Rescuing spear throwing from a Victor Mature flick

Forgotten delights of the Games: Javelin throwing and deadeye stereo repairmen.

By Gary Kamiya
September 25, 2000 3:13PM (UTC)
main article image

One of the delightful things about the Olympics is how archaic its events can be. For thousands of years, one of the deciding elements in warfare was how hard a warrior could hurl a spear. That activity is normally commemorated only in Grade B ancient-empires flicks featuring Victor Mature and a procession of "Hittite" hotties in extreme dicolletage -- a grim fate for such a historically illustrious activity. So a loud "Hail! Caesar!" -- accompanied by a vigorous fist thump to the breastplate -- to whoever decided to make it an Olympic event. Watching the competitors heave the almost 9-foot javelin the length of a football field, you can almost imagine yourself standing in a phalanx of hoplites at Thermopylae while someone yells "incoming" in ancient Greek. It isn't a good feeling.

The javelin throw was won by Czech champion Jan Zelezny, who struck a rare blow for elegant physiques in a power sport. His rivals were all massive, burly guys with major guts and even more major chests who almost looked like they could switch over and throw the shot put; Zelezny is muscular and elegant, with a slim waist and powerful shoulders. But man, can he throw that spear! It's a beautiful thing to watch: the controlled run-up, the slight pause while the shoulder rotates back for the release, then the explosive moment of the throw itself, the tremendous torque coming out of shoulder and arms, hips and legs driving through. The javelin must be launched at exactly the right angle to maximize its aerodynamic properties. And when they hit one right, its flight is simply stunning. I was sitting at the other end of the stadium when Zelezny uncorked his winning throw, and it didn't seem possible that someone could throw a pointed stick that far. But of course, almost everything you see here seems impossible. That's why it's the Olympics.


It also doesn't seem possible that anyone could stand 50 meters away from a target the size of a pizza pan with a .22-caliber pistol and put every shot on or within a few inches of a bull's eye the size of a quarter, but that's what the best shooters in the world do. A few days ago I took an endless train ride out to the shooting center (I should have known that events involving people firing guns into the air would be located in the sticks -- and man, does this sprawling city have sticks) to watch the men's 50-meter pistol finals and the women's double-trap shotgun finals. The setup is fascinating. Eight nondescript middle-aged guys stand in a line, facing the target. The spectators -- there were maybe 300 of us -- are behind them. You can't see the targets, but each target is displayed on a TV screen, and the shots are electronically recorded and their location displayed after each round of firing. After the announcer says "Fire," they have something like 30 seconds to take their shot. The psychologically fascinating thing is when they decide to shoot: Some fire right away; others wait until the last minute.

It must require incredible nerves, not to mention killer eyesight and a low pulse rate and a surgeon's hand, to do what these guys do. In the 1996 Olympics, Chinese champion Wang Yi Fu was leading after nine shots, but choked on his 10th. His rival (and friend), Italy's Roberto Di Donna, coolly took his last shot and hit the heart of the target, winning the gold. After he shot, Wang almost immediately collapsed to the floor and had to be taken to the hospital.

A Bulgarian guy named Tanyu Kiriakov won the event. Kiriakov has the appearance of a guy who runs a cut-rate stereo repair shop, but if you run into him in the streets of Sofia, don't piss him off. Not only will he be able to shoot you through the heart, he will be able to decide whether he wants to hit your left or right ventricle.


Wang's collapse reminded me of something that's easy to forget: Every competitor here, even the ones in little-noticed events like shooting, takes what he does just as seriously and works just as hard at excelling in it. There's a kind of universality to the discipline, focus, talent and preparation required for every sport, whether it's shooting, badminton or running the 400 meters. This seems obvious, but after you've been immersed in the Games for nine days, it's kind of awe-inspiring -- the fact that human beings challenge themselves to do such an incredible variety of things, and do them so well.

Not awe-inspiring, but just plain inspiring, are the little moments of sportsmanship and humanity you see here every day. Like the warm-faced Spanish women's gymnastics coach who consoled one of her girls after a fall, the expression on her face showing that she cared more about her athlete than she did about any gold medal, summoning up every mother who has ever hugged a sobbing child. Or the Panamanian hurdler I saw last night who came over at the end of the heat to comfort a Japanese runner who had fallen. The Japanese guy was leading when he fell, and he dropped his face to the track in despair before getting up to finish the race. The Panamanian didn't qualify either, but he took the time to walk over and put his arm around a man he probably didn't know. I don't know if anyone in the stands even noticed the gesture as other events took place and the winners rushed off to give interviews, but as the tall black man stood there with his arm around the short yellow man, I saw the Olympic flame.

Now I'm off to Bondi Beach for the women's beach volleyball final, Australia vs. Brazil. The rain that's threatening to fall won't dampen the crowd -- it's going to be the Brazilian samba squad against the manic local oi-oi-oi-ers in a battle of fans. Then tonight, two of the most eagerly awaited events of the entire Games take place: Cathy Freeman in the women's 400 meters and mighty Michael Johnson in the men's 400. Bring them on!

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------