domingo, 20 de mayo de 2012

Echoes from a Magnificent Past

Yuriy Sedykh set the existing world hammer record back in 1986
        These are another times. Nowadays all the highlights in a track and field broadcasting are concentrated in the running events. In the last couple of years we have witnessed how East Africans have massively smashed the marathon standards, while Jamaican super star Usain Bolt continues with his impressive sprinting career. Now and then we have a glimpse of Isinbayeva’s or Vlasic’s performances but anyway jumpers and throwers are often forgotten in this highly marketable athletic world. Specially, the standouts of the hammer, who have not been included in the fashionable Diamond League, in the same way they were left out of the athletic Grand Prix before, feel particularly neglected, to the point they have manifested publicly their discomfort. (1) Relegated to compete hours before the official opening of the meetings or during the previous day, hammer throwers do not enjoy TV coverage and perform before a dozen of spectators or an empty stadium. Those circumstances prevent most of them from acquiring some public notoriety and having access to sponsors. If we ad the prizes for the winners in the parallel Hammer Throw Challenge are inferiors to the ones bestowed at the Diamond League, we can realise the athletes in the discipline who are able to make a living of their track and field earnings can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The rest must take a full or part time job, which hindrance their preparation for one of the most difficult events in track and field, which technical complexity rivals pole vault.
Those are some of the reasons why hammer throw is these days in plain decline. Old Koji Murofushi could still clinch gold in Daegu over contenders ten or fifteen years younger, while another illustrious veteran, Libor Charfreitag, triumphed at the 2010 European Champs, thanks to being the only one beyond 80m, just like Olympic champion Primoz Kozmus the precedent year in Berlin. Not long time ago, in Osaka 2007, there were still seven athletes over that barrier and five at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The two men who are more consistent in the 80m range, Krisztian Pars and Aleksey Zagorniy, lack stability when it matter most and this is also the case of upcoming stars who have to guarantee the succession in the specialty as Pavel Kryvitski.                 

Back in the 1970s and 1980s we knew an altogether different panorama, when the hammer throw event reached its peak and the two colossi of the specialty, Yuriy Sedykh and Sergey Livinov, offered us memorable duels. It was the time of the Cold War when the USSR and the USA were the two powerhouses in the world, contending in every matter from politics to culture and sport. The Soviet Union, despite the Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, eventually lost the Space Race when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in the summer of 1969. Nevertheless Soviets accomplished one of their most overwhelming triumphs over their archrivals with the highly successful development of the national school of hammer throwing, which swept the full Olympic podium in 1976, 1980, 1988 and 1992; and likely only boycott cut the streak in Los Angeles. Those sportive victories were a source for exultant patriotism and national pride inside the USSR.
Furthermore, Soviets were especially keen of mastering an event which had been ruled by Americans for a long time, particularly by the ones of Irish extraction, since the sport was for them an ancestral specialty, present in the Old Celtic Games, where competitors tossed rocks affixed to wood handles. (2) In the turn of the century, John Flanagan, a New York policeman, opened the streak with his three straight Olympic gold medals. In two of those occasions, in 1900 and 1904, The United States also won silver and bronze. Then Pat Ryan set a world record in 1913 which was going to last for 25 years. Then it came the Soviet era, announced by the universal bests of Mikhail Krivonosov in the mid-fifties, and the Olympic titles of Vasily Rudenkov in 1960 and Romuald Klim four years later.   

