In ancient Greece, Olympic champions were feted with banquets and parades, immortalized in bronze and marble.
In modern New York, they are largely ignored aside from the occasional bystander who asks, “Do you play basketball?”
Such is the fate of Valerie Adams, two-time Olympic shot put champion, arguably the greatest putter in history but perhaps born 2,500 years too late.
Val came into the Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York City last weekend looking for her 50th consecutive win. Hoping to derail the Adams Express was a field that featured Michelle Carter (who broke the American record last year with toss of 20.24m) and Yevgeniya Kolodko (the London silver medalist and owner of a 20.48m PB).
I was stoked to get a look at Kolodko and her excellent glide technique, and though I was rooting for Val to get number 50, I hoped that Carter and Kolodko would push her to extend her season best of 20.46m.
Alas, t’was not to be. In spite of perfect weather that had helped produce meet records in each of the two previous throwing events–Robert Harting’s 68.24m in the discus and Linda Stahl’s 67.32m in the javelin–and a raucous crowd that cheered Bohdan Bondarenko and Mutaz Essa Barshim through the greatest high jump dual in history, none of the women putters could get it going.
Carter opened with a respectable 19.51m, but that turned out to be her only throw over 19.00m. Kolodko had nothing. I could tell she was in trouble during warmups when she took about a million throws, none of which looked sharp, and she fared even worse during the competition with a 17.25m sandwiched by two fouls. I have to think she was injured, but I didn’t get a chance to ask her as she packed up and left while the top six took their final three throws.
Meanwhile, the Carter/Adams dual played out as more weird than dramatic. Val’s best in the first three rounds was 19.31m, but with the champ on the ropes and vulnerable to an upset, Carter followed her 19.51m with an uninspired-looking 18.57m and 18.39m.
It must have been a strange feeling for Val not to be the final thrower after the re-ordering, and she quickly set things right with a 19.52m to take the lead. But even after extending that lead with a fifth-round 19.68m, you could tell she was not herself. After each attempt, she looked for advice from a gentleman watching from across the track. Val is coached by two very large Swiss fellows–Werner Gunthor and Jean-Piere Egger–and this man was neither Swiss nor large, so I’m not sure who he was but the advice he shouted to her (“Put your whole body behind it! Get it going on this one!”) was heartfelt and kind of sweet. The sort of advice one might expect to hear shouted by a parent at a middle-school track meet.
After the competition, I had a nice chat with Val that you can view here:
As always, she was humble and upbeat, and afterwards she strode off looking like a champion prize-fighter from back in the day, a bit weary but ready to move on to the next town and flatten the next challenger.
Forgive me for one minute, but I feel the need to switch to Negative Nancy mode. As I was writing this article and reflecting back on what, by any measurement (5 meet records, 5 world-leading performances) was a fantastic track meet I realized that there was one aspect of it that bothered me.
On this sun-kissed day at Icahn Stadium, the shot put ran concurrently with (and right next to) that magnificent high jump competition. As the bar was raised closer and closer to a world-record height, the attention of the crowd became completely focused on that event. By the time Bondarenko and Barshim started taking attempts at 2.46m (the world record is 2.45) I’m pretty sure that myself, my friend Peter, and the guy shouting encouragement to Val were the only people in the stadium paying attention to the shot put.
But that’s as it should be. Witnessing a world record is a big, honking deal.
What bothers me is that Valerie Adams, arguably the best ever at her event, will never be involved in a competition like that. The world record in the women’s shot (Natalia Lisovskaya, 22.63m, set in 1987)is so far out there (Val’s PB is 21.24m) and so obviously the result of PEDs that nobody in this age of random drug testing is ever going to beat it.
And that sucks, for Val because it unfairly diminishes her accomplishments, and for shot put fans because it deprives us of the chance to experience a moment in the shot equal to the moment when Bondarenko or Barshim began their approach to the bar and an entire stadium held its collective breath.
Okay. Just had to get that off my chest.
After the meet, my very patient wife, my friend Peter, and I had a fantastic dinner at an Italian place in midtown and then stopped by the athletes’ hotel to have a drink in the lounge overlooking the lobby. Several beers later, we spotted Val and a couple of friends just back from dinner themselves. I grabbed Peter and dragged him down to meet her, my wife trailing us with her cellphone at the ready. I’m not sure exactly what we said to her, nor can I guarantee that anything we said made much sense, but she listened to us patiently and agreed to pose for a picture.
That’s no basketball player, folks. That’s the best shot putter ever.