J is for Javelin

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, throwing for the gold medal in 1932 Los Angeles. Photo by Getty Images.

People have been throwing pointed sticks since way before they organized games for country bragging rights. When cavemen needed to hunt a big thing, say a mastodon, they preferred to kill it from some distance away. The javelin, a very long pointed stick, was among many things that was thrown by the Greeks in the ancient Games. When it was picked up in the modern Olympics, one region of the world dominated immediately. Over time, the stick has undergone significant change for what turns out to be rather important reasons. However, at the Olympics, two names stand out for how they launched that spear, up and high, towards the moon.

Here, Sven, I’ll throw at the mammoth, and after it’s injured, you can run up and stab it…

Not Much to it, Which is Why it’s Very Complicated

The word “javelin” comes from the Old Welsh or Old Irish gablakos or gabul, which means forked branch or pointed stick. Of course, the Celts didn’t invent it, since there are hieroglyphics in Egypt and even cave paintings of warriors with javelins, but the Scots were notorious for competitions of throwing things. It was the Scots who started contests for putting the shot, and in the modern Highland Games they like to throw hammers, boulders (50 lb blocks), and tree trunks (cabers).

Throwing a javelin sounds a bit easier than a boulder, but it’s become complicated and scientific since the ancient days. The Greeks in battle and in their Games originally attached a thong called an ankyle so that when released, the unwinding thong would help the spear spiral. Couldn’t they just grip it by the laces?

In the early modern Olympics, running up was limited and, similar to throwing the shot or discus, the athlete mostly just stood in place and flung it. During the Games of 1912, athletes used a variation very common at the time: both hands. Competitors threw both from the right and left, and their scores were averaged together. Sounds more and more like a bar bet to me…I can throw this cannonball father than you can… oh yeah? well, I can throw this pointed stick farther than you can–with both hands…

Yet while it sounds simple, the science of throwing the javelin, like the discus or shot put, immediately gets into very technical language. Terms like “plyometric loading” get thrown about as frequently as favorite flavors of Gatorade, and it quickly becomes clear that you need an advanced understanding of trigonometry.

If the angle of attitude is larger than the angle of velocity vector, the javelin won’t travel in the most aerodynamic way. Its increased surface area will slow it down and decrease the throw length, especially in a headwind.

From “Science of the Spear” at Conversation.com.
Science of the Pointed Stick, photo at Australian Institute for Sports Movement Science.

I don’t know much about angles of vectors but clearly throwing a spear involves a lot of torque on the elbow. Sure enough, it turns out that there’s a very high incidence of medial ulnar collateral ligament sprain also known as “javelin elbow.” Looks to me like you would get javelin shoulder, wrist, neck, and knee as well.

Sanni Utrainen demonstrates how much torque javelins have. Photo at Conversation.com.

Flingin’ in the Dark

I was thrilled to find out that the hotbed of javelin talent, the countries that have won the most, swept the awards, and rose to silent, stoic, world dominance in the javelin are in Scandinavia. Finland–my ancestral people…hyvää pääsiäistä...–in fact took all three medals in javelin both in 1920 and 1932.

Why Finland of all places? Land of sauna and alcoholism? Professor Paavo Seppanen suggests it was the sparse and simple climate, the land of birch trees that led Finnish P.E. to involve throwing things the way that French P.E. adopted judo (see yesterday’s post). Journalist Chris Turner speculates that it’s the dark and cold climate.

Long dark winters and short glorious summers have produced the archetypal strong but silent national character. The javelin suits the Finns, providing an emotional release for all their pent-up feelings. It’s the dual release of spear and emotion which the Finns so much enjoy.

For whatever reason, the Finns were competing with each other in javelin back in the 1780s, so it’s no surprise that they and their Swedish and Norwegian neighbors got into hotly contested matches in the early days. Don’t think of Finland and Sweden competing like US and Canada; it’s more like Yankees/Red Sox or Giants/Dodgers. A friendly rivalry as long as they don’t get into a drunken argument in a parking lot.

Strangely enough, the only time American men ever won a gold and silver was in the Helsinki Games–in Finland! That must have royally ticked off the Finns, although how you’d be able to tell they were ticked off is beyond me. You think I’m kidding? When you google “Finnish joke,” you get: How do you tell a Finnish introvert from an extrovert? The introvert looks at his shoes while talking to you, but the extrovert looks at your shoes.

