The eye that fixes on a javelin in flight loses the javelin's
surroundings. * There is no context but blur, so the shivering spear
is free to evoke classical myth. You might be watching a javelin
thrown by Achilles in the Trojan War, his ''shaft with the long
shadow.'' It will impale the throat of Hector and lead to Greek
victory, Trojan slaughter and the invention of literature.
Fanciful? Sure, but after whom did we name that crucial athletic
connection, the Achilles tendon? Track and field is atavistic,
acknowledging its roots, and the javelin is the most effective of its
symbolic weapons. Could you hunt with your discus? Lay siege to a
castle with a hammer? What good would putting a shot have been in a
battle? ''Maybe when they invent the cannon, pal,'' the Greeks would
have laughed, as they ducked the iron ball you had hurled and came at
you with . . . javelins.
Too, the modern spear has an aesthetic of its own. If launched
exactly right, a javelin is transformed from the lethal thing the
thrower lugged down the runway. Fired 30 meters per second at 35
degrees above horizontal, it joins the family of kites and sailplanes
and parachute silk. It floats on air.
At least it used to. These days a javelin, even when thrown well,
looks like a weary pelican collapse-diving after a mullet and finding
the pond is a football field.
Because Tom Petranoff of the United States added almost 10 feet to
the world record with his 327 ft. 2 in. in 1983, and because his
successor, Uwe Hohn of East Germany, put another 16 ft. 8 in. on it
in 1984 with an amazing 343 ft. 10 in., the International Amateur
Athletic Federation hastily rewrote the specifications for the men's
javelin (the women's javelin, of different specifications, was left
unchanged). For the first time in its 3,200 years (since the Trojan
War), the spear was reined in.
''Basically, they thickened the tail and moved the center of
gravity forward,'' says Petranoff. ''That gives the javelin a new
trajectory. You can throw it with the same velocity as ever -- but
it won't sail. The nose will drop, and it will dive-bomb and stick.''
The longest throw since the new javelin became mandatory on April
1 is Petranoff's 280 ft. l in. at the World Games in Helsinki on July
7. That distance is still more than 63 feet short of Hohn's world
record and more than 20 short of Petranoff's best performance last
year. ''No one is sure yet what effect it will eventually have,''
continues Petranoff. ''It's a disadvantage to the most experienced
throwers, especially to the little guys who rely more on
technique.'' Petranoff, 28, includes himself in that skilled company,
though at 6 ft. 2 in. and 220 pounds he's a fair-sized cannon. ''Size
and brute strength will benefit.''
Hohn is 6 ft. 6 in., 255 pounds, the largest of the top throwers,
and only 24. ''I'm not worried that it will affect my future,'' he
has said. ''I'm young enough to start again. But the beauty will be
taken out of the event.''
For Petranoff it may be a matter of taking himself out of it. The
American- record holder is thinking of belatedly switching to a
career in baseball. That would bring him full circle. The Petranoffs,
Tom and Carolynn and their daughters, two-year-old Shannon and
five-month-old Whitney, recently moved into a bright new house in
Oceanside, Calif. ''Just five miles from where my whole career as a
javelin thrower started,'' says Tom. In February 1977 he had just
transferred from Ball State, in Indiana, to Palomar C.C., in
California. In high school and later at Ball State he had played
baseball, mostly as a pitcher.
''I tried out for baseball at Palomar the second day. They said I
was good, but they were honest. It was midseason. I was welcome to
sit, but I wasn't going to play.'' Walking off the field after that
dismal chat, he saw some guys throwing spears.
''Wow, can you show me how to do that?'' he asked.
After Petranoff had taken a few throws, the track coach, Doc
Marrin, came running over.
''Dammit, you club guys have to ask to use the field.''
''Club? What club? I've never done this before.''
The coach's eyes, Petranoff recalls, ''turned into Christmas tree
''I'm going to ask you a vital question,'' Marrin said, taking a
deep breath. ''Do you have eligibility here?''
The next day, in baseball shoes, Petranoff threw 198 ft. 10 in..
Within six weeks he had reached 252 ft. 1 in.. By late 1982, he was
consistently throwing in the 280-foot range (the world record then
was 317 ft. 4 in.) and had demonstrated that he possessed the
easygoing temperament a thrower needs in order not to press too hard.