Sergey Litvinov, winner at the first World Championships and Olympic Games gold medallist in Seoul 1988
If nowadays’ hammer throwers lack support and sponsorship, it was not precisely the case in the time of Sedykh and Litvinov. The USSR invested its endeavours and huge amounts of money, looking for sportive success. To the remotest places in the country scouts were sent to spot talented youngsters, who were taught the rudiments of the discipline and then enrolled into the national system, under the promise of fantastic rewards as fancy cars, apartments in Moscow or travels to the West. (2) At the same time scientists were engaged in sport. Through this approach, the laws of mechanics were applied to the hammer throw, which technical execution became almost a mathematical equation. (3) Coaches were formed in those principles, among them the most prominent of all, Anatoly Bondarchuk.
Bondarchuk became the first man in throwing the implement beyond 75m back in 1969, and three years later crowned himself Olympic champion in Munich, when he was already in his thirties. However his biggest contribution to his country was in his role of national coach for the likes of Yuriy Sedykh, Sergey Litvinov and Juri Tamm. Still being an active athlete, Bondarchuk started in the mid-seventies in this task, introducing remarkable technical innovations, which brought the event to a new level. (4) In previous years newly manufactured implements, smooth-soled shoes and concrete circles had contributed to marks improvement. Now, with the addition of more efficient techniques, the 80m barrier seemed suddenly attainable and it was Boris Zaichuk the first athlete reaching the distance the 9th July 1978 in a meeting in Moscow.  “Average athletes in 1972 had no acceleration with the hammer,” states Bondarchuk in a recent interview. “Maybe this was because they had no special strength for hammer.  From 1970-1976, I believed the athlete (me specifically) needed to train maximal strength.  After this I recognized that the athlete only needed a base of strength.  Before I thought athletes would need a 300k full squat for 80-84 meters, now I know that they only need 200-250k quarter squat.  Before I thought athletes needed 150k+ snatch for 80-84 meters, now only need to snatch bodyweight for this throw.  Before I think maybe 3.50 standing long, now only need 3 -3.15 metres long.  This is because the specific throwing training has progressed over 30 years.  Now, I realize that the athlete does not need maximal strength but special dynamic strength.  Special strength is much more important and has a much higher rate of transfer into the specific throw.  In the 1960's, I had a friend that squatted 320k, cleaned 200k, had a fast 100m but only threw 17.20 in the shot put.  Later I realized that the maximal strength training does not have a high rate of transfer and my friend was one of many examples for this.” (5)  

             Anyway for Bondarchuk and the Soviet school there was not a universal method for training the hammer, a secret formula of success. Neither was a standardised way of technical performance in a competition. It depended on the characteristics of every athlete as proves the quite different approaches of Yuriy Sedykh and Sergey Litvinov, the foremost members of the golden age of Soviet hammer throwing.  
              Sedykh, born the 11th June 1955 in Novotcherkassk, Ukraine, did not enter sport until he was 12 years old. His first coach was Vladimir Volovik. Measuring 1,85m and weighting 109kg, he was neither the bigger nor the stronger of the hopeful hammer throwers in the country, but had instead a willingness and perseverance never seen before by Volovik. (6) He also owned a stunning coordination of movements: he understood his body and knew how to obtain the maximum efficiency of it. Enrolled by the Soviet Army, it was with his first coach that Sedykh developed his famous technique, arguably the best of its time, which was simply a practical development of the law of inertia: Yuriy just pushed the ball left and let the hammer turn him, to execute what he called “the dance.” Also, thanks to his speed inside the circle and technical perfection, he had enough with three rotations, instead of the usual four. In 1973, Sedykh joined in Kiev Olympic champion Anatoly Bondarchuk, now in charge of new duties. The future hammer throw guru, as he recognises, did not think, the first time he saw Yuriy, he owned the conditions to send one day the implement beyond 86 metres, but soon realised his new pupil was once-in-a-lifetime talent: “He took only six months to adjust to training, after which technical development can begin. Lots of athletes need three, four, even five years." (2) In only one year working with Bondarchuk, Sedykh had already beaten the world junior record and being only 21 he clinched the gold medal at Montreal Olympics, beating experienced compatriots Aleksey Spiridonov and coach Bondarchuk. In an event which requires years of practise to acquire a consistent technique and usually athletes do not fight the Olympic title until they are in their thirties, Sedykh, thanks to his capacities, won it still being nearly a newcomer.   
            Sergey Litvinov, born the 23rd January 1958 in Tsukurova Balka, Krasnodar Krai, only stood 1,78m. He was however the best prospect physically speaking of the Soviet school, back in the 1970s. While still many current  hammer throwers base their training in lifting weights in order to achieve maximal strength, USSR athletes soon realised the event do not require brute-force but explosive energy. Litvinov was quoted to alternate in training weightlifting and 400m runs to acquire his mighty explosiveness. Also in plain contrast with discus or shot put specialties, where upper-body strength is build up in the gym, hammer taxes core muscles which can only be developed with constant throwing. After thousands and thousands of tosses in training, Litvinov became as powerful athlete as Montreal Olympic champion Yuriy Sedykh. Yet, contrary to his archrival, Sergey performed the traditional four rotations and his technique consisted in uniformly accelerating the hammer.  

