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The Olympics

The event has been included in the Olympic games since 1900. In the last half of the 20th century performances all over the world improved remarkably with distances climbing from 196’5.5″ in 1950 to over 280′ in the late 1980s.

Early American Success

Three-time Olympic Gold Medalist John Flanagan (USA)

Once the hammer was added to the Olympics, American throwers dominated the event by winning the first six Olympic gold medals and sweeping the podium in both 1900 and 1904. The top American at the turn of the century was John Flanagan. Born in 1873 in Ireland, the diminutive Flanagan quickly showed promise in many events, including the long jump. At age 23, he broke the world record in his premiere event: the hammer throw. Soon after he emigrated to America Flanagan went on to break the world record 15 more times between 1896 and 1909. In addition, he won gold medals in 1900, 1904, and 1908 while representing his new country.

Flanagan’s final record on July 24th, 1909, measured 56.18m (184’4″), more than 11m (37′) better than his first world record. After returning to Ireland in 1910, Flanagan went on to become a successful coach and led Pat O’Callaghan to gold medals 1928 and 1932. O’Callaghan was the first non-American to win a gold medal.

Americans won every Olympic gold medal from 1900 until O’Callaghan’s win in 1928. Pat Ryan, the 1920, left a lasting impression on the event. His world record of 57.55m (188’9″) set in 1913 lasted more than 25 years until broken by Erwin Blask of Germany in 1928. Ryan still holds the record for holding the world record for the longest period of time.

After 1924, Americans began to disappear from the international hammer scene. While they picked up bronze medals in 1928 and 1932, Americans have won only two medals since. In 1956, four-time Olympian and six time world record holder Harold Connolly won a gold medal. The only other medal won in the past 75 years was in 1996 by Lance Deal, also a four-time Olympian. Deal holds the current American record at 82.52m (270’9″).

Advances in Rules and Technique

The early hammer throw was merely a steel ball attached to a long wooden handle. The implement changed during the course of Flanagan’s career with the introduction of the modern hammer with a single grip and manufactured steel ball. Additional rule changes also shaped the event adding throwing cages, modern smooth-soled hammer throwing shoes, and concrete throwing circles. (Prior to the 1950s, throwers would use spiked shoes on dirt circles.) Over the years, the sector marking the field area of valid throws in the hammer throw has shrunk from 90 degrees to the 60 degrees of the 1960s to the present size of 34.92 degrees.

With these changes came changes in technique. Pat O’Callahan and American Don Quinn were early pioneers of a new “heel-toe” turning technique introduced around 1927. The prior technique, which emerged in 1895, involved using three jumping rotations on the ball of the left foot. The Soviet Union then changed the event again by using the scientific application of the laws of mechanics to the event.

Soviet Dominance and Modern History

Starting in the 1950s, the Soviet Union emerged as a dominant force in the hammer throw. Mikhail Krivonosov set many world records leading up to the 1956 games before settling for silver behind Harold Connolly. The Soviet Union would then win seven of the next nine gold medals. If they had not boycotted the 1984 Olympics, they likely would have won an eight. In addition, they swept the podium in 1976, 1980, 1988, and 1992 (competing as the Unified Team).

1972 Olympic champion Anatoliy Bondarchuk coaching current world record holder Yuriy Sedykh

Much of the dominance was due to 1972 Olympic Gold Medalist Anatoliy Bondarchuk. The Soviets began studying the hammer throw decades before Bondarchuk and he continued in this tradition by earning a doctorate in pedagogical sciences. Using his background, he developed a more efficient technique that took the event to a new level. As Soviet national coach from 1976 until 1992, Bondarchuk guided many world record holders, including the current world record holder Yuriy Sedykh. Sedykh’s record throw of 86.76m (284’7″) in 1986 was more than 12m better than Bondarchuk’s first world record in 1969 and still stands to this day as the world’s best mark.

Post-Soviet states have continued to have success after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but have not dominated the way they used to. Instead, the playing field has leveled with athletes from Hungary, Poland, Japan, and Slovenia winning the most recent gold medals. But the remnants of the Soviet union are still strong in the record book. Seven of history’s 8 best male throwers are from the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet states.

Women’s Hammer Throw

While the men have been throwing the hammer for centuries, women have a relatively short history in the event. Several women began to throw the hammer in the 1980s, and beginning in 1995 the IAAF officially ratified world records. Women’s hammer throw was added to the World Championships in 1999, where Mihaela Melinte of Romania took the gold. The women’s hammer throw made its Olympic debut in 2000 and was won by young 17-year-old Kamila Skolimowska of Poland. Despite the event’s short history, several stars have emerged in the sport. Mihaela Melinte and Olga Kuzenkova were the early pioneers of the sport. Between them they set the first 14 world records (Kuzenkova 6, Melinte 8). Kuzenkova was also a world champion and 2004 Olympic champion.

Most recently, Poland’s Anita Włodarczyk has emerged as a star. She set her first world record en route to the 2009 World Championship and bettered it again in 2010. Her current best of 78.30m (256’10”) leads many to believe she can be the first woman to surpass 80m.