Tiina Lillak, standing on the javelin runway, with the anguished appeals of the great crowd resounding in her head, was feeling the weight of generations. This was last August's World Track and Field Championships, in her hometown of Helsinki, Finland. Lillak, then 22, had set a world record of 237'6" in the women's javelin throw the year before, had seen it broken by Sofia Sakorafa of Greece (243'5") and then had regained it with a 245'3" two months before. She was the only Finnish athlete picked to win a gold medal in Helsinki, but her eminence was far greater than that of a mere favorite.
The javelin has been a soaring means of Finnish national expression. The country has produced five Olympic gold medalists in the event and six world-record holders. Indeed, the height of the great tower of the Helsinki Olympic stadium that loomed above Lillak is 236'3", nearly the distance of the world record (238'6") established in 1932 by the greatest of them all, Matti J√§rvinen.
But Finnish men in recent years had fallen short of their remarkable heritage. And no Finnish woman before Lillak had ever set a world mark. Thus, she inescapably bore the hopes of all five million Finns. She had been interviewed for months, until she was dry and distracted, finally having to take refuge in a secret place in the forest.
Upon arriving at the stadium on the afternoon of the final, she had seen this headline in a Helsinki paper, filling half the page: TIINA, TODAY IS YOUR DAY!! Her stomach had tightened.
July 17, 1984
She had felt fortunate to make the final. Four days before the preliminaries, she had burst into the office of her friend and trainer, Jormo Ahonen, and accidentally, goofily, slammed her right—throwing—elbow into the doorframe. "It was swollen and blue for the next three days," recalls Ahonen. "She couldn't even mime the throwing motion."
Four days later, 55,000 Finns had skipped work and school to pack the stadium at 10:30 on a weekday morning to see her qualify. When she'd thrown, there had been, blessedly, no pain. She'd won the qualifying round, to the confident roar of her nation. She'd given only an upturned-eyes expression of relief.
Then, later, she had warmed up for the final. Her routine at such times is to sip some coffee and jog for a few minutes, then stretch and listen to something with a powerful beat on her Walkman. "To get to be like a wild beast," she has said. "A female cat. Ready to be aggressive." But on this day her coach, Kalevi H√§rk√∂nen, had been allowed to accompany her on the warmup field, which is rare in important international competitions. To listen to him, Lillak had put her earphones away. "He took all the concentrating time," she would say later. "After that, the finalists had a lot of short waits, before going to the stadium, then before going onto the field. There was no time to listen to anything. Everyone was really nervous."
The situation had been anticipated by Fatima Whitbread of Great Britain, who had fixed on a strategy tailored to this pitch of tension. She would go all out on her first throws, get an intimidating mark, and then watch Lillak try too hard, press and come apart. Whitbread had executed this tactic superbly. She'd reached 226'10" on her opening attempt.
Lillak hadn't been able to match it. Her first throw had been 220'10". And for throw after throw thereafter, she had pressed too hard. Always she'd thrown too high, the spear stalling out and dropping to the turf like a wounded crane, short of Whitbread's mark.
After her fifth throw had fallen short and the embrace of her people became all the more crushing, she clung to what H√§rk√∂nen had said during the warmup: "Remember, you get six throws out there." And as she paced and tried to bring the tension under control, she thought, "There's no way to escape this place if I get second."
H√§rk√∂nen and Ahonen sat together in the stands. "Kalevi was very cool," remembers Ahonen, "although he did have his program rolled up so tight it was the diameter of a pencil. A lot of people around us were saying, 'She can't do it. But it's all right. It was wrong to hope for so much. Second is all right.' When she came to her last throw, we were all kind of calm."
Lillak doesn't remember much of that throw. She gave it everything she had. Technically, it could have been better; she has seen that from video replays. Again, it seemed to go too high, but this time—such was the power with which she had driven it aloft—it didn't stall. It floated parallel to the ground for long moments, supported, it seemed, by the exultant yells of the crowd and of Lillak herself, and finally punched into the turf at 232'4". She had won.
She sprinted wildly around the curve of the track, her arms overhead, showing that her apparently relaxed demeanor had been a manifestation of iron control, and the stadium poured out its ovation. "We cried and shouted," says Ahonen, "and when I tried to stand, to join the singing, I felt as if my backbone wouldn't support me."
By the following day, nearly every javelin in every store in Finland had been sold. Children cut down birch and pine saplings to throw, to begin en masse an emulation of Lillak that continues unabated. New schools of women's throwing were opened. Lillak completed her year undefeated in 28 meets, in the process becoming the prohibitive favorite for the Olympic gold medal in her event. In a newspaper poll, she was voted the most popular person in Finland, soundly thrashing President Koivisto.