              It was precisely the intense rivalry of Sedykh and Litvinov for a whole decade which raised the hammer throw to stratospheric levels never reached again in the history of the event. Three years older than his long time contender, the former arrived first. After his victory in Montreal, Sedykh grabbed the first of three straight European titles in 1978; then smashed the world record in May 1980 in Leselidse in a hardly fought contest against Juri Tamm. Just one week afterwards, Litvinov made his breakthrough in the international scene, improving that record in more than one metre (81.66m). Nevertheless, when it mattered most, Sedykh dominated overwhelmingly the hammer final, defended his Olympic title and recovered the universal record in Moscow (81.80), over challengers Litvinov and Tamm. Almost perfect technically and able to perform to his best in every big occasion, Yuriy usually got the better of Sergey, who was not as good to hold the pressure and lacked consistency in major championships. The two times Olympic champion produced another easy victory at the 1982 Europeans. However, Litvinov stroke back, in a big upset at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki, just some months after breaking the 84-meter barrier. Both absent in Los Angeles Olympic Games, where Finn Juha Tiainen won the gold, throwing just over 78 metres, the marvellous duo delivered yet another sensational clash in Cork, Ireland, that year. In the historical hometown of hammer throwing, the lucky spectators had the pleasure to witness what was arguably the best competition ever in the discipline. No less than five times the world record was smashed that day by either Sedykh or Litvinov, until the former got to win the contest with a last throw of 86.34m. Two years later at the European Champs in Stuttgart came a last improvement by Yuriy, who set the still existing record (86.74), beating Litvinov (85.74) and Igor Nikulin (82.20) in the process. That evening the winner averaged 85.78m in his six throws in the final. Litvinov defended his world title in Rome, in a competition without Sedykh and also got the better of his lifelong rival at the Olympic Games in Seoul. Age seemed to be taking its toll in Yuriy but he still got some energy left to grab his first gold medal at a World Championships in Tokyo 1991, before passing the baton to Andrey Abduvaliyev.                

               After retirement, both Sedykh and Litvinov have continued in hammer throwing through coaching. After the collapse of the USSR, Yuriy went to live to France, where he took in charge the Racing Club de Paris athletes. On the other hand, Sergey has been training with sensational success Belarus throwers, including Ivan Tsikhan, Vadim Devyatovski and female Olympic champion in Beijing Aksana Miankova. Tsikhan, whose physical constitution and explosiveness can be easily related to his coach’s, came tantalisingly close to Sedykh's world record in 2005, missing it by just 1 centimetre. Interestingly Litvinov’s son is currently an accomplished hammer thrower and also is Sedykh’s teen daughter Alexia, who under French flag won the gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Finally, hammer guru Anatoly Bondarchuk shows no symptoms of tiredness, four decades after he began coaching. Nowadays his current residence is in British Columbia, Canada, and his teachings have been decisive in the exploits of shot put silver medallist in Daegu Dylan Armstrong, Sultana Frizell, who recently broke the national record and the 75m barrier, and the last American over 80 metres, Kibwe Johnson.                    

Yuriy Sedykh in company of her wife Natalya Lisovskaya and daughter Alexia