Then in May 1983 at the Pepsi meet in UCLA's Drake Stadium, he cut
loose with a throw that left his hand at 77 miles per hour, rose to
65 feet and seemed to shake off all sense of gravity. Farther and
farther it sailed, slower and slower. Just before it touched down,
its nose dropped to comply with the rule that javelins not land flat
or tail first. It behaved as if it had a little pilot in it. And now
the license plate on Petranoff's Corvette reads 3272 JAV.
And now it may never happen again. ''It's like changing the height
of the basket or the size of the baseball,'' he says. ''It's really
that fundamental. The result may be that now javelins will fly less
than the 284 ft. 4 in. that is the record in the hammer throw.'' His
tone insists that this is scandalous.
But wasn't it necessary? ''It was not done casually,'' says the
U.S. member of the IAAF Technical Committee, Bob Hersh of Roslyn
Heights, N.Y. ''A lot of thought and discussion went into it.'' None
of that was Hersh's, because he wasn't on the committee until after
the change was passed, but he understands the reasons for the change.
''If there wasn't a problem right then, there was going to be. If the
world record didn't start to reach an asymptote (a leveling in the
curve of its improvement), then in 5 or 10 years, with a new Hohn, we
could have seen a throw making it out to the second lane of the
track, making it into a runner there.''
Petranoff argues that the IAAF's concern for safety is laudable,
but is poorly aimed, as are the javelins that cause the real danger.
''When have people been hit by long throws?'' he asks. ''Those throws
go out in the sector where people are alert for them. And by the time
they land, they have lost all the energy they were thrown with. The
problem is the errant throw, the one that the wind takes or that you
just lose. It goes where no one is looking, and it can strike with
all the power it began with.''
Both Hersh and Petranoff are convinced that a prime motive for the
change was to eliminate flat throws. ''If it sticks, it takes away an
official's toughest judgment problem,'' they say.
Which is to the good. One thinks of the 1980 Moscow Olympic
javelin competition. The first two throws by the Soviet Union's
Dainis Kula landed flat. He had one left with which to get a good
mark or he would not qualify for the final. His third throw was long
-- but it landed tail first. The Soviet officials blithely ruled that
it was fair. Kula went on to take the gold medal.
''A flat throw can be dangerous,'' adds Hersh. ''Consider that a
lot of injuries come from javelins that don't stick but slither
instead over the grass until they get somebody.''
All of this seemed to be solved by rewriting the rules which
dictate the dimensions of the javelin itself. ''I guess they could
have ordered the approach shortened,'' says Hersh. ''Or made the
javelin of solid lead. But an aerodynamic change seems to interfere
with the event less than any of that.''
But all may not be solved. The two pages of the 1985-86 IAAF
competition rules on javelin dimensions do not prescribe a single,
unalterable size and shape. The spear still must weigh 800 grams
(1.76 pounds), but its other dimensions can fall within ranges. Its
length may vary from 2.60 to 2.70 meters. Its diameter at its
thickest point may be 25 to 30 millimeters, though within that range
most of the preferred new designs are closer to 30. There is a series
of percentages of that diameter that are prescribed at certain
measuring points along the shaft. Somewhere, hiding within those
ranges, Petranoff hopes there's a javelin that will still lift off.
Petranoff takes a visitor into his daisy-bordered backyard and
begins lining up a collection of javelins against the fence. Many are
manufacturers' attempts to get the most out of the new
specifications. One is not.
''Here is the Custom III,'' he says, ''made by AMF Pacer. (This
was the spear he and Hohn threw to their records.) It's thinner in
the tail, fatter in front.''
The difference is almost indiscernible to the untrained observer.
''Doesn't take much,'' he continues. ''A javelin is an airfoil, like
the cross section of an airplane wing, which is also thick in front,
thin at the back.''
A spear, it turns out, doesn't just punch a little round hole in
the sky. Dick Held, the Carson City, Nev., engineer who designed the
Custom III, has the explaining of it down to a science. ''A
javelin,'' he says, ''has both a center of gravity and a center of
pressure, the point where the lift is concentrated. Right after
release, the center of pressure moves forward, causing the point to
rise to an angle of something like 32 degrees with respect to the
''When the old Custom III goes 29 meters per second or faster, the
lift exceeds the weight of the javelin, so it will rise by itself.
