Remembering Jüri Tamm

I remember the first time I saw video of Jüri Tamm throw the hammer. A big round man with a mustache and a fluffy head of hair lumbered into the ring. Compared to his compatriots Yuriy Sedykh and Sergey Litvinov, he seemed to move like a sloth through the circle. His feet flailed around as he completed three turns. It wasn’t the prettiest throw until the hammer left his hand and it flew. And kept flying. And kept flying. Tamm, who passed away on Thursday, set the world record and won two Olympic medals. His best mark is still among the top 10 all-time. Yet still, when I watch him throw, I can’t help but think: what did I just see?

Chasing excellence

When you ask what you saw, the high level answer is that you saw the culmination of a life’s focus on being the best. Tamm was an underdog from a family of underdogs, and he clawed his way to the top of the sport. His father lost his arm as a five years old, yet found a wife and started a family. This alone was no easy feat for a person at a time when handicaps were not well accepted. But he didn’t stop there. In an era before parasport, he decided to pick up pole vault and managed to clear more 3.2 meters (more than 10 feet).

Tamm listed his first coach Ando Palginõmm as one of the most influential men in his life. You would expect a young physical education teacher to wax philosophically about the first time he encountered a world record holder. The reality was quite the opposite. Palginõmm described him as: “He was a big and fat boy . . . he wasn’t very talented at first.” Not quite a rave review. Tamm was quick to progress, but not in a way that showed the full potential within. His best throw age 18 was 55 meters, well off the best in the Soviet Union.

Since the Soviet development system did not whisk him away, it was up to him to keep progressing in the sport. He moved 800 miles from Estonia to Ukraine to seek out the help of 1972 Olympic champion Anatoliy Bondarchuk. By all accounts, it was Tamm’s persistence that impressed Bondarchuk more than his results. He kept showing up and eventually Bondarchuk let him in the training group. The rest is history.

Redefining talent

There was a secret that both Tamm and Bondarchuk knew: people kept saying Tamm didn’t have talent, but they had the wrong definition of talent. Most people see talent as current results. Bondarchuk, on the other hand, had started to analyze top throwers and saw a new trend: talent was the ability to keep improving over a longer period of time. This caused Bondarchuk to give Tamm a chance when everyone else overlooked him. As Tamm put it during one of our interviews:

What is talent? Talent is the person that can develop longer than others. It is not the person who after two months can throw 60 meters. Adaptation is the biggest problem in our world. The body always wants to stay where it is at since that is more comfortable. The person that can keep developing is more talented.

And even those with the potential to keep growing often squander it by lack of focus and support. Tamm put his head down and kept improving year after year. When I spoke to Tamm our conversations turned as much to strategies to maintain focus as they did technical details.

This focus and pursuit of excellence also paid dividends outside of sport. Unlike many of his teammates, Tamm gained just as much success away from sport as in sport. Whatever he approached, he approached it with the same focus. He served in the Estonian parliament for 12 years, was a diplomat, and a successful businessman. In sport he coached the occasional athlete, was vice president of the Estonian Olympic Committee, and severed for many years as chief of staff of IOC Executive Board Member Sergey Bubka.

I got to know Tamm through his last role. He would travel frequently to Switzerland for IOC meetings, and whenever he did I would hop on the train to Lausanne. My first impressions was that of a gentle giant. As much as his size would intimidate you, he would disarm you with a smile and quickly pull you into his orbit so you felt like his friend. He joked to me that Bondarchuk “saw something in my eyes; he saw someone who would like to do something” when they first met. I felt the same thing.

Find your own path

All this doesn’t explain why his throw looked so different. It’s almost liked he hacked the system. It was the result of years of technical experiments to find his throw. As he told me:

Look at my results throughout my career I had good years and bad years. It was very easy to see how we took risks and tried new things . . . But now I see people just copying the system without the experiments.

For example, I see Murofushi and I’m asking him why do you start the throw moving the hammer left, moving it right, walking around, and so on. For him it works, but I now see others copy that. They think that those things before the throw are more important than the things in the throw. If people always copy they will always be one year behind.

The hammer throw is simple. He was taught that if you want to throw far, you have to accelerate the hammer. Everyone is built differently, that means they have to find their own way to accelerate the implement. You can quibble about his footwork, but there is no denying he gets the ball moving. Earlier this year Kibwé Johnson posted about that exact point on instagram:

What do you see? Look again and watch the *ball*. Now, what do you see? If you judged this throw because his body looks “weird.” Then you’ve fallen victim to the incorrect assumption that the body makes the ball go. And conversely, if the body looks a way someone told you is “wrong”, that it isn’t a good throw . . . As always, the value of a hammer throw is not in what it looks like. It’s in how far it goes.

That’s the key lesson we can all take away from Tamm: chase your dreams, be yourself, and find your own path. It all sounds like a cliché, but when you look back at the life of someone like Jüri Tamm you see it is the difference maker. He was taken from this world too soon, but through his persistence he accomplished more in 64 years than others could in 100.