Only the most wildly patriotic of Americans might grieve, and even they but briefly, to learn that the world's premier javelin throwers come not from the U.S. but from the farthest reaches of northern and eastern Europe. Such are the disparities between Old World and new that if you utter the word javelin to a schoolboy in, say, Finland or Poland, it summons up images of something soaring through the air, bringing fame and honor to the person who launches it. Try the same word on an American schoolboy and it calls to mind something that coaxes 15 miles out of a gallon of gasoline and brings profits and salvation to American Motors.
Among sports attractions in this country, the javelin is regarded as a mere curiosity and the art of propelling it as a rather dubious skill whose practitioners rank along with locker-room thieves as track and field's leading outcasts. To a people who customarily think of throwing as part of some grander whole, as in baseball or football, throwing for throwing's sake seems like some sort of profligate self-indulgence. And throwing an 8½-foot pole is an event even some track coaches wouldn't touch with, well, an 8½-foot pole.
The ignominy in which the sport is held is a pity because javelin throwing at its best achieves poetic dimensions, a creative act that is at once furious, in the violent action of the throw, and calm, in the graceful pattern of the flight. In the annals of athletic prowess there are few feats any more impressive than the 304'1½" pending world-record heave of Finland's Jorma Kinnunen, made last month in Tampere, Finland, an end-zone-to-end-zone distance with a projectile twice as heavy as the football that pro quarterbacks strain to throw half as far.
The lack of public appreciation in this country is doubly unfortunate since the U.S. has, against all odds, produced a fair share of outstanding throwers to challenge Kinnunen, more than 20 of whom have already bettered 250 feet so far this year. And their ranks would doubtlessly be far greater but for the fact that javelin competition at the high school level, where athletic ability is ordinarily shaped, exists in only 19 states.
July 20, 1969
Acceptance lags farthest behind in the Midwest, with only Kansas and North Dakota holding high school competition. In Indiana, says Herman Keller, the assistant commissioner of the state's high school athletic association, "most of our youngsters probably don't even know what a javelin looks like." The event fares little better at Midwest colleges, having been omitted from Big Ten track meets since 1941. One of the few javelin powers in the area is Ohio University at Athens, which began recruiting throwers from Eastern high schools a few years ago, an inspired stroke of opportunism, confesses Coach Stan Huntsman, that has "enabled us to capitalize on the lack of competition and pick up quite a few extra points in meets."
The reason for the javelin's neglect, of course, is that it is a potentially dangerous implement that can leave spectators, officials and athletes alike distressingly en brochette. The discus and shot wreak their havoc, too, but there is something about the javelin, with that menacing spearpoint, that brings out the Ralph Nader in people. U.S. educators and coaches often find it easier to ignore the event, rather than provide the supervision and safety education necessary for reducing the dangers as the Europeans try to do. Even where it is held, complains Frank Covelli, one of the best U.S. throwers, "The coach tells you, 'Get out of here with that thing. Go practice on the other field.' "
Such high-handed treatment should by rights make a fellow feel rejected, but javelin throwers as a breed apparently find ample compensation in being allowed into track meets free. Like the loneliest of long-distance runners, they seem to be governed by a steadfast, even stubborn, nature. For example, Covelli, who grew up in California, a state without high school javelin competition, took up the sport upon joining the Air Force at age 21 ("It just felt comfortable to me"), later threw the javelin at Arizona State and continues to compete today despite a full-time job as an engineer for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft. "There's quite an apprenticeship in the javelin," Covelli says. "But once you put it all together, you've got something. It's not like being a sprinter, where any kid can come along and beat you just as long as he's fast."
It is a matter of considerable pride among javelin throwers that brute strength alone counts for far less in their specialty, and proper technique for considerably more, than in any of the other throwing events. The trick is to tailor the throwing style to one's own specifications. With the lithe and rangy Covelli that means a fluid, unhurried delivery that seems to draw more impetus from the cerebrum than the sinews. In the case of Russia's Janis Lusis, a compact, well-conditioned athlete who held the world record until Kinnunen broke it and who outdistanced the Finn for the gold medal at last year's Olympics, it means a style that is forceful and efficient, characterized by a pistonlike delivery and little in the way of wasted motion.