"There hadn't been anything like it since Lasse Viren won the Olympic 10,000 meters in 1972," said Tapani Ilkka, the president of the Finnish Amateur Athletic Federation. "Viren had been tripped at halfway and had gotten up to break the world record. So afterward, to be like him, lots of kids fell down in their races."
Well, worshipful Finland is luckier this time. In Lillak, they have a woman who will set a more sensible, uplifting example than that.
In the summer, Lillak likes to go to a cottage owned by her coach in the Finnish woods. The H√§rk√∂nens have three boys but no girls. "She is our missing daughter," says the coach's wife, Eira. "She likes to cut the grass in the meadow around the cottage. She uses a scythe."
If you've seen Tiina Lillak, you can't control your imagination upon hearing this. She is nearly 6 feet tall, 160 pounds, with broad shoulders and a sprinter's tapered legs. She has blue eyes, honey-blonde hair and a skin of alabaster and rose in the winter, cognac and cream in the summer.
Step from the birchwood into the slanting Northern sun and see, above the fireweed and Queen Anne's lace, the figure of Lillak working through the meadow, the scythe taking huge noisy bites of grass and flower. The reaper's gaze is fixed on her blade, and her torso bends like a dancer's, impossibly far to the side, as she reaches for the uncut stands. Perhaps, as Finnish women happily do in the sun, she wears only shorts. And surely, when she senses the observer, she will stop, her eyes widening, for she is shy. But then, seeing it's only a childlike friend, she will smile and continue, becoming absorbed again in the task that she enjoys, and the observer can keep watching this beauty of form and motion and color until he is so intoxicated he falls over in the weeds. (Later, he tries out the scythe himself. He can barely lift it. On his first swing he gets it ridiculously hung up in moist vegetation. Still later, he will lament that Lillak considers this place so much a sanctuary that she may not be photographed here, though photographs fail to do justice to her beauty.)
There are readers who will employ this lull to say that they're all but ready to throw up. They're properly sensitive to how women have been denied the full range of their possibilities by a society that judges them on appearance and forces them into narrow, classically feminine roles. They are horrified by the image of the voyeur whimpering in the tall grass. How can you take a magnificent athlete and start talking about how beautiful she is? The virtue of sport is that it gives women expression without their having to worry about what anyone thinks they look like. Sport is one of the few endeavors in which performance is prime and appearance irrelevant. Isn't it just as inappropriate to harp on how beautiful a female athlete is as it is to dwell on how much of a gargoyle one may be?
Good question. It's just that in Lillak we have an athlete who evokes a longer look at this issue. She's the best female javelin thrower ever. She's compellingly beautiful. The throwing is measurable. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But hers strikes the eye of this supposedly trained, sardonic beholder so brightly that it must blind more sentimental people. It does so because her beauty has little in common with traditional feminine attraction. In fact, by her example, she's helping to do away with that.
The stuff you always hear about how pretty Jan Stephenson and Mary Decker are, how feminine they are, even after all the work they put in, is an acknowledgment that femininity is by definition at cross-purposes with athletic performance. We're talking about traditionally defined femininity here, the sweet, fragrant, demure kind of womanhood that is said to appeal so to men of power, wealth and other Republican virtues. It's the kind of thing that Susan Brownmiller has so tellingly described in her recent book, Femininity, to the shame of any male who has ever advocated something like high heels or the beehive hairdo (or bound feet, for that matter) to make a woman more attractive. Brownmiller's thesis is essentially that men have consistently and systematically found alluring only those aspects of female gesture, dress, speech, shape and motive that require women to be, or seem, weak and dependent.
But there are other women, a few, more all the time, who attract by being capable, bright, healthy and tough. This isn't done by falling in line with classical Femininity, the big F. Men who yearn to dominate or protect can find such women disturbing, a threat to the natural order of things. To others, more inclined to watch women grow into the people they aspire to be, such women are fascinating.
So no celebrator of Lillak's attractiveness need feel guilty or reactionary. She's like her country: progressive, practical and given to splendid design. At the Helsinki world championships, the most poignant social observation was made by NBC's Ahmad Rashad—unfortunately off-camera—when he came, amazed and exultant, to work one morning and said, "Do you know how many women there are in this country who have absolutely no idea how beautiful they are?"
Lillak is one of them. Asked by a fan who had seen her Coca-Cola poster, which has graced billboards all over Finland, if she had done any real fashion modeling, she laughed and grabbed the little baby fat at her waist. "No, there's too much here for the fashion people," she said. "And too much muscle here in the shoulder." But all those thousands of Finnish girls throwing birch shafts aren't paying as much attention to fashion as they used to. And they are keeping a close, hopeful watch over their shoulders.
