Pickering noted on this week’s podcast, have to sneak around the rules just to get a glimpse of the ring. The warm up ring is not required to be the same as the competition ring. Koji Murofushi notoriously had a dozen shoes he would use for different types of rings, but even that is not possible any more. Thanks to new rules put in place for runners, throwers already have to declare the shoes they will use before the competition.
The surface made its first appearance in the women’s discus. As hard rain pelted the track, athletes began slipping and dangerously falling. The ring conditions were so bad that the competition was put on hold, the first time I have ever seen a rain delay in the throwing events at a major championship.
Later in the competition, the men’s javelin things got even worse. The new track technology designed to help produce face sprint times had an adverse effect on the field events: many javelin spikes simply could not penetrate and grip the track. This affect some throwers more than others, but the problem was clear and almost certainly affected the podium. Polish thrower Marcin Krukowski posted some examples on Instagram of how the athletes were slipping despite maximum length spikes. It wasn’t just unfair, it was unsafe. How can it be that the biggest competition in the world doesn’t even have an adequate throwing surface? Easy: because it is within the rules.
A call for change
Too often throwers just have to suck it up and deal with it. We’ve accepted that so far, but it shouldn’t be the case, especially at the Olympics and when athlete athlete health is at risk. Hopefully the recent Olympic fiasco will convince World Athletics to finally address the topic in detail. This will help make the Olympics again a physical test, rather than a test of luck.