Stories from the 2014 European Championships, Part 2: the Men’s Discus

The discus qualification rounds were held during the evening session of the first day of competition (Tuesday, August 12) and the weather was excellent, as was my view of the cage:

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Those photographers did not linger very long, and I was able to take some nice vids from my seat, which was in the last row–a testament to the intimate layout at Letzigrund.

Here, by the way, is a link to those vids:

I was especially jacked up about the prospect of seeing two of the all-time greats appearing in this competition, one–Robert Harting–still at his peak, the other–Virgilius Alekna–nearing the end of the road.

I had the pleasure of seeing Alekna compete four times in the old Letzigrund Stadium when he was in his prime. Here is a link to a vid I made of the 2000 competition when he hit 70 meters on four of six throws:

And here is a link to an article I wrote about the 2005 Zurich meeting and a rather humorous encounter I had with Alekna the next day:

http://mcthrows.com/?p=96

Suffice it to say, I am a big fan of that man. He always carried himself with great dignity. After those 70-meter throws he might raise an arm to acknowledge the crowd, but at the same time he’d smile sheepishly, seeming almost embarrassed by the attention.

I’ve always wondered if he felt like murdering Robert Fazekas in 2004.  If you recall, Fazekas prevented Alekna from enjoying a well-deserved victory lap celebrating his second Olympic gold. Fazekas defeated Alekna but not the drug testers in Athens, so Alekna received his medal in a delayed ceremony. Fazekas also kept Alekna from collecting a share of that year’s Golden League grand prize money by handing the large Lithuanian his only Golden League loss that season (athletes had to go undefeated to get a piece of the big prize).

But to be honest, it is difficult to imagine Alekna getting really cheesed off about anything. He reminds me of the ancient Roman hero Cincinnatus, who in times of war would set aside his plow, lead the Romans to victory, then quietly return to his fields caring nothing for glory or acclaim.

Harting, on the other hand, is more like Achilles. He carries himself with an undeniable air of superiority. And, like Achilles, he has earned the right to do that by defeating all challengers. In The Iliad, the Trojans are full of piss and vinegar as long as Achilles is away from the battlefield. But the minute he shows up looking to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus, they know it is all over for them.

So it is with the world’s best discus throwers. When I ran into Piotr Malachowski, the Polish record holder and this season’s world leader with a throw of 69.28m, in New York last June the first thing I said to him was “It is great to meet you. You are a fantastic thrower!”

His reply?

“Yes, but Harting always beats me.”

What makes Harting an interesting character, though, is that in conversation he is very self-deprecating. I ran into him in that same hotel lobby in New York where I had spoken to Malachowski, and he was extremely gracious. He had just arrived from the airport after a trans-Atlantic flight but he patiently answered my questions, and then answered some more following his win the next day at the Adidas Grand Prix meeting. Here are links to those two interviews:

Anyway, it turned out to be an interesting juxtaposition watching these two great champions, both competing in flight one of the prelims in Zurich. Alekna looked as smooth as he ever did, but simply could not generate the power necessary to reach the 64-meter automatic qualifier mark. The best he could muster was a first-round 59.35m.

Harting, flush with power, qualified easily by hitting 67.01m on his first attempt.

Gerd Kanter also looked sharp in the prelims, throwing 65.79m to go one-and-done.

Malachowski ended up taking all three of his attempts, ultimately reaching 64.98m.

I left the stadium that night thinking that we might see a pretty good battle between those three in the next day’s final.

As mentioned in my last post, I headed over to the Hilton Hotel early the next morning in order to attend a German team press conference. Afterwards, I sat down in the lobby to make some notes and eventually looked up to see a very tall man ambling past the front desk. It was Torsten Schmidt, a 2004 Olympian and, since last November, the coach of Robert Harting.

From what I understand, Germans, unlike Americans, are not comfortable with casual friendliness. My brother-in-law has told me that when a German meets another German he must speak to that person in a formal way until given permission to switch over to a more familiar style of address. In the press conference I had just attended, for example, I noticed that at least one of the German reporters had addressed David Storl as “Herr Storl” even though the reporter was much older than the shot putter.

I was a worried then, that I might cause offense by springing upon the unsuspecting Coach Schmidt and interrupting a heretofore peaceful morning stroll.

But doggonit, a fellow only lives once, and how often do you see the coach of the world’s best discus thrower wandering through a hotel lobby?

