Have you ever watched the video of the men’s shot competition at the 1988 Olympics? The one where Randy Barnes throws 22.39m on round six to take the lead, then Ulf Timmerman answers with 22.47m to grab the gold. That throw of Ulf’s is famous (at least among throws nerds) because he raises his fist in triumph even before he sees where the throw lands.
There is one other memorable aspect of that video. The stands are almost completely deserted. The average Saturday morning freshman football game in the US attracts more spectators than showed up at the stadium in Seoul that day to witness maybe the greatest shot competition ever.
Last night, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the situation was a bit different.
One reason was that the gentleman pictured above, the incomparable Robert Harting, was making his final appearance as a member of the German national team. He has a couple more competitions on his schedule before he hangs up his throwing shoes, but this was his last night representing the Fatherland, and it meant a lot to him and it meant a lot to the fans packed into that end of the stadium.
Here’s a video I took when Robert was introduced last night. The quality is not so good, but the sound is what matters. Take a listen.
Compare that to the sound of crickets that probably greeted Ulf’s winning throw in Seoul, and you’ll understand why every single thrower I ‘ve spoken with at these European Championships loves competing in Germany.
And if Robert’s fairwell appearance wasn’t enough to get folks fired up, just a few meters away in that same end of the stadium, the 2015 women’s shot World Champion Christina Schwanitz was competing as well.
As much as the Germans love Robert, I doubt many considered him a candidate to win the men’s discus title last night. After four years spent battling knee injuries, a bronze medal finish was probably the best that Dee Harting could hope for.
Not so with Schwanitz. After taking off the 2017 season while giving birth to twins (Dear God, please let her move to the US so that I can coach those children some day), Christina has returned to twenty-meter form, and in the absence of Hungarian rival Anita Marton, appeared to be a lock to win the gold.
And if that still wasn’t enough to get everyone excited, there were Germans in contention in the men’s long jump and decathlon, which took place concurrently with the throws.
Hence the noise. Hence the madness.
Surprisingly, Schwanitz was unable to feed off the energy of the crowd to produce a big throw. She tossed right around 19.00m in warmups, opened with 19.19m and never improved.
But, for most of the competition, none of her competitors appeared capable of surpassing her. Poland’s Paulina Guba opened with 18.77m but did not add to that over the first five rounds.
Aliyona Dubitskaya of Belarus pounded away at the high 18.00m range the entire competition, eventually settling for a best of 18.81m in round five.
The oppressive heat that has settled over much of Europe this summer seemed to take the life out of most of the putters. They had, after all, been through qualification in that same heat the day before. And on this night, they had taken their early warmups under a blazing sun at the throwing area outside the stadium.
Maybe they were all exhausted, and Christina would walk away unhappy with a subpar performance but happy to have won in front of an adoring crowd.
Then, things got a little nutty.
The Polish mojo that has been wreaking havoc in the men’s throws (so far, Poles have taken first and second in the men’s shot and hammer) appeared and lifted Klaudia Kardasz to an U23 national record of 18.48m.
Guba must have gotten a whiff of it as well. She stepped in as the final competitor with a chance to unseat Schwanitz and promptly…well…unseated her with a throw of 19.33m.
Here is a vid of Christina’s final throw. Again, the quality is pretty awful but it will give you an idea of the noise level in that stadium.
Schwanitz could manage only 18.98m on her final attempt, and as Guba celebrated another triumph for the Polish throws crew…
…a disappointed crowd turned its full attention to the men’s disc.
Humid air. No wind. Enclosed stadium.
These are not the conditions which generally produce big discus throws. And for the first couple of rounds, it looked like anyone who could somehow reach 66.00m would have a good chance at winning.
Apostolos Parellus of Cyprus must love him some dead air, as he opened with a PB of 63.62m. No one else was close to their best.
Daniel Stahl, second at the 2017 Worlds opened with a foul. Andrius Gudzius, the defending World Champion started with, for him, a pedestrian 65.75m.
Gerd Kanter, who had hit the automatic qualifying mark of 64.00m on his first throw the day before, could manage only 59.30m in round one.
Robert, meanwhile, hit 61.09m, a distance that was not likely to buy him the full six throws.
In round two, Gudzius fell to 62.89m but maintained his lead when Stahl fouled a big one—at least 67.00m.
Robert pleased the crowd if not himself with a 63.45m toss, which at least prevented him making an early exit from the competition.
Stahl, facing an early exit himself, went 64.20m in round three. Gudzius answered with 67.19m, an impressive display of horsepower in these conditions.