Kinnunen, the most accomplished technician of all, stands only 5'9", weighs 165 pounds and is revered by his countrymen as the Little Giant. He compensates for his lack of size with a rhythmic, flawlessly coordinated throwing style in the best tradition of Finnish javelin men. Competing in the U.S. last May, Kinnunen won the javelin at the Modesto Relays, edging out Tennessee's Bill Skinner, who at 6'6" has long arms that give his throwing motion the leverage of a Roman catapult.
"If I had Skinner's size," said Kinnunen, "I'd throw 330 feet."
"Give me Kinnunen's technique," countered Skinner, "and so would I."
All that talk of technique, though, fails to fully account for the phenomenon of Mark Murro, a beefy (6', 224 pounds) Arizona State junior who was an also-ran at Mexico City (finishing ninth, tops among U.S. entrants), but who is fast emerging as one of the best, and certainly one of the strongest, javelin throwers in history. Last May at the Western Athletic Conference Championships at Tempe, Ariz., Murro set a new American record with a throw of 292'8", 17 1" over his career best and eight feet farther than Covelli's former U.S. mark.
In an event where it supposedly takes age to ripen properly—Covelli is 33, Lusis 30, Skinner 30 and Kinnunen 28—Murro is all of 20 years old. In a discipline whose leading exponents talk sagely about the "modulus of elasticity" and "angle of incidence" and all manner of aerodynamic theories and principles, Murro is very much the innocent. "I don't really know what I'm doing," he says. "My feet wind up pointing the wrong way and I'm never sure whether my arm is up or down. I just go out there and throw."
Let it be said, first off, that Murro's technique is not quite as hopeless as he makes it sound. Beyond that, he has the mobility of a much smaller man and the power of. a much larger one, qualifying him as one of those extraordinary physical specimens, Raquel Welch being another, that come along now and again to remind us that nature does not always dispense her gifts evenly. "Mark has tremendous strength and desire," says Arizona State's track coach, Senon (Baldy) Castillo, who also coached Covelli. "I wouldn't want him to experiment too much with different techniques. It might throw him off."
Murro hurls the javelin with all the authority of Odd-Job coughing his way through the disintegrating neighborhood. Churning down the 35-yard runway, the spear at ear level in his uplifted right hand, Murro drops his arm behind him and then, the momentum surging through his body and into the shoulder, whips the arm smartly forward. There is a loud and explosive grunt, a thunderclap to accompany the lightning bolt that he unleashes.
"I like to see it floating out there, climbing and gliding," says Murro. "I think it's cool to watch. The only thing is, I sometimes wish I could be in the stands watching my throws from the side."
If the javelin can inflame the sensibilities of a youth like Murro, imagine how it can affect an older, more sophisticated javeliner like Dr. Steve Seymour, who describes himself as the "father of American javelin throwing, inventor of the modern throwing style, and the most knowledgeable student, teacher, coach and researcher of the javelin in the country."
A Los Angeles physician who tools about town in a Bermuda-orange Porsche, the 48-year-old Seymour was an outstanding javelin man in his day, which he happens to believe has a few hours yet to run. He is a physical fitness enthusiast who endlessly devises new exercises for developing what he calls, with an Aristotelian flourish, "the total body." One recent improvisation had him ardently bouncing a 12-pound shot off a telephone pole and catching it with both hands, an exercise calculated to arouse all sorts of arm and shoulder muscles, to say nothing of Pacific Telephone.
"One mustn't think of the javelin as a minor sport like curling or anything," Dr. Seymour says. "The javelin represents the glory of Greece and it symbolizes man's search for his primitive ancestral identity. I can blink my eyes and look out at a javelin thrower and see tens of thousands of warriors marching across the field and I can hear the voices of antiquity. No, the javelin isn't some minor sport. It is classic. It is beauty. It is excellence. It is immortality.
"The javelin is as old as the gladiators and also as modern as Cape Kennedy. The human body is the launching pad and booster and all that, and only the rocket has changed over the years. The inspiration to send the rocket skyward-even that's still the same. And the javelin remains the last line of defense. Think of Janis Lusis and Mark Murro. Now they throw in the same direction. After the destruction of an atomic war, just picture the two of them facing each other, two men alone on the field of battle, the ultimate confrontation."
The javelin and similar implements, spears, lances or whatever, have indeed played a central role in human history, but the warriors and hunters in earliest times strove for accuracy rather than distance. As the nature of weaponry changed, javelin-type devices became less important. The track event most suitable for defense against the evils lurking on the typical city street today is not the javelin but the 100-yard dash.
