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Restoration of Respect for American Hammer Throwing in the Olympics

Restoration of Respect for American Hammer Throwing in the Olympics
by Bill Green, December 20, 1999

This series of photographs was taken at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, produced by the photography company licensed by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Although not a medal winning performance, a fifth place finish at 248′ was the best olympic placing by an American since Harold Connolly 28 years earlier and represented the culmination of a five and a half year effort by Art Venegas and myself to bring U.S. hammer throwing back to a respectable level of performance in the Olympic Games. I came closer to my PR than any other finalist with my second best career effort to date – one meter from my then-American Record of 251′.

This was, unfortunately, not one of the best throws in the series that day. For purposes of analysis, these four pictures are representative of the state of American hammer throwing technically at the time, as they illustrate a struggle between the classic “dragging” hammer approach employed until 1982, and the Soviet-inspired form that was just beginning to be understood. Frame one shows clear evidence of what is obviously obsolete hammer position and a poor start, while the other pictures are examples of what was, at the time, good right side movement and an early double support.

This unfortunately is a technically embarrassing photo and is not a good representation of my typical ball position at the beginning of a throw. A quite obviously bent right arm and ball position about 10-15 degrees further back than what would be optimal indicate I did not get the hammer out in the toe turn enough. In viewing this photograph, one must bear in mind that in the early 1980s Americans were in the first stages of transitioning to modern hammer technique. Having spent the initial stage of my throwing career learning to throw before the Soviet technical breakthrough was completely understood in the U.S., I often struggled with a tendency to drag the hammer and this was especially evident on poor throws such as this one. Other photos would show that I typically managed considerably better ball positions. After a poor start, I began to recover technically somewhat as this second photo of turn #3 shows a strong, upright countering position and solid right foot contact with the ground. The right knee position suggests that, unlike other Americans at that time, I was learning to drive the throw dramatically with the right side of the body. Given the technical expertise of U.S. throwers in 1984, a right leg holding contact and driving through 90 degrees was very unique. While my ball position is still too far back here, reminiscent of prior American technique, my right side drive was the best among the Americans at the time. Although I was often criticized for bending at the waist on entry and through the toe turn in an attempt to get the ball out and long, the countering position in this photo proves that I quickly converted to a strong upright posture in the heel turns.
A very good shot of the moment immediately before entry into final double support and before release, which shows that I am working hard on early double support and an active right side. The tight right arm seen earlier in the throw has lengthened somewhat by this point and the ball position is slightly better, suggesting that a driving right side managed to move the ball around as the throw progressed. It should be noted that this is not a good example of my typical foot contact near the end of a throw, as here I am not as solidly in touch with the ground as was typical of my throwing on better efforts. This is the result of a hammer position which is too far behind the body, compromising ground contact. Ideal would have been more ball of the left foot contact, and less edge. On a positive note, the right knee position is still quite good relative to hammer – well ahead of the implement and reaching hard for an early double support. A classic release shot. It should be noted here that this release is also more typical of what would be considered obsolete technique today, as modern throwers are so focused on speed through the entire throw that they tend to continue the right side drive around and through the release. The net effect today is a continuous rotational movement through the release, which emphasizes speed longer. The top throwers today have gotten away from a posting release position such as this, which is more reminiscent of older technique wherein the implement is behind the body like the other throwing events.

“Bill, you have the talent to bring respect back to the hammer in the U.S., you’re a far better athlete than any of these guys”

A comment like that coming from Art Venegas today would inspire any 19 year old to drop everything, start training and begin dreaming of olympic glory, but given my initial experience with the hammer throw in 1979 it didn’t excite me much at first. Recruited to Southern California with visions of success as a discus thrower, I was less than impressed by my first hammer competition – an all-comers meet at Long Beach State where, as a rookie athlete forced to try the event by a coach intent on having all his pupils try hammer throwing, I enjoyed the privilege of competing against a seventy year old man, a dwarf, and a guy everyone referred to as “the Spider” who clearly hadn’t bathed or changed his clothes in weeks. My first hammer meet seemed more a circus event than an athletic competition, and left me less than inspired to say the least.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the state of affairs for American hammer throwers was, in a word, abysmal. U.S. record progression had stagnated at 235’11” for over ten years, no American had advanced past the qualifying rounds of the Olympics since 1968, hammer throwers were second-class citizens on the National Team and the event was quite literally unknown to the general sports public. By 1980 the finals of the NCAA resembled a meeting of the United Nations, with seemingly as many accents and foreign languages being spoken around the ring as there are Western European countries. Most of the American athletes participating at both the college and national levels were those who couldn’t cut it in either the shot put or the discus, and virtually every competition was held at a separate field in front of nobody other than girlfriends, coaches and other athletes. Very often, invitational meets didn’t even include the event, and colleges sometimes didn’t even field an athlete at dual meets. To be sure, the prospects of being a hammer thrower were hardly enticing to a brash, young Californian who was as interested in chasing women, recreational sports and going to the beach to improve his suntan as he was in track and field. Growing up in the Bay Area hotbed of the U.S. throwing community in the 1970s, my image of a thrower was gleaned from watching many of history’s top shot and discus athletes, individuals such as John Powell, Mac Wilkins, Al Fuerbach, and Brian Oldfield who all could be seen training in my neighborhood any day of the week. I was focused on the record-breaking excitement of those events in the 1970’s and the colorful and inspiring elements of the personalities involved, had never seen a hammer competition, and barely knew what it was.

