The first two names that come to mind when you think about Soviet hammer throwing are Yuriy Sedykh, and Sergey Litvinov. Often overlooked on the podium is Jüri Tamm. Tamm, who also briefly held the world record, won the bronze medal at both the 1980 and 1988 Olympics and the silver at the 1987 World Championships. His personal best of 84.40 meters ranked third all-time during most of his career and still ranks in the top eight and is the Estonian national record nearly 30 years later. In summary, there is no reason he should be overlooked. If he threw in any other era he would have more gold medals and accolades than anyone in history.
Unlike Bondarchuk and Sedykh, who remain active as coaches, Tamm has drifted away from hammer throwing. Since retirement he has found success in business, politics, and sports administration. He served in the Estonian parliment for 12 years and also previously served as the vice president of the Estonian Olympic Committee. This year he began a new role as the chief of staff for world pole vault record holder Sergey Bubka. Bubka is the president of the Ukranian Olympic Committee, a vice president of the IAAF, and a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board. Tamm travelled with Bubka to a recent IOC meeting in Lausanne, where I had the chance to meet the legend in person and get him talking about the glory days for a few hours. The first part of the edited interview is below. Visit later in the week to read the rest.
Part 1: The Decline of Soviet Dominance
Martin: To start with I wanted to ask about the current state of hammer throwing among the former Soviet nations. While hammer throwing is still strong there, it is definitely not at the level it was in your day. In 1980, 50 of the best 100 throwers were from the Soviet Union. In 2010, only 22 of the top 100 were from former Soviet countries. What do you think has caused the dominance to fade?
Jüri: There are several factors. First, I think it was one of the most important and privileged events. That means that in every city there was a coach and in every city there was a hammer circle and field. In the universities there were classes for coaches in hammer throwing and very many master classes. It was like a pyramid. And in this pyramid, everybody was looked after and this was important. I remember one year with more than 100 throwers was over 70 meters, so it was like a way to live. It was your profession. Also, because of the high level of competition, you were proud to be a member of the national team. You need not just throw the hammer, but to throw far. Of course it just increased the level of throwing, you know.
Second, I think is very important is that there was very many competitions for all levels. Lausanne Athletissima and Wetlklasse Zurich even had the hammer throw then. Thirdly I think it is the sports facilities. From the ‘60s to the ‘80s we threw on the football fields. Now we are separated.
Martin: You mentioned each city had a coach. Are there fewer coaches now?
Jüri: Of course, if you have less competition, there is less money in the sport. It is a liberal society and people make decisions based on money. If you don’t have competitions, you don’t have bonus money. If you don’t have bonus money you cannot pay for your coach.
And if the state or the sport club don’t compensate in some way, it means you are alone in the stadium. If you are going alone to the stadium and it is sad and boring, but if there are other hammer throwers you can talk, you can rest. If there are other hammer throwers in the vicinity, you must wait while somebody throws and then you can exchange information. This means we lose a lot of information about hammer throwing. Now we are talking through Facebook, but it is not the same. All together the technique suffers and motivation suffers.
It means that hammer throwers are starting to be second-class sportsman. You can’t compete in a main stadium. Sometimes you are competing also in another city. My recommendation to Mr. Bubka was to start to do hammer throwing with winter events like cross country to give it exposure because there you have lot of fields and people already there. Maybe some will make a connection to the event by watching it. The hammer throw needs to be integrated into track and field events. They take it outside of the stadium because for reasons like the new grass heating systems, but this is just an excuse. While you can throw the hammer anywhere, even on a frozen lake, at a certain point it is not the same. When you pull the hammer out of the grass, it is something mysterious. Then you stomp the ground back in and this is our ceremony. This is lost.
Martin: If kids watch me when I am throwing their favorite part is watching the hammer sink into the ground. If it were to just bounce across the field it isn’t that different than a tennis ball.
Jüri: In hammer throwing you enter the ring, throw, and watch the hammer fly. In your head is the dream of how far it is. Going out to the hole confirms if you threw exactly as you thought you threw. Filling the hole is also a question of etiquette. And if we loose such kinds of things in hammer throwing, we start to loose the ideology of the event. For example, if you go to play golf at a mall and you hit the ball into an electronic screen you loose the environment of golf. It is no longer true golf. Environment is a big part of throwing like it is with golf. Everything has a procedure. You take out the bed to go to sleep. To eat, you sit down all around the table, grab your knife and spoon, you have food on the table. In the hammer throw this procedure gives you time to reflect on technique and is part of the event itself. It is a procedure and is it gives you time to think about many important things.
Martin: Do you see any other factors affecting things?
Jüri: Many people ask my about why you people are throwing less. But the question is very simple to answer: nobody throws the same anymore. Show me someone who throws like Sedykh. There are many perfect coaches; even Bondarchuk is still coaching. But the life is different; money is difficult and thus the season is longer. If you have too many small competitions and not enough time to recuperate or rest up, it is really hard to develop technique because you loose three or four months in a year to the competitions. You are just working for the money to survive in the winter time, you don’t do your training better, you don’t develop your body, your just competing and traveling and recuperating. So, that is three or four months in your life. The best time of the season to train is the summer. In winter the weather conditions are very bad. It is also a question of quality if you are always training in the snow. The muscles are not the same. The feeling is different because you have a hat, heavy clothes and heavy shoes. And then there is the question of age. You must rest two times more than when you are young and you must train two times more that when you are young and that is what you have to do. When you are young you have two big conditions in a year. When you are old you have once a year or once in two years. Then you can no longer make money now.
It is a vicious circle spiraling down. I think that hammer throwing can survive, because we are very lucky to have the women’s hammer throw.
Martin: The women are very exciting now. Every competition is at a high level and there is a chance for a world record.
Jüri: And they are technically much better because with the 4-kilogram hammer you don’t need to be as strong and they can throw the nice way. They also have motivation for hammer throwing.
There are also many other ideas. One idea is to have competitions with 5-kilogram, 7-kilogram and 9-kilogram hammers, two throws each. It means more chance for more athletes. It means someone who is strong can win the 9-kilogram or you can throw even if you have a stadium that is short. You can also do a team competition with a boy guy for the 9-kilogram and faster man throwing the 5-kilogram. We just need to open a discussion on how to bring more athletes to the event, how to be more effective. Why not? If there is a 50 kg hammer throwing and the hammer throwing is spectacular, why not?
But at the same time the hammer must stay classic. If it is not 121.5-centimeters long, 7.26-kilograms heavy, then it is not classic hammer throwing. At the Olympic Games and championships we need to keep the classic hammer throw alive.