Ilse Kristiina Lillak was born April 15, 1961 in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo. She has one sister, Satu, 15, who is interested in music. Lillak's father, Ivar, 51, a computer programmer, and mother, Sirkka, 50, never took part in competitive sport. "No, it was my grandparents, my father's parents, who passed it down," says Lillak. "They were from Estonia. My grandmother was a swimmer, and Grandpapa was a horseman and motorcycle rider." The Lillak grandparents fled Estonia with the boy Ivar before World War II, when the country was annexed by the Soviet Union.
Tiina was a tall skinny kid. She was always active, energy streaming from her. At a summer track school, when she was 13, she threw the javelin for the first time. It went 75 feet, a notable figure only because she seemed too slight to reach even that modest distance. (The women's javelin weighs 1‚Öì pounds and is at least 7'2‚Öù" long. The men's is 1¾ pounds and not less than 8'6‚Öú" long.) She also played Finnish baseball, which doesn't have a pitcher, and ran the sprints. "I never thought of sport as anything that was going to be special," she says now.
Because this was Finland, there were people around who knew about the javelin, especially about how it can tear up an arm if you throw it incorrectly. Both Lillak's first coach, Keijo Kanerva, and H√§rk√∂nen, who began with her in 1979, stressed caution. "They never wanted me to hurry, but to build up from the beginning in both technique and strength," she says. Lillak was conscientious, doing exactly what her coaches prescribed, no more, no less. The result was steady improvement and, more remarkably, freedom from arm injury. By contrast, many U.S. throwers, men and women, who begin with the javelin are forced to go to the shot and discus after they have blown an elbow. The 1982 and '83 NCAA discus champion Dean Crouser and 1976 Olympic discus champion Mac Wilkins are two well-known examples.
H√§rk√∂nen hadn't been trained as a coach. He was a successful engineer and building contractor. He became intrigued with sports only when his son, Arto, began competing. Applying his background in physics, the father guided the son to victory in the 1979 Golden Javelin competition, held in Budapest, with a throw of 295'10". Then he joined forces with the then slender, bouncy 18-year-old Lillak.
"The idea is to strengthen and train all the parts of the body that are involved in throwing," H√§rk√∂nen says, "and then you integrate the parts. Not much of our training is actually throwing." Instead it's weightlifting, sprinting, bounding, stretching and hurdling, done in two workouts a day. Last winter, the indefatigable Lillak also played squash and cross-country skied 60 kilometers a month.
Once legs, hips, back, chest, shoulder and arm are strong and supple, technique drills help blend them into the intricately timed series of explosions that make up a javelin throw.
Here's Lillak early last April on the blue San Jose City College track. She has come with a group of Finnish throwers to avoid Helsinki's spring snows and check out the locale where they will train before the Olympics. She worked out hard the day before on a series of exotic Nautilus and rowing machines she'd discovered in a gym near the hotel, and she's sore. She's in the depths of third-day jet lag. But she's firing throw after throw 210 feet or more, her spikes scraping up ribbons of the track's surface, her expulsion of breath as she releases the spear coming in a loud "Sh...sh!" as if she were quieting a rowdy class. And in a way she is. Some jogging firemen, who have been noisy on the far side of the track, pass in awed silence.
Ahonen, who pole-vaulted for Fresno State, stands nearby with H√§rk√∂nen. "Her technique isn't very far along," says H√§rk√∂nen. He believes that women javelin throwers are behind discus throwers and shotputters in how close they come to men's standards of form. He's sure Lillak can surpass her world record.
Lillak is asked how much farther she can throw. Her smile conveys a hint of smugness. "Nobody knows," she says jauntily.
"The most important thing," says Ahonen, "is the left leg, how she must get it down and planted solidly before the torso whips around and over. There is a flection of the whole body then, a whipping of the hips and bowed back that can take a real toll on the muscles."
Ahonen has known Lillak since she was 14 when they competed for the same club, and he has attended to her since she was 16. By now he's attuned to tiny changes in her musculature, as is evident when she comes to him holding her right biceps. It's sore. He takes her upper arm in both hands, and she gasps at his touch. "We planned her weekly whole-body massage for this evening, but I think we'd better work on the shoulder right now while it's warm," he says, leading her into the college's weight room.
Lillak strips to her T shirt and lies on her back on a wrestling mat. Ahonen sits beside her, puts her elbow on his thigh and begins gently stroking up the arm and into the shoulder. "Lightly at first, for circulation," he says.