As for athletic uses, the javelin was part of the pentathlon in the ancient Olympics and it bears a kinship to the lances used in medieval jousting. Javelin competition for distance gained popularity in central Europe in the mid-19th century and then in Scandinavia, and it was fashionable for a time to throw with alternate hands, the competitor with the greatest total distance winning. In 1917 a Swedish thrower achieved a mark of 374'11¼"—202'9½" with the right hand and 172'1¾" with the left—a world record that has suffered the indignity of enduring simply because nobody has bothered to break it.
The role played in this pageant by Steve Seymour, the father of American javelin throwing, etc., is that of historical precursor. For nearly two decades, starting around 1930, Finnish javeliners—Matti J√§rvinen, Yrj√∂ Nikkanen and Toivo Hyyti√§inen—had dominated the sport. An early intimation that the U.S. might be among those countries audacious enough to challenge the Finns came when Seymour won the silver medal at the 1948 Olympics in London. More solid evidence came at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, of all places, when a pair of Americans, Cy Young and Bill Miller, finished 1-2 in the event. The following year the real breakthrough occurred. Franklin (Bud) Held, a Stanford-educated engineer and later an ordained Presbyterian minister, broke the world javelin record with a throw of 263'10". Held's impact on the sport went beyond the record book. Dissatisfied with the Finnish-made Karhu javelin then in general use, a wooden model that tended to nose-dive after reaching the height of its ascent, Held had been designing his own for several years.
The homemade javelins that came out of Held's workshop generally had blunter points and better aerodynamic balance, with the result that they lost altitude more gradually, gliding for precious extra feet. Controversial at first but eventually sanctioned with modifications, the so-called Held javelin, manufactured commercially by Held's father and brother (and more recently by American Athletic Equipment Co., a subsidiary of Head Ski Co.) succeeded in winning away a large part of the market from the Karhu. Now the Held and other javelins face similar inroads by the Swedish-made Sandvicken, a steel spear that vibrates less and is used by a growing number of top throwers.
The superior aerodynamic properties of latter-day javelins carry with them one disadvantage: gliding instead of nose-diving to earth, they tend to land flat in a kind of belly flop. To count as an official throw, the javelin has to land point first, whether it sticks in the ground or not, a rule that has nullified many fine throws. Particularly frustrating was the experience of Great Britain's John Fitzsimons, whose throws repeatedly landed flat during a meet with West Germany in 1965. "I needed one good throw to make a point for my country," recalls Fitzsimons, now the British record holder. "So on my last chance I simply threw it into the ground." Britain received the point and Fitzsimons' official distance was 9'10".
Javelin throwers are a maddeningly erratic lot for other reasons. "The javelin has more variables than any other event," asserts Bud Held, who has left the active ministry and now manufactures stringing machines for tennis rackets near San Diego. "For example, the wind doesn't affect the discus thrower or the shotputter very much but it can be crucial in the javelin. It may surprise some people, but usually it's better to throw into a head wind, which gets under the javelin and forms a cushion that helps keep the point up. A tail wind tends to drive the point downward the moment the javelin starts leveling out."
As with golf, the key to consistency in the javelin is to cultivate a comfortable groove. For achieving maximum thrust as well as avoiding injuries, it is necessary to synchronize the throw to get more than mere "arm" into it. "Actually, it's more of a pull than a throw." says Covelli. "Something like reaching behind you and pulling a door shut with all your might. It's a violent, split-second action and everything must be just so, every move in its proper sequence."
Unlike their European counterparts, who generally enjoy topflight coaching, it is common for American javelin men to lament, "I'm on my own." John Tushaus, a former University of Arizona star, recalls that as a schoolboy javelin thrower in Montana he acquired the sum total of his instruction by studying sequential pictures of a man throwing the javelin in an encyclopedia.
One of the few U.S. coaches intimately familiar with the javelin is Al Cantello, who a decade ago became the only American besides Held ever to break the world record, quite a feat considering that Cantello, at 5'7½" and 163 pounds, is even smaller than Jorma Kinnunen. A high diver and gymnast, Cantello threw with a follow-through that attracted students of kinesiology a headlong lunge through the air culminating in a jarring, chest-first landing.
