Spear Wars Think Olympic contests are heated? Check out the struggle between javelin makers and the bureaucrats who thwart them.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – At three o'clock on a July afternoon in 1984, an Iron Curtain track star named Uwe Hohn thrilled an East Berlin crowd by throwing a javelin an astonishing 104.8 meters, or 343 feet. In a sport where the margin of victory is often measured by a few blades of grass, the 6-foot-8 East German had hurled the two-pound aluminum spear 15 feet farther than any javelin had ever been thrown.
Less than two years later, at midnight on April 1, 1986, Hohn lost his world record to a clerk in Monaco. Or rather, to a committee of clerks. Track's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), abruptly revised the rules of a sport little changed since Homer sang of it in the Iliad. It declared the traditional javelin design Hohn had used in his historic throw to be, now and forever, out of bounds.
The IAAF had reasons for the change, but that didn't ease the shock for people who loved the sport. The move had unintended consequences too, triggering the track-and-field equivalent of an all-out arms race. Even today javelin innovators and the rulemakers remain locked in an epic struggle over what constitutes a legal spear.
The new rule was simple: The IAAF decreed that javelins had to move their center of gravity forward by four centimeters, making them more front-heavy than they had ever been. Forced to switch spears, the world's top throwers felt suddenly, well, unmanned. "The new javelin has castrated the event," declared 1972 Olympic champion and 1973 world record holder Klaus Wolfermann in an interview in Track & Field. Even the best could throw the new spear only about 280 feet--64 feet less than what was now called the "old rule" world record.
Almost two decades have passed, and still nobody's satisfied. Not only do the new javelins fly less far, but also they feel bad. Confirms two-time U.S. Olympian Duncan Atwood, who set a new-rule personal best in 1989 that was 37 feet shorter than his old-rule personal best: "When you threw the old javelin right--oh, boy, did it give you a nice flight. Now it's like throwing a shovel." The guys who supply javelins are unhappy too. "The problem is, you have a governing body that never asks the people who sell the stuff what they think," says Rich Benoy, sales director at Springco Athletics in Los Angeles.
So why did the IAAF change the rules? Why would anybody want to alter a sport so aesthetically pleasing that it is a hallmark Olympic event and a staple of ancient vase art? Mostly, it has to do with judging: A front-heavy javelin is guaranteed to come in nose first, which is a criterion for a valid throw, and to stick into the turf with a reassuring thunk. Voila--a legal throw whose distance nobody disputes. But if a javelin floats horizontally through the air (top throwers were adept at making the old-style spear do just that), it lands almost flat and often skips. Exactly where it lands and whether the nose touched down first are tough to determine, unless you're willing to get messy. And not wanting to get messy is what the rule change was really about, says U.S. Olympic javelin coach Jeff Gorski: "The new rules were made so that middle-aged judges didn't have to dive into the dirt to see exactly where a throw landed. The old guys didn't like getting their blazers dirty." The IAAF, generally known for aloofness, didn't return FORTUNE's calls for comment.
Forcing designers to come up with new spears created a thicket of ambiguities. Nobody can say for sure what the world record is anymore. The Czech phenom Jan Zelezny holds the current IAAF-certified mark, 98.42 meters, but that could change. Why? Because every time a manufacturer creates an innovative javelin that flies within the rules, the IAAF seems to shoot it down.
The first man to try to make spears fly against the regulatory headwind is the most famous javelin creator of all time, a now retired Arizonan named Dick Held. One of his inspirations, introduced in the mid-1980s, was a javelin the athletes affectionately called the Whiffle for the many holes Held had drilled, in a spiral pattern, along its tail. The idea was to increase tail drag, thereby delaying the moment when the javelin would nose down. It worked. "That was cool," says Charlie DiMarco, who has coached two Olympic javelin throwers, "although when you threw it, it whistled."
In response to the perforated Whiffle, the IAAF pursed its lips and added a phrase to the rule book insisting that javelins have "no holes." Any record made with Held's spear was declared void.
In 1987, a Hungarian ex--world champion named Miklos Nemeth came up with another way to create tail drag, by applying sand-embedded paint. A competing supplier, Nordic Sandvik, put dimples in its javelins' tail sections. Both approaches worked: Distance records were set with "rough tail" javelins in 1990 and 1991. But "at the end of 1991," says Gorski, "the IAAF said all those records were defunct." In fact, the group's latest rule states that "the surface of the shaft shall have no dimples or pimples, grooves or ridges, holes or roughness."
Despite the rulemakers' fickleness, athletes are getting better at throwing front-heavy spears. The new-rule record has been steadily climbing by about a foot a year and today stands about 20 feet short of Hohn's old-rule record. Many athletes in this year's Olympics are throwing the latest projectile in the javelin wars: spears made of carbon fiber, which some say are superior to aluminum javelins because they are less prone to vibrate in flight.
And yet, in the world of the modern javelin, nothing is simple. Coaches and some athletes blame carbon-fiber spears for a recent wave of elbow and shoulder injuries; athletes say they must reinvent their throwing techniques to allow for the javelins' greater rigidity. If they succeed, a carbon-fiber spear may finally enable a new-rule thrower to break the old-rule record. Assuming, of course, that the new technology flies with the IAAF.
PAUL HOCHMAN is the sports-equipment correspondent for NBC's Today Show.