I normally try to keep my posts here positive about the hammer throw and the future of our sport. We have a great event that is loved by many and one of my biggest aims on this page is to keep writing about it so more people can discover it. My favorite thing to do is highlight successful meets so that meet directors and sponsors can reap the benefits of their investment in the hammer throw. But every once in a while I have to stop and draw people’s attention to some of the injustices in the world of hammer throwing. Let’s be clear, the hammer throw faces a chicken and egg problem: are we excluded from so many competitions because we aren’t as popular, or are we not popular because we have been excluded from competitions? Answering that question is futile since the real solution simply lies in looking forward and bringing more attention to our sport. We have to push for the hammer throw and let those in power know that we will not just roll over if we continue to be excluded. I mentioned a small concern of mine earlier this week and there has already been progress on that front. But the biggest injustice for the hammer throw is the Diamond League.
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I had mixed feelings when the U.S. Olympic Trials organizing committee officially announced its plan for “Hammer Time” last October. Moving the Olympic Trials hammer throw competition from Eugene up to the Portland area could very well highlight the event, but without the right support it also means that the hammer could further vanish into obscurity.
Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed first hand how taking an event out of the stadium can benefit both the event and the meet. Here in Zurich, the Weltklasse Zurich Diamond League meeting invests hundreds of thousands every year into hosting an elite shot put competition in the train station the day before the meet. The shot put competition not only publicizes the main event, but draws more attention to the throwers than they likely would have received in the main stadium.
Over the past few days I have had a few more thoughts on the Athletics Weekly article I posted earlier this week. One thing I edited out of the article was a section on why both of the events I featured happened to take place in the same country. Neither had any huge local star to showcase, and Sweden doesn’t even have a particularly strong throwing tradition when compared to nearby Finland and Germany. Everyone I interviewed attributed it to the Swedish way of thinking, whatever that is. No matter what the cause, I find it interesting that the event was such a success despite the fact that only a handful of the fans could likely name even one of the stars. This proves to me the throwing events can appeal to almost anyone if they are packaged the right way.
This is one situation where a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, so I’ve compiled a few videos to give you an idea of how the events looked. The Big Shot competition in Sweden was replicated here in Zurich in 2010 and 2011. I put together a video profile of the event this year that takes a behind the scenes look at it. For a video of the original version in Stockholm, click here.
Last week I published my second article on the throwing events in the UK publication Athletics Weekly. It focuses on the Karlstad Grand Prix event I featured last August and some of the innovative shot put formats I have mentioned before. Athletics Weekly is the best track and field print publication in the world and they have been a great supporter of the throwing events by publishing articles such as this one. Their magazine combines all the great analysis and insight you often see in Track and Field News with original coaching articles and in-depth profiles. In addition, it is much more timely since it arrives weekly. I subscribe to their great iPad app which lets me view each issue as soon as it comes out without waiting for international shipping. They have been kind enough to let me post the article here for non-subscribers, and a PDF version with the print layout is available after the text.
For hammer throwers, competing the day before the main event and outside the stadium is the norm. But when Swedish champion Mattias Jons found himself in this position again at last August’s Karlstad Grand Prix he had other issues on his mind during warm-ups. As Jons said, “It took one or two throws before I started to get used to throwing three meters above a running river without fear of falling in.”
As I wrote last year, the throwing events need to be imaginative and think outside of the box in order to gain in popularity. This is easier with the shot put since it can be hosted anywhere there is a small slab of concrete. The hammer throw can be more difficult since it requires a big cage and ample landing area. Simply put, while they can host the shot put inside Zürich’s main train station, that would never work with the hammer or discus throws.
World discus throw champion Robert Harting is always one to grab headlines and this April he announced that he would love to have a discus throw competition over the Spree river in Berlin. That never materialized, but the Swedes did one better yesterday. As a prelude to today’s Karlstad Grand Prix, the city hosted a hammer throw competition on the banks of the Klarälven river. And by banks, I mean the opposite banks. They installed a hammer throw ring on one side of the river and attempted to throw to the other side. Fans surrounded the cage and lined up on the bridge to watch.