But sometimes impetuous teenagers make fortuitous decisions, and mine as a high school senior to allow a fast-talking, determined, intense, and charismatic but unknown young coach talk me out of a UC Berkeley discus scholarship to attend an unknown school proved to be a life-changing event. While Art Venegas is a major figure in the coaching community now, when I first met him he was merely a recent college graduate just starting his career at a Division II school. Young athletes today may consider themselves lucky to be invited to attend UCLA to work with the most prodigious college coach in the country over the last fifteen years, but it took an act of faith and extremely good salesmanship for me to decide to join his program twenty years ago. This faith and the bond created by it, in addition to my being the first of many subsequent athletes to succeed in a big way under his mentorship, has resulted in a unique life-long friendship and mutual respect that today transcends the sport of track and field.

One thing about Art’s program that was true then, as it is still, is that you have to earn your rights and privileges the hard way, and as a rookie I soon learned that I was going to throw the hammer whether it was glamorous or not. Seriously taking up the event for the first time at my coach’s insistence as a freshman in February of 1979, I proceeded to quickly and unexpectedly get caught up in a whirlwind of junior success that culminated in a National Junior title and berth on the Junior National team only five months later. Utterly a novice, my excitement at being asked to represent my country quickly changed to embarrassment as I realized I was to compete against the best junior athlete in the world, future Olympic medalist Igor Nikulin from the Soviet Union. Watching lightning fast Russian technique for the first time and seeing the remarkable distances produced be mere teenagers quickly dispatched my concern over glamour, to be replaced by a much bigger problem: as an American I was automatically assumed to have no hope of ever making it to the elite ranks of international competition. A humiliating defeat by over seventy feet at the hands of Nikulin on that tour seemed to confirm that I was just another in a long line of unremarkable American hammer talent.

“Trust me, we can do what those Soviets are doing – after watching Nikulin my eyes are now wide open about how they get those big distances”

After that summer experience with the Junior National team, for me a combination of eye-popping awe and abject humiliation, Art was convinced that he had seen a technical revelation that he could teach. This, fueled by a healthy dose of idealism, lead the two of us to audaciously decide to chase the seemingly impossible: we were going to break the American hammer thrower stereotype and compete with the best in the world. With an abundance of attitude, youthful exuberance and raw talent on our side, we still faced one impossible obstacle: we had to discover just how this new technique translated into such awesome speed. The Russians turned so fast it looked like another event altogether and how they did it was nothing short of the best kept secret in track and field. In the minds of virtually everyone, two young Americans thinking they might figure out this mystery and work their way into the league of the great Eastern and Western European hammer athletes was delusional at best. In a virtual David and Goliath scenario, our top athletes looked more like super heavyweight power-lifters than throwers (indeed a couple of them were considerably more successful at this sport than track and field.), and were being easily defeated by small, lean and weak-looking Russians – it just didn’t add up. The Soviets had an impenetrable iron grip on the event, with Western Europeans making up the slots behind them, and the U.S. would be lucky to have one guy hit the “B” standard for a symbolic “three cursory throws, then out” invitation to major international competitions. And just when the 10 meter differential that had developed between the U.S. and the top Europeans was looking insurmountable, Sergei Litvinov shocked the world hammer community with 270′ fouls at the 1979 World Cup in Montreal at a time when the World Record was still only 260′. Clearly, Art and I had made our auspicious decision at a time that probably represented the lowest ebb in the entire history of hammer throwing in the U.S.

1980 was my first full year with the hammer, and I found myself in an interesting position having in only five months the prior season gone from a reluctant, disinterested beginner to wearing the U.S.A. on my back and seeing firsthand the future of the event. In watching Igor Nikulin throw and attempting to compete against him, we had witnessed the leading edge of the event in its most contemporary form, and believed we could catch up and join in. Unlike other Americans, to us the image of blistering turns and incredibly long double support phases was not simply an image on 16 mm film, it was vividly real.