Massage is more widely practiced, more highly thought of, in Finland than anywhere else. "It developed, I think, because the rough climate puts pressure on muscles to recover," says Ahonen. His voice seems as soothing as his hands. "Our athletes have been massaged ever since they started to make a name for themselves, since before Nurmi...." His fingers are in under her clavicle, and she utters some heartfelt sibilant Finnish. "Don't swear in front of this guy who thinks you are so sweet," says Ahonen, digging deeper, continuing his lecture. "I work on the muscle tendons—that is, the places where they have their origins on the bones. That's where the injuries come. This can hurt, but it doesn't damage the muscle."
Lillak is moaning and her head is snapping back and forth, and the observer's heart is going out to her. He knows that some Finnish masseurs, Ilpo Nikkilà, for example, who is favored by Alberto Salazar, can leave a muscle sore for a week. "Yes," says Ahonen, "the hardest massage can raise certain enzyme levels; that means muscle damage has taken place. But what I'm doing here has been shown not to have that effect. There are some points here that are sore from her exercise yesterday, some points that are very hard. If you rub across the grain of the muscle, you can get those knots to relax and she'll be fine tomorrow. But I wouldn't want to trade places with her."
No, that's clear. As he gets to an acupressure point in her elbow, she sucks in her breath and her whole body arches. But as soon as he releases her, she is at once chatty and giggly. "Yeah, you have to know someone pretty well to let him do this to you," says Ahonen as he takes the outside of her pectoral muscle in both hands and kneads it like Swedish rye. Lillak cries out, "Oy-yoi-yoi-yoi!" This massage seems to have all the joy of orthopedic surgery.
"The subscapular muscle," Ahonen says, unmoved, "in front of the scapula, or shoulder blade, is a rotator so throwing really tightens it, but it's hard to reach because it's between two bones. The rest of the shoulder can be loose, but if that subscapular muscle is tight and irritates the nerve that runs beside it, the whole system is out. Unfortunately, the only way to get at it is up through the armpit...."
This actually seems to levitate Lillak. Her eyes go perfectly round, then squeeze shut, then open again, accompanied by a torrent of Finnish. "I can't see how people pay for this," says Ahonen. The observer fights down a wild urge to pull this madman from the writhing athlete.
But Lillak is asking for more. "Pull. Pull. Pull!" she shouts. He does, deep within her shoulder. She flinches, jerks and flips over onto her stomach. He then goes to work on her back by twisting her elbow into a hammerlock and sliding his fingers under the shoulder blade. "She's losing a little bit of her full range of motion in her right shoulder," he says. "Here, see how she can reach up higher in back with her left hand than with her right."
He leans on his thumbs. She cries anew, her legs frog-kicking dangerously. "That's because the shoulder is a funny area, even if you don't throw the javelin. It has lots of layers of muscles crossing each other. The rotators get very tired in throwing, and it makes them tense all the time. Her right side gets a lot harder than her left side." He reaches the rotator cuff on the back of the shoulder, and Lillak slams her face into the mat.
"She's one tough lady," he says. "Not all athletes can get so tired and tight. She's special in the way she can be so intense in her lifting and throwing, so explosive all the time that she hurts her body and needs this. There was one day last summer when we had to do this for 2½ hours."
He lets her stand. She stretches a little and seems refreshed. She runs to demonstrate the use of a weight machine for H√§rk√∂nen at the other end of the gym. The room shakes. "See, she can't do anything gently," says Ahonen fondly. "But even so, she's balanced. Sometimes she's intense like this. Sometimes she's sleepy and lazy, like a lioness. She builds up. Then she saves herself. Some of our sprinters don't control themselves as well as Tiina. And so they get hurt."
The next day, a Friday, Lillak takes the morning off. "The massage took away most of the soreness," she says. She sits in the sun at San Jose State, pops open a can and watches the hammer throwers.
"What's this, a beer at 10 a.m.?" asks the observer.
"Is this not the official Olympic drink I've seen on TV?" asks Lillak as if insulted. "Therefore, I must drink it, right?" She understands English, having studied it for 10 years in school, but that was more written than conversational. "And," she says, "I wasn't the best student in high school because I had sport here"—she places a hand firmly on her chest—"in my heart." Thus, when Ahonen is around, she lets him translate. When no interpreter is handy, though, she will listen to a question, sit quietly for a few moments and then dictate a neatly paragraphed answer in flawless English.
