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Embarrassed By Your Olympic Javelin: Did Cavemen Do It Better?

Stronger, faster, fiercer, finer. That's what the Olympics promise us — higher performance, new world records. But not if you throw things.

The javelin throw has been an Olympic event since 1908. Since then, great athletes, mostly Swedes, Norwegians and Germans, kept throwing spears farther and farther until the extraordinary moment in 1984 — not at the Olympics, it was at a track and field meet in Berlin — when German Uwe Hohn threw so high, so far, he not only broke the previous world record, he scared the bejeezus out of the security people. You've got to see this.

Uwe's throw broke the 100-meter barrier. No one before him had thrown anywhere near that far. Maybe he got a lucky breeze; maybe he was that good. But his spear landed 104.8 meters (343.8 feet) away, and the folks who build track and field stadiums got worried. They could imagine, says sportswriter Steve Waldon, "an unsuspecting spectator [with] ... a slender, body-length metal spear between the ribs." Not a nice thought, especially to liability lawyers.

Also, javelins were increasingly landing flat, instead of poking upright into the turf, making distance-marking difficult, so in 1986 the technical committee authorized a new javelin design. The center of gravity was moved 1.6 inches forward, the tip was modified to make the javelin less aerodynamic,meaning it would nose down earlier and land sooner, reducing average flight distance by about 10 percent.

In other words, here's an event that celebrates how far people can throw, and the officials said, "Don't throw that far. Throw shorter."

"Eternal" World Record

And that's what happened. Uwe Hohn's world record has been frozen. It is now
"an eternal world record." The best performance since then has been, roughly, six meters shy of Uwe's — making all of today's world champions second best.

Actually, it's worse than that. We all know that javelin throwing is an ancient Olympic event. "It's one of the few that remains from those times," says sportswriter Waldon, "with discus, the marathon and sprinting, and has a certain purity because of this. You can't say the same thing about mountain bikes, for instance."

And people have been throwing long, skinny sticks for much, much longer. The original Olympics began around 2,700 years ago. But the original spear throwers go back another 400,000 years — that's 150 times older than the Olympics. Instead of Greeks running naked across a playing field, imagine some forest people, much hairier, probably with slightly protruding skulls, dashing through the forest with sticks that measure, behave and look like modern javelins.

In the mid-1990s, a team of researchers in Germany led by Professor Hartmut Thieme found a bunch of 400,000-year-old spears buried in ancient mud. They were made of spruce, carefully carved, a little shorter than modern javelins, around seven feet instead of eight, but they are clearly meant to be thrown. Whoever made them, kept them wide close to the front for better lift.

/ Scharningen

Replicas were made and given to some modern athletes, who threw them for fun and got them to fly for up to 70 meters — a very respectable distance. But the irony is, back in prehistoric days, when forest javelin throwers used them, they often added a little booster in the form of a leather thong, called an ankyle, that would set the javelin spinning, getting it to fly further.

Greek Olympians used this thong too, so their throws, presumably, were also enhanced, leaving me to think — and isn't this embarrassing? — that if we could invite a caveman or an original Olympian to watch modern men throw modern javelins, they'd stand there, watch, see these sticks fly up, then down, and think ... what's their problem? We did it better.

That's a puzzlement. I understand the need for safety, but still — how must it feel to vie for a championship that in your heart of hearts you know won't measure up to those who've gone before you?

Best Ever?

Lots of athletes come to the Olympics hoping to be the Best Ever. But not javelin throwers. They've been told to dream smaller dreams ("Best Since 1984!") and I think that's a bum deal.

Why not take this event away from crowded arenas, go someplace safe, design the best flying spear possible, throw it as far as you can, and then whoever breaks the record can say to all spear throwers going back over the ages, "Now I'm Number One, in the truest sense — mine flew further than all of yours!

That would be true Gold.

Professor Hartmut Thieme's co-authored paper on ancient throwing spears can be found here.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.