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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The javelin throw is an event in track and field athletics, where the object is to hurl the 2.5 meter (about 8 feet) spear-like implement as far as possible. It has been a popular field event at the Olympics due largely to the amazing distances achieved by the best throwers. The event first appeared in the modern Olympics in 1908 but its history goes back thousands of years.

Javelin or spear throwing made a natural progression from hunting and warfare to become a sport in the ancient Olympics. In two separate competitions, a light wooden pole of about 1.5 to 1.8 meters (5-6 feet) in length was thrown at targets and for distance. A thong gave throwers a better grip, assisting them to throw the javelin further and more accurately. In the pentathlon, athletes threw for distance and were allowed to take a number of steps as a run-up before throwing it, similar to the modern version. In the other javelin event, contestants threw at a target while riding a galloping horse.

Throwing the javelin became an event in the modern Olympics in 1906. These games were held in Athens to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first modern Olympics, and were regarded as an official Olympic Games at the time. However, they are not recognized by the International Olympic Committee, who only recognize the games held every four years after the 1896 Athens Games.

The javelin throw made its official entry into Olympic competition in the 1908 games in London. Javelin throwing was already a popular event and 42 athletes from 11 countries entered the contest held on 17 July. The winner was Eric Lemming of Sweden with a new world record throw of 54.83 meters (or 179 feet 11 inches). Throwers from Nordic countries filled the first seven positions, a pattern that would continue in subsequent Olympic Games. Curiously, there was a rule that the javelin had to be held in the middle. Two days earlier, the freestyle javelin throwing event had attracted 33 competitors from nine nations. It was also won by Lemming with a then world record of 54.44 meters, using the conventional grip.

At the second Olympic appearance of the javelin throw at Stockholm in 1912, Lemming defended his title against world record holder Juho Saaristo of Finland. His best mark was 60.64 meters, against Saaristo’s 58.66 meters, below his best of 61.45 meters. The only non-Nordic country competitor in the top 16 was Hungarian Mor Koczan who finished with a bronze medal.

These Olympics were the only time the two handed javelin throw event was held, along with similar competitions in other throwing events. Each contestant had three throws with his right hand and three with his left hand. The best throw with each hand was added to give the total. Saaristo won this event with throws of 61.00 meters and 48.42 meters, for a total of 109.42 meters, winning by more than eight meters.

There were no Olympic Games in 1916 due to World War I. In Antwerp in 1920, Finnish world record holder Jonni Myyra was the winner with a throw of 65.78 meters. He also won at the Paris Games in 1924 throwing 62.96 meters. It was Sweden’s turn once more to win the javelin event at Amsterdam in the 1928 Games, with Erik Lundqvist reaching 66.60 meters. A total of 28 throwers from 18 countries entered the event. The largest field remained the 42 who competed in 1908.

Women competed in the Olympic Games for the first time in 1928. The first Olympic javelin event for women was in 1932 in Los Angeles. American Babe Didrikson had set world records in the javelin, high jump, and 80 meters hurdles three weeks earlier in the Olympic trials. She won the javelin event with 43.68 meters. While Nordic athletes continued to dominate the men’s event, this wasn’t the case with the women’s competition, which was dominated by eastern Europeans.

At the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Egil Danielsen of Norway broke the world record with a throw of 85.71 meters, winning by nearly six meters or 20 feet, and beating the previous Olympic record by almost 12 meters or 40 feet. One of the highlights of the javelin throw at the Olympic Games came in 1972 at Munich when the Soviet Union’s Janis Lusis had to beat German Klaus Wolfermann’s throw of 90.47 meters (296 feet 10 inches) to win the event. Lusis had come from behind to win gold in 1968 at Mexico City and was attempting a repeat performance. His last throw reached 90.45 meters (296 feet 9 inches), which was one inch short of the winning mark.

This mark was increased to 91.20 meters by Dainis Kula of the Soviet Union at Moscow in 1980, although the world record by then had risen to 96.72 meters. By the mid 1980s, the record had risen to a staggering 104.80 meters or 343 feet 10 inches (not at the Olympics), almost the length of a typical stadium. The javelin itself had to be altered due to concerns for public safety. Its center of gravity was moved forward to make it dip sooner and not travel as far. The new javelin was used in the 1988 Olympics at Seoul. The women continued to use the old javelin, until the 2000 Olympics.

An instance of the event being won on the last throw occurred at Seoul in 1988. Tapio Korjus of Finland had to beat a throw of 84.12 meters (276 feet) by Czechoslovakia’s Jan Zelezny and he hurled it 84.28 meters (276 feet 6 inches) to take gold. Zelezny had his revenge and won the next three Olympic Games javelin events, the last one in 2000 at Sydney. He broke the Nordic countries’ stranglehold on the event. They resumed their supremacy in 2004 at Athens and 2008 at Beijing with Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway winning gold at both games. Competitors from the Nordic countries of Finland, Norway, and Sweden have won 30 of the 66 Olympic medals in the men’s javelin. Finland won all three medals in 1920 and 1932.

Ironically, the first gold medal in the javelin event by a woman from a Nordic country came in 1996 at Atlanta when Finland’s Heli Rantanen won with a throw of 67.94 meters. In 2000, Trine Hattestad of Norway threw 68.91 meters to win gold. Apart from these athletes, all other female winners have come from non-Nordic countries. The best performance in the women’s event was perhaps by former world record holder Petra Felke of East Germany who threw the old javelin 74.68 meters or 245 feet at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Her world record was 80 meters.