Now an assistant track coach for the Naval Academy, Cantello gives tips to aspiring javeliners who phone and write him from around the country. To Cantello javelin throwing is among the most demanding of disciplines. "I passed a multitude of bigger, better throwers on the way up," he says. "I was more stubborn. What they didn't realize, those big clunkers, was the importance of being a technician, of timing, of getting into position. If you're just 1° off, you've blown it. But when you hit it right, it's like steak and potatoes. It's like going to heaven in a wheelbarrow. To make it, you improve a little here and a little there. You have to go up a hundred blind alleys to pick up a few feet."
For a moment in the mid-1950s it appeared that all those blind alleys might open at once. Out of the clear blue sky—or into it, actually—a phalanx of Europeans suddenly began throwing world-record distances. Behind their phenomenal results was a revolutionary new throwing style, originating in Spain—a whirling, discus-like motion in which the javelin slid through hands lubricated with soap and water. That made for cleaner javelins, but it also sent everybody scurrying for cover, because the whirligig delivery made the javelin's flight impossible to control. The new style was promptly banned, much to the displeasure of Spanish track and field officials, who blandly suggested that the danger could be eliminated by building a tall protective screen around the entire throwing area.
Even without benefit of such unorthodoxy, the world javelin record has advanced some 70 feet in four decades, and throwers like Kinnunen and Lusis are out to improve on that. So is Mark Murro, whose aim is to be the first American to crack 300 feet and to break Kinnunen's record while at it. Murro's biggest problem is that his throws tend to are too high, wasting valuable momentum going upward instead of outward. If he can hold his throws down, he could well set a new record almost any time, possibly this week in Los Angeles in the U.S., British Commonwealth and Soviet meet.
Or he may never do so, for javelin throwing, remember, is an erratic event. One performer as precocious as Murro was Terje Pedersen, a lanky Norwegian who on Sept. 2, 1964 hurled the spear 300'11", a throw that ranks as 1) the first past 300 feet, 2) the world record until Lusis broke it last year and 3) still the third-longest distance ever. Only 22 at the time, Pedersen went off to the Tokyo Olympics a month later as Norway's great hope for a track and field gold medal.
Pedersen, a dentist who retired from throwing last year, still shudders at the experience. "In Tokyo I couldn't have a glass of milk or do an exercise without reporters following me around," he says. "During the warmups, all my competitors gathered around to watch. Inexperienced as I was, I became terribly nervous." Pedersen did not even make it into the Olympic finals. Afterward he developed elbow trouble and had difficulty staying in shape. In three years of off-and-on competition following his historic throw, his best effort was 228 feet. "Javelin throwing is a fine sport," reflects Pedersen. "But you have to train very seriously and must have complete control. If you develop an improper technique, it takes a long time to get back to doing things the right way."
As for Murro, even if he avoids Pedersen's sorry fate, his name will probably be a household word only in the Murro household. A native of New Jersey, which has high school javelin competition, he took up the event (along with the discus and shotput) as a freshman at Newark's Essex Catholic High. During his senior year he set the existing national high school record of 252'8", but an Essex teammate, Marty Liquori, now Villanova's fine miler, got most of the headlines. Even today as the country's No. 1 javelin thrower, Murro is probably no better known around Arizona State than the Sun Devils' sub-four-minute-miler, Chuck La Benz.
"The publicity thing used to bug me," admits Murro. "But there's nothing you can do about it. Javelin throwers just don't get much glory."
Not even in Hollywood's view of things has it ever been otherwise. In the 1952 movie Come Back, Little Sheba, a blowsy, kindhearted housewife (Shirley Booth) who mourns her lost puppy takes as a boarder a pretty coed (Terry Moore). The coed gets involved with a javelin thrower (Richard Jaeckel), a lapse in taste and judgment that naturally prompts the landlady's husband, a reformed drunk (Burt Lancaster), to go on a monumental bender.
As our story unfolds, the coed gives the javelin man the shaft, and a similar fate befalls the movie itself at Academy Awards time. Although Miss Booth wins an Oscar for her performance, Sheba is passed over, the award for best picture of 1952 going to The Greatest Show on Earth, an overblown movie about a circus. To the reader, all this may seem to be a subtle prelude to the contention that javelin throwing, not the circus, is really the greatest show on earth. Well, nobody, not Frank Covelli, not Mark Murro, not even old Steve Seymour, the George Washington of his little-appreciated sport, would seriously advance so extravagant a claim. No, sir, they'll tell you, javelin throwing is the greatest show in the sky.