After air resistance slows it below 29 mps, it drops, but it will
still hold its 32- degree angle of attack. But because the angle of
descent is in excess of 32 degrees, the javelin will strike point
The help you get from aerodynamics varies with the length of the
throw. ''On a short one, up to 200 feet, for example, there's
virtually no gain,'' says Held. ''But on a 330-foot throw, 40 or 50
feet are due to the lift of the javelin. And the first new javelins
we built -- conforming to the spirit as well as the letter of the new
rules -- went about 40 feet less than the old ones.''
But soon, with throwers and designers staring hard at the rule
book, necessity mothered some uplifting inventions. A few of the
javelins leaning against Petranoff's fence have rather broad, rounded
noses. This isn't for safety; the more surface area there is in the
forward part of the javelin, the more lift.
''There was some confusion over whether the blunt nose would be
allowed,'' Hersh says. ''But it's a revival of an old approach.'' The
spear that Petranoff's predecessor as world-record holder, Ferenc
Paragi of Hungary, used in his throw of 317 ft. 4 in. had a blunt
tip. And the new rules say nothing different about tips. ''As of now
we'll permit that,'' says Hersh.
That suits Petranoff just fine. ''Everything else being equal, the
blunt nose adds 7 to 10 feet.''
The rules also say there must be no abrupt alteration in the width
of the shaft. Everything must be straight lines or smoothly convex
curves. ''Except,'' says Held, ''at the point of the grip. They put
that language in there only to describe the obvious little bump you
have when you hit the cord grip.''
But Sandvik, a Swedish company that is also a major spear
manufacturer, jumped on that exception. ''At the back of the grip
they stepped the shaft down 10 percent in width, wham,'' says Held,
''and made the rear shaft a perfect cylinder until its midpoint, then
tapered it to the tail. They got a narrower tail, a lot more lift,
and maybe another 10 or 15 feet of distance.''
Sandvik, like AMF, has other more conventional designs. In fact
it was one of Sandvik's javelins that Petranoff threw in Helsinki.
But the model Held refers to will come before the IAAF for approval
in Stuttgart on Aug. 19, and Held is just as eager as the people from
Sandvik to find out if the design will be allowed. ''If that javelin
holds up under IAAF interpretation, we're already only 15 or 20 feet
behind the performance of the outlawed old ones,'' says Held, who has
a similar design of his own on the drawing board.
Officials exist to regulate, athletes to perform. One sets limits;
the other strains at them. In this atmosphere of feverish physics,
there may be other tricks yet to come. Petranoff, a great enjoyer,
relishes the struggle. ''I'd love to lay one out there so far,'' he
says, ''it would make fools of the officials who stabbed us in the
back over this.''
But Held thinks that won't happen for a while. ''It's not outside
the realm of possibility for someone to break the 343 ft. 10 in.
world record with a new javelin,'' he says, ''but I don't see it
happening for 10 years or so.''
While Hohn protested the change, he seems to be a little smug
about being the reason for it. ''It means that my record will last,
yes, forever,'' he said last fall. ''That's satisfying, but also
disappointing, because it's natural to want to improve. But the new
javelin won't allow it. We'll all try our best, but we all have to
adjust our minds, too.''
Petranoff may adjust more than that. He's thinking about turning
away from the javelin legacy of the ancient goddess Pallas Athene,
who, you will recall from the Iliad, brought Achilles's spear back
to him after he missed Hector on his first throw. A possibly easier
life, he believes, beckons under a deity who also walked down from
Olympus, commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
''The whole mess made me wonder why I should keep doing this,''
says Petranoff, ''when I can go out and throw 100-mph fastballs for
three or four innings a couple times a week -- and have a players'
association to protect me from ridiculous rule changes.''
He has been fooling with fastball pitching for seven months,
working out periodically on the mound. Following this track season,
he plans to pitch some batting practice for Palomar C.C. ''The speed
is there,'' he says. ''A baseball weighs just a little fraction of a
javelin. And you fire it down at the batter, not up in the air. As
for control, of course, I don't know.''
He begins to take his javelins away from the fence. Soon he has an
armful, like a sheaf of bright aluminum cornstalks. ''That day I
discovered the javelin was probably the worst thing that ever
happened to me,'' he says. ''If I'd stayed with baseball, I might be
rich now and laughing at these poor jerks who care so much about
He laughs anyway, elastic as ever. END