Let ‘Er Fly

There have been a handful of American medalists, but surely the best known was the first woman to earn a gold: Babe Didrikson. Didrikson was not the strong, silent type; she loved to chat and to boast to the press. The Muhammad Ali of her time, she had no trouble calling herself the Greatest, but she was.

She played basketball in high school, so well that she was hired as a secretary for an insurance company primarily in order to head their corporate basketball team–the Ringer! That team for Employer’s Casualty of Dallas competed at the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union Championships, where Babe won eight out of ten of the events. She won the team championship, despite being the sole member on the team. Since this was effectively the U.S. Olympic Trials, she went on to the Games of Los Angeles and won gold in hurdles and javelin as well as silver in the high jump. Didrikson to this day is the only athlete to have won medals in individual cross disciplines of throwing, running, and jumping. There was no women’s heptathlon at the time, otherwise that would have been four medals.

After the Olympics, Didrikson made some money on the vaudeville circuit, playing basketball (think Globetrotters) and shooting champion billiards. But then she stumbled into playing golf. She actually competed at first against the men in the PGA, the first woman to do so until Sorenstam and Wie did in the 1990s (she just missed the cut).

It’s not enough just to swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let ‘er fly.

Babe Didrikson, advice on golfing and perhaps life.

On the Ladies’ PGA circuit, she dominated, winning tournament after tournament, Grand Slams, and racking up more wins faster than anyone before her or since. She even had to sit out a few years because of a dispute over her amateur status, and she still ended up being female athlete of the year and, ultimately, Top Ten Athlete (not female, all athletes) of the Century. She was a free swinger. Did I mention she also won sewing competitions?

Can’t Make the Stadiums Big Enough

Didrikson threw in the years where lettin’ it fly was good enough. But with more sports technology coming into play, distances started expanding over the decades until, by the mid-1980s, throwing the javelin was becoming increasingly dangerous. Not so much for the athletes, although there was always the risk of trip and fall, torque a shoulder, twist a knee. Now the problem was the crowds.

In 1984, East Germany’s Uwe Hohn threw the spear over 100 meters–the length of a football field. Theoretically, you’d want a competitor to be able to improve indefinitely, to see how far a human could throw a javelin. In reality, you can’t build a stadium big enough to expand indefinitely. The javelin also had a tendency to float which means it was hard for judges to score where it initially landed, and it also might even drift sideways in a cross-wind. There were increasing risks that athletes would hit someone in the crowd. It sounds funny, but you can find videos where athletes with slightly poor aim hit people on the track, people warming up to on the sides, and judges who aren’t paying attention. Hit them with a spear launched that travels 50 mph and flies dozens of meters high. That’s called a missile.

So the javelin got a complete makeover. The center of gravity was shifted and surface area behind the grip widened. This made it heavier so that it didn’t travel as far, would shift less in traveling, and land sticking up rather than hopping around. It reset the barriers for records but made the spectators happier.

Even so, one athlete set a world record with the new design that hasn’t been broken in twenty years. Jan Zelezny from Czechoslavakia, another cold country of hard drinkers, won three gold Olympic medals and a silver, dominating the 1990s like the Finns had done years before. Many of the records for strength events during the 1970s and 1980s came before widespread drug testing, but Zelezny competed after testing was in vogue and hadn’t failed a test, as far as I could tell. He just seemed to have the perfect combination of upper body strength and technique.

Jan Zelezny winning gold in Atlanta 1996. Photo by Getty Images.

Zelezny managed to set a 1986 world record of over 98 meters after the javelin had been redesigned, although he just barely lost in the 1988 Olympics. He kept throwing, though, taking three more Olympic golds in a row, becoming one on a short list of athletes who managed three golds in the same event. The person he lost to in 1988? Tapio Korjus from Finland, where else?,

As Didrikson say, “Loosen your girdle and let ‘er fly.” Photo still from Youtube.

You can almost imagine the Scotsman saying to the Finn, “Betcha a fiver I can hit the torch…”

This post continues the series on the Olympics for the April A to Z challenge:

3 Replies to “J is for Javelin”

    1. Babe only gets one post and this is it. I did consider her for Z, but I do already have one, and you’ll have to wait to see it.

  1. Didrikson, another of my heros. I knew an older woman when we lived in Waxahachie whose brother had lost his life from a javelin injury during the 1930s.

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