For instance, asked if she'd left a boyfriend at home (O.K., O.K., that's as bad as drooling over what a hunk she is), she says no, takes her pause for composition and comes out with a list of specifications for the right guy:
"He must be economical and able to manage money. He must be a good housekeeper because I'm never at home. He must be able to give massage, so I can escape Jormo. He must be a good cook. He must not be afraid to sit in the car when I am driving. And he must be easygoing, so he can stand my grouchy days." She smiles kind of wistfully, and adds, "If there really is anyone like that, he must be crazy." She has described the perfect traditional wife and explained the scarcity of the breed.
"Grouchy?" asks the observer. "Jormo was right. I've never seen you anything but gracious."
She laughs, "You haven't seen me destroying everything I touch."
Well, there's that. Bringing her javelins into the Finns' hotel in San Jose, she shattered an overhead light fixture. Stretching in her room, she tore a towel rack off the wall. Parking, she nudged a railing—"It only wiggled a little." On the flight from Helsinki, she somehow broke her airplane seat.
But none of this was out of ill temper. "No, it's because it's spring," says H√§rk√∂nen. He's serious. "Our son Arto is the same way. They have spent the winter getting strong. Later, in summer, they will have perfected their technique, in javelin and everything else. But now, they're awkward. They spill milk bottles. They don't know the strength in their hands."
"Tiina's mother goes, 'Ooh, that girl. Ooh, that girl,' " says Eira.
But Lillak has never done anyone real harm. As she watches a hammer thrower let one get away—the ball and wire fly out of the sector (really the fault of a badly designed protective cage) and across the track, scattering runners—she says, "The wire on the hammer is the danger. It spins around the ball like a knife. But I've never hit anyone with the javelin." She seems to say this with faint regret. "Had a narrow miss once. The man [who had wandered too near the landing area] ducked, and the spear went right where his spine had been."
The following day, in Fresno, she's to throw in competition for the first time this year. "But I'm sore from all the work," she says. "And it's a long drive. You shouldn't bother to go that far just to watch me."
So the observer obeys, and is mortified to learn the next morning that on her first attempt Lillak launched one 243'7", the second-longest throw ever by a woman, behind only her own world record. Then she fouled twice and quit with a sore ankle. (Two months later, the soreness was diagnosed as a stress fracture, and as a precaution the ankle was placed in a cast until mid-July; it was not expected to affect her Olympic participation.)
And after the crucible of Helsinki's sixth throw, who could imagine even Olympic pressure getting to her? Nor have the fruits of her world championship and national heroism changed her life. "Not like Carl Lewis's, that's for sure," she says. "No fancy cars, no big new houses. I still live with my parents. We have a nice family harmony." Her father manages her finances. "Of course there were nice things. I got a good job, part time, with Xerox, doing public relations. That wouldn't have come along if I had not thrown well. And everyone in Finland knows me. It's kind of embarrassing."
But motivating. "You know, at the world championships, she also carried the Finnish flag in the opening," says Ahonen. "She was nervous beforehand. She was shaking. She said, 'Reserve some time on the table after this, Jormo.' And then she went out and was beautifully controlled, an inspiration. And the next week, after she had won, she said, 'It was harder to carry the flag than to throw in the final.' "
That was so, Ahonen believes, because she carries a little banner for what he calls "female nationalism."
"She wants to do well as a woman, for women," he says. "A couple of years ago, when she was only 21 and had just broken the world record and was getting a lot of acclaim—she broke the record around the time that Margaret Thatcher ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands, so a Helsinki newspaper ran pictures of Lillak and Thatcher, and the headline was THE IRON WOMEN—well, that was when she had a chance to change, to get a little spoiled. But she turned very serious. She came to me and said, 'I feel very strongly about being a good example now for the kids.' So she didn't change. And all of her friends thought that was wonderful. But now, thinking about it, we were dumb to worry. I think she has such a healthy self-image, such overflowing confidence, that she's relatively unconcerned about the pressures put on her by others. She's simply living the life she was born for, and living it as it ought to be lived. Even before she said she wanted to be a good example, she was a great example."
Is it just his reluctance to turn away that influences the observer to search for all the levels of that example? The children are throwing javelins in Lillak's country. She has slightly revised a nation's esthetic. But in Lillak's presence, these seem beside the point, merely happy tangents. It's her raw, warm health that affects you close up, that makes you think again of her career's being so free of arm injuries, of her balance of effort and ease, of her learning to throw without getting hurt.
The phrase echoes and expands. To generate power without pain, to come to the fullest possible strength without being compromised as a woman, that's the essence of her example. How splendidly ironic that she should do it with a spear.
The story on shooters Lones and Deena Wigger listed for this space on the Contents page was replaced after that page went to press because, in an upset, neither Wigger made the U.S. Olympic rifle team.—ED.