Art and I crafted not only a training game plan, but also a persona. The event needed an infusion of new, fresh talent and a technical change, but it also was badly in need of an image makeover as well. As a coach, he has always believed in having his best athletes and top recruits try the hammer because this is the only way to break out of dependence on castoffs from other throwing events and sports. Not only did the U.S. need a more talented pool to draw upon, but it needed more colorful personalities and some controversy to bring attention to the event. I decided that in addition to throwing far, I was going to let everybody know we meant to be taken very seriously, and I made it my purpose to communicate that my goal was to break up the foreign monopoly at the NCAA meet – and to do it with flair. The much-needed makeover was going to come in the form of an athlete that clearly appeared as capable of competing successfully in other sports or events as well as this one, but had proudly chosen the hammer. This strategy, while on the one hand alienating me from rivals turned off by the arrogance, played well with a media that was uninitiated to the hammer throw and needed a byline in order to take interest.

“These guys are not your friends Bill, they want to bury you and think that you have just been lucky so far”

All that posturing needed to be backed up with performance if we were to avoid looking foolish, but we pulled it off. Finishing as the top American at the NCAA each year and defeating all but the top few foreign athletes, we further confirmed arrival on the national scene by breaking the eleven year old American Collegiate Record. Art and I knew inexperience was the only thing keeping me from winning the NCAA, and that the true test would come the next year at the Olympic Games.

The 1984 season saw a breakthrough for Americans, with Jud Logan and myself, both only in our early twenties and new to the event, beginning to throw distances that were virtually unheard of in the U.S. and which were on the verge of world class. The announcement of a communist boycott only fanned the flames, as it became clear that 80m was going to be an excellent throw outside the Soviet Union and anyone who could get well into the 250’s might be right in the thick of things. Although the Olympic Trials became a four horse race for three team slots and is always a pressure-filled battle of nerves, I went into the meet as the favorite and very confident of knocking off at least one of the three other contenders – Dave McKenzie, Ed Burke, and Jud Logan. I had a secret weapon on my side, as by that time Art and I had mastered the psychological skill of throwing well under pressure because not doing so had been yet another of the embarrassing stereotypical characteristics of American hammer athletes. Dating back even to Connolly’s outstanding gold medal performance in 1956, U.S. hammer throwers had seemed to mysteriously lose about six meters of their potential in any international competition, and breaking this mindset was one of our top priorities. I never much doubted making the Olympic team, and stayed primarily focused on the Games themselves. The final weeks before the Olympics suggested that competition would be intense even without the Soviets, as the two top West Germans, (Karl-Hans Riehm and Klaus Ploghous,) had each thrown 80 meters multiple times in meets overseas, and Finland’s Juha Tianen had managed to defeat Sergei Litvinov of the Soviet Union, then the second best hammer thrower in the world, with a 265′ throw in Moscow.

While most of the foreign athletes were putting their final Olympic preparation together in their respective countries, some of them were already in the U.S. three weeks in advance of the games and met in mid-July at Mt. Sac for what proved to be a rehearsal for the big event. It was also a momentous day for Art and I – the culmination of five and a half years of seeking to restore respect for hammer throwing in an international forum. In a masterful stroke of brilliant psychological coaching, Art coaxed from me a precedent-setting performance by calling upon the very essence of our journey together to that point. In a meet that saw national records from Japan’s Shegenobou Murofushi: Ireland’s Declan Hegarty and myself, as well a throw by Giam Paulo Urlando within two meters of his own Italian record, I still found myself trailing these athletes going into the last round of what was an important tune-up competition for all of us, and an indication of preparedness for the Olympics.

Cutting right through any celebratory satisfaction at my reaching a 247’7″ national record in round five, Art made obligatory congratulations then hammered me psychologically by drawing upon what he knew would embarrass and infuriate the most – the stereotype of an American hammer thrower who simply can’t win it all. I will never forget the cold and thoroughly unimpressed expression on his face:

“Bill, congratulations on your AR, . . . you’re in fourth place.”

He then turned, walked away, and stood impassively waiting for what really mattered more to us than records – an American victory.

Despite my best effort, going into the last round I stood in the classic American hammer position – behind a tightly packed grouping of Urlando at 250’11”, Hegarty at 250’0″ and Murofushi at 249’9″. After an exciting meet filled with record performances, it appeared that, once again, the competition would come to a close with the top American relegated to his rightful second-tier location in the results. As Art stood on the sidelines with arms folded in disgust I pondered the irony – we had represented ourselves as fully capable of winning against foreigners, and I had gone so far as to break the U.S. record and still couldn’t manage to pull it off. What did this say about the state of U.S. hammer throwing? At this moment, the longest American throw in history served to underscore the problem as vividly as anything else could: our very best effort was glaringly still second best. Everything was on the line – it was going to either be a victory or a permanent affirmation of the stereotype, and I entered the ring for my last throw on that day with much at stake.