When the IAAF announced the new IAAF Hammer Throw Challenge last November, I was skeptical. My mindset was already biased and bitter because the hammer throw was not included in the Diamond League, but hearing about the new Hammer Challenge only made me feel worse about the future of the event. I felt like someone was selling me dirt and calling it a diamond.
The initial announcement for the Diamond League six months earlier had the opposite effect. I was excited. The Golden League often held only one, if any, throwing events. The Diamond League, on the other hand, offered more opportunities for the throwers. In the initial press release, IAAF President Lamine Diack even said, “It is great for me to be able to announce that all events* of our sport will be touring around the world.” But, as I read on, I realized that ‘all’ did not mean all since an asterisk had been inserted into his quote. That’s the first time I’d ever seen an asterisk inserted into a quote from a press release before. As I scrolled down I was informed that that Diamond League was very distressed that they could not include the hammer throw in this new series due to ambiguous “infrastructure” reasons which have yet to be clarified in the last 18 months. However, the IAAF promised a new hammer throw challenge to help compensate the hammer throwers for being kicked out of the inner circle. Maybe, I thought, things would turn out okay. After details of the Hammer Challenge finally emerged in February, it became clear that we had been screwed.
As the first year of the Diamond League drew to a close last weekend, reviews and commentary are beginning to pop up online. The comments so far, however, have focused mostly on whether or not the series has been good for the athletes. I think that’s a fairly simple question to answer: it tends to be better for some of the minor events and worse for the top events. The shot putters I’ve talked to have loved the series. The event was rarely included in the Diamond League in the past decade, but this year they have been included in a high-profile meets getting the athletes both more exposure and more money. Other events have seen a decline in competitions and earnings. Because more events have been included, appearance fees have become rare in order to pay for the extra events (except for the select few Diamond League Ambassadors). A Twitter exchange between sprint star turned TV announcer Ato Boldon, high jumper Jamie Nieto, and sprint Lisa Barber concluded with Nieto saying “The Diamond League is making it real hard to make a living. Something has got to change.” The split program concept, where meets alternate hosting certain events, also means less meets for 100m runners and stars from events that used to be included in every meet. Sprinter Carmelita Jeter told Spikes Magazine that “This year I had about 40 to 50% less races, because of the split programme concept.” (By my count, she’s only done 13 meets outdoors this year versus 23 last year). This also hurts mid-level athletes, since some of the top athletes are now entering mid-level meets to fill the gaps in their schedule, which is leaving the mid-level athletes with fewer chances to compete.
So, to summarize, some athletes win and some lose. And that doesn’t even mention the hammer throw, which was excluded from the series all together. Of greater interest to me, however, is whether the Diamond League met its goal of expanding the brand of athletics…
Although I’m a track fan and athlete, my interest in athletics goes well beyond spectating and competing. For me, I also love the business side of the sport and am constantly thinking about the challenge of how we can grow athletics. One recent idea that has proved very succesful is the shot put’s move outside the stadium at many meets. This has been a classic example of thinking outside the box (and the stadium) that has worked.
How We Got Here
While throwing outside the stadium is nothing new, the idea has been gaining traction in the past decade. The short lived Titan Games first tried it in 2003. It was easy for them to decide to put the shot put outside the stadium sinec it was the only track and field event included in the strength oriented program. But, the rest of the events took place indoors and the shot put was held outside. The atmosphere was still great, leading Adam Nelson to say “it was like the combination of a rock concert and fight night.” Nelson had an amazing foul at the 2004 meet before the event disappeared. During this time, the Oregon Track Classic also used to hold the shot put outside the stadium before the meet, creating an intimate setting leading to an intense experience where Adam Nelson set his personal best of 22.51m and Kevin Toth placed just third with a throw of 21.78m.