So, I pounced.

And it turns out he is a really nice man. I think he spent the first couple of minutes of our conversation wondering who in the hell I was and why in God’s name I was asking him questions, but eventually he understood that I was a fellow discus geek and we had a very nice chat.

He told me that he had retired from competition in 2007, and by 2009 was coaching young throwers at the German training center in Berlin.

I asked him if he felt a lot of pressure going from coaching teenagers to coaching the defending Olympic champion, but he said no because Harting has such a clear idea of what he needs to do to perform well, and that even when his form is a bit off he is strong enough to throw far.

In fact, according to Coach Schmidt, Harting’s entry was flawed on his qualifier, but he was able to muscle it 67 meters.

After a few minutes, I wished Coach Schmidt good luck in that night’s final, and headed off to the stadium to watch the women’s hammer qualifying.

It rained throughout the entire hammer competition, but the sun reappeared as I made my way towards the train station with the idea of heading back to Winterthur to relax for a couple of hours before returning to Letzigrund for the evening session.

On the way, I stopped at a plaza in downtown Zurich stocked full of track-related activities and displays, and dominated by this temporary wooden structure:

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The reason that all of the table umbrellas are tied up is that the wind was really whipping, and eventually blew so strong that the start of the evening session was delayed some 90 minutes.

After a nice nap back at my brother-in-law’s apartment, I saw news of the delay on Twitter but wasn’t sure how it would affect the start of the discus final, so I headed over to the Winterthur train station in plenty of time to get back to Letzigrund in case it proceeded on schedule.

And who should I run into on the train platform, but the fine Dutch discus thrower Eric Cadee and his girlfriend Kai Kand, the former heptathlete from Estonia.

I met Eric last June when I retrieved his shoe on Randall’s Island in New York. It was the day before the Diamond League meeting, and I had headed over to Icahn Stadium to see if any of the throwers were practicing. Eric was there with 2012 Olympic silver medalist Ehsan Hadadi, and they wanted to try out the ring but it was entirely filled with water from a morning shower.

I quickly snapped into Coach McQuaid mode, rounded up a broom and some towels, and cleaned up the ring. Eric just wanted to take some easy shoe tosses, and I shagged for him so that he didn’t have to keep walking through the wet grass. He and Ehsan were both very pleasant to talk to, and after they were done practicing I taped a quick interview with each. You can find those interviews here:

Unfortunately, Eric did not throw well in the qualifying in Zurich, so he was on his way to attend the discus final as a spectator.

It was great fun talking to Eric and Kai on the journey to the stadium, and I couldn’t help but fantasize about some day coaching their children. They are smart and friendly and just happen to be world class athletes. Eric and Kai, if you read this just know that the Chicago suburbs have lots of parks and excellent schools.

I mentioned that Malachowski seemed not to be at his best, and Eric said that he (Malachowski) was struggling with his timing and confidence. “I told him, just remember you are the defending European champion. You’ve thrown 71 meters!”

When we arrived at the stadium, the wind was swirling, the temperature was dropping, and the decathlon javelin was just getting underway. This meant that the discus final would not begin for another two hours.

Always one to make the best of a bad situation, I filled the time by eating brats and pretending to be interested in the decathlon.

Finally, the javelin sector lines were removed, the discus sector lines were set out, and the finalists were ushered into the stadium.

I had paid 140 francs for a second row seat hoping to be close to the cage for the final, and I was definitely close:

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The problem was that Harting’s presence made the discus a marquee event, and in order to give the folks watching at home a great view…

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…they totally blocked mine.

See that giant camera pointed at the stands? That was there to film the reaction of the coaches throughout the competition.

It is probably good that they did not point that camera at me, because while I do not speak German, I do know a universal hand signal that would have expressed my feelings precisely.

Ah well, it was still fun to be that close.

Shortly before they opened the ring for warmups, it began to rain.

The Zurich ring has a good reputation. In New York, Harting told me he really likes throwing at Letzigrund, and Sondra Perkovic has said the same thing.

But there was something about the combination of the misting rain and the cool temperature that made the surface almost unmanageable.

Harting actually fell down performing an imitation.

And I don’t care how confident you are, that has got to shake you up a bit.

Throughout the competition, Harting took frequent strolls across the track to check in with Torsten.