The stereotype was finally broken. I threw 250’11”, tieing Urlando to the inch, and a metal tape measurement of a second American Record confirmed the victory at 251′. After years of waiting, the U.S. hammer community finally saw one of its own not only defeat top foreign athletes, but beat them on their best day and at a vital time in the international competitive arena. But, the real test. . .to do it in the Olympics.

Others that have not been there are awed by it or think they can imagine it, but until one walks into the olympic stadium it is impossible to truly fathom the pressure of the Olympic Games. The realization that everything you worked for over years is now on the line creates anxiety that cannot be anticipated, no matter how good you are or how steady your nerves. Athletes you have competed against for years, savvy veterans in their discipline, arrive with a look in their eyes of a person wholly different that the one you may have competed against for years. Mental suicide is being committed all around you. I remember encountering three basic categories of athletes in the hours before the competition: some who were plainly terrified and already out of it psychologically, those who were extremely nervous but putting a stoic veneer over their fear by trying desperately to convince themselves and everybody else they were ready, and a small minority that were truly cool and prepared. I came into the qualifying round in the third category, but quickly found myself panicked and in a desperate struggle to survive circumstances that were beyond my control. A surreal soap opera was played out in the qualifying rounds of the hammer that nearly cost me everything, a test that ended up being considerably more difficult than the final competition itself.

In arriving at the warm up field and observing the three categories of competitors, it quickly became obvious which category the Irishman Declan Hegarty was in when he released an errant warm-up throw that ricocheted off a light tower and nearly took out two Italians. On the silent bus ride to the stadium, he suddenly realized he had forgotten to put his number on his uniform and, after hurriedly affixing it before he ran out of time, proceeded to put the jersey on backwards. Declan was clearly beside himself with nervousness, and as the athlete immediately behind him in the throwing order I began to wonder if this might somehow affect me.

The automatic qualifying distance in 1984 was 73 meters, which was a throw I knew could be exceeded comfortably without pressing. Indeed both of my on-field warm-ups sailed easily over the line. But what should have been an easy qualifying day turned into a nightmare when Hegarty landed his first throw high up in the cage and caused the officials to stop the competition, move the athletes off the field and delay the whole procedure for twenty minutes – right before my name was called. My whole competitive rhythm was thrown off. His second throw was an identical repeat performance, as was mine, and going into the final qualifying round I was in the untenable position of praying that Hegarty would manage a fair one and I would not have to wait out another delay in taking down and re-erecting the cage. I have never been happier than to see his final throw land safely, but my relief was short lived as I now had to sweat out three more rounds to see if my mediocre stop-and-go performance would survive to the final. When it was over I emerged lucky, but embarrassingly right back in the old role of a substandard American hammer thrower – I qualified dead last, 12th out of 12. It looked as though an American might have luckily squeaked into the final for three cursory throws.

Going into the final the next day, the trick was to not let this first olympic ordeal cause any self-doubt. At all costs, I had to work myself mentally back into that third cool and prepared category despite seeing how quickly the olympic pressure cooker could mess up one’s gameplan. I was precariously teetering on the verge of merely replaying the stereotype once again.

The final was another day altogether, but until the last few rounds was still an anxiety-driven, tense stand-off. Even with seasoned veterans like Karl Hans Riehm, a former World Record Holder, and Juha Tianen, who in recent weeks was as hot as any other thrower in the world, the competition was getting started in an uninspired fashion. By the third round no one had even exceeded 250′, and I saw my opportunity and struck with a 245′ effort that, for awhile, put me into the bronze medal position. To this day, I believe that the humiliation of seeing an American pass them by shocked the top athletes into gear, as the competition came alive in round four and despite subsequently throwing a meter further, I finished sixth behind Tianen (Finland), Riehm (Germany), Ploghous (Germany), Urlando (Italy), and Bianchini (Italy). Urlando was later disqualified for doping, moving all but the medalists up one in the official record.

Obviously, this story would have a more inspiring ending if the U.S. had emerged with a gold medal in Los Angeles. But, given how much ground we had to make up since Harold Connolly in 1956 and the odds against us, a fifth place finish was as much success as could reasonably been expected – and was enough. Sometimes, in paving the way for those who come later one has to settle for coming slightly short of the ultimate objective, finding satisfaction in only reaching the realistic goal. Going from zero to being an Olympic finalist in five and a half years is a proud accomplishment, but in recalling my olympic experience now 15 years after the fact, and probably for the rest of my life, it is the memory of making good on the original goal to restore some respect for American hammer throwers that I take the most pride in.