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Most of the competitors did the same. Here is Martin Wierig conversing with his coach, world record holder Jurgen Schult:

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Here is Robert Urbanek with his coach:

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Malachowski had several animated conversations with the Olympic shot champion, Tomasz Majewski.

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Malachowski had told me that he and Majewski were best friends, and they acted like it. I do not speak Polish, but based on their gestures and facial expressions it seemed like their interactions went something like this:

“Throw farther, you idiot!”

“I can’t! The ring is a mess!”

“I don’t care! Just find a way!”

That photo above was taken after the competition though, and you can see that Majewski was genuinely pained when his friend was unable to defend his title.

Harting opened with 63.94m, followed by a foul when the discus slipped out of his hand, followed by one of those throws that he always seems to come up with: 66.07m in round three.

He passed in round four, hoping that the rain might let up a bit and let him extend his lead…

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…then fouled both of his final attempts. On his sixth throw, his right foot landed on the rubberized surface surrounding the ring and I thought he was going to do the splits.

Kanter, who had spent time between throws performing imitations on the track right in front of me…

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…finished second with a 64.75m toss, followed by a very happy Robert Urbanik…

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…whose second round toss of 63.81m held up for the bronze.

You will notice that Harting is shirtless here, and that he is surrounded by a bunch of photographers.

After his final throw, the whole stadium was ready to see him rip his shirt off–his usual mode of celebration following a big win.

Harting, though, decided to have some fun with those expectations and performed a couple of fake shirt rips…

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…before peeling it off and pretending to take a nap on the track.

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His was not the only ecstatic celebration of the night, as French decathlete Florian Geffrouais seemed at one point about to jump on me:

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One last observation regarding the men’s discus. The Germans are huge! Harting is a big man. Wierig is bigger. Fellow finalist Daniel Jasinski is even bigger. And Jasinski’s coach is the biggest dude I’ve ever seen!

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Do you see Majewski there talking to Malachowski? The guy in the red jacket next to Tomasz is Jasinski’s coach, and he…is…bigger…than…Majewski! Bet he doesn’t have any trouble getting his athletes to listen to him.

So, a couple of days later, Saturday morning to be exact, I headed back to the Hilton for another German press conference. This one mainly concerned the women’s hammer, which I will post about later, but afterwards I walked out into the lobby and who should meander by but Torsten Schmidt.

The poor guy must have wondered what he had to do to make it through the lobby without some idiot American jumping out from behind a potted plant.

But we had another really nice conversation! He said that prior to the competition the discus throwers had been told three times in the holding area that they would be taken to the ring in “10 minutes.”  Somehow, ten minutes stretched into an hour and then nearly two hours before they were actually brought out for warmups.

Then, as mentioned above, it was very difficult to find comfort with the throwing surface.

Most of the throwers also quickly gave up trying to perform imitations between attempts due to the slickness of the rubberized surface around the cage. That is why Kanter came over to the track to work on his steps, apparently finding a dry patch just in front of the stands.

It all added up to a potential disaster for  Harting,the prohibitive favorite, and for Torsten who must have felt the weight of expectations as well.

One thing that I was struck by throughout my week in Zurich was how much it meant for these athletes to medal at this meet. Obviously, the Olympics and World Championships are a bigger deal, but based on the reactions of the winners and losers, I’d say not by much.

I got the sense, especially from the Germans, that they felt great pride in representing their country. Each time I passed through the Hilton lobby, I noticed several German athletes watching the live feed from the stadium and cheering loudly when their compatriots performed well.

So it could not have been easy for Torsten to have watched Harting bite the dust during an imitation and then struggle mightily to find a semblance of rhythm.

“So,” I finally asked, “what did you say to help get him through it?”

“We decided that he needed to keep more bend in his knees so he could keep his balance. Fortunately, that was enough.”

Just then, Harting showed up. He looked at Torsten and then at me and then his eyes widened and he exclaimed, “You again!”

I held out my hand.

“Hello, Robert. Dan McQuaid. Congratulations on your victory!”

As we shook, he looked again at Torsten and said, “This guy is always hanging around asking questions!”

“Yes,” I replied. “Your coach is telling me all of your secrets.”

“Secrets?” he shot back. “There is no such thing as secrets!”

“Secrets,” he continued, tapping a long finger against his temple, “are only doubts!”

And with that he turned and strode confidently away looking fit and ready to storm the walls of Troy.