For a moment in round four, it looked like Robert might be able through sheer toughness and force of will to seize a medal. His 64.33m put him into second place.
The moment did not last.
Stahl, exhibiting his own reserves of grit, blasted one 68.23m to take the lead and knock Robert into third. Gudzius replied to Stahl with another big toss, this one 67.66m.
Then, in round five, Lucas Weisshaidinger of Austria, who had struggled mightily in the qualifying, came through with a toss of 65.14m to oust Robert once and for all from medal contention.
A final round 64.55m from Sweden’s Simon Pettersson and a 64.34m by Kanter pushed Robert further back in the standings.
Here is Robert’s final throw as a member of the German national team.
Meanwhile, Stahl and Gudzius still had to settle the matter of who would go home with the gold.
Daniel fouled his final attempt, so Gudzuis entered the ring needing to surpass 68.23m.
Gudzius is a large man, and he is remarkably fast for his size. Sometimes, he seems a bit out of control, and this may be why he struggled in qualifying. He did not hit the auto mark until his third toss on Tuesday.
But when he hits one right, he generates an astonishing level of power. It took that kind of power to launch a 68.46m final throw for the win.
Afterwards, the competitors were exhausted, drenched in sweat, and very grateful to have experienced a competition in this environment.
Alin Alexandru Firfirica, a twenty-three-year-old Romanian who finished seventh was totally spent.
This European Championships was his first major international meeting at the senior level (he was European U23 champion in 2015) and the experience was a bit overwhelming.
”The stadium is great,” he said. “And I am in good shape, but today I was tired. It is hot! I start with fifty-eight meters! Every time they stop us when a race starts. It was disturbing. I try to ignore because I don’t have anything else to do. My next meet will be throws only meet here in Germany. It will be fantastic! I hope there to throw sixty-six meters again. Here was hard because we don’t have wind; with wind is possible to throw sixty-seven meters.”
Alin recently wrapped up his studies, and is excited about his future as a thrower.
What did he study?
”Sports, of course!”
Simon Pettersson, who entered the meet with a PB of 65.84m and finished fourth with is sixth round 64.55m effort, said that he loved the energy in the stadium.
“It was very fun. The atmosphere was unbelievable, kind of like Worlds last year. I even like when they run the 200 and everybody is like ‘whoa!’It gives me energy. Sometimes I get too hyped!”
That was apparent tonight, as Simon fouled four of six throws, once literally falling down out of the front of the ring. But, his ability to regain his composure and drill a near PB in the final round bodes well for his future in meets of this caliber.
Daniel Stahl, the Swedish giant, was exhausted, proud, and defiant after the competition.
I asked him how he was able to keep his cool sitting on two fouls going into round three.
“It was mental strength. I’m really happy. It was great conditions, and I’m very happy. I was focused all six throws. My goal was to win, but I’m really proud of 68.23m. This was great atmoshpere. Germany is really good to track and field. It was a great audience, great people. I really Like Germany. Now, I prepare to win in Doha.”
Unknown to me, these European Championships will also be the final international competition for Gerd Kanter, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.
Though the attention of the crowd was understandably focused on Robert, Gerd was happy to have made his farewell in this stadium.
”As expected, the environment was very good, I remember from 2009, and today everybody focused on the discus. When I was planning my retirement I wanted to have it here. Next year at Doha, I don’t think will be very exciting. This was where I wanted to have my last Championships.”
I told Gerd that the first time I ‘d seen him throw was in Zurich in 2005, and asked him if he remembered being overtaken by Virgilius Aleena in the final round there.
“Yes, but he fouled it! The winner got a nice watch, and he got it. He still owes me that watch.”
“We had just came from Helsinki, the World Championships. I was leading until last round there, too, and he threw a championship record to beat me!”
As long as we were on the subject of the ones that got away, I asked him about the 2012 Olympic Games where he came within one discus length of taking a second consecutive gold medal.
“It was reallyemotional,” he recalled. “But it wasn’t like losing a gold medal, it was like winning a bronze medal. Compared to Beijing, I was not the favorite. And it was first time I set my season best at a major championships, so I am very proud of that bronze medal.”
The last sweaty giant I spoke with was Lukas Weisshaidinger, who was about as happy as a man on the verge of heat exhaustion can be.
“It was my first time at European Championships, so to come home with a medal, I’m extremely happy,” he told me. “My whole family is here, so this is an awesome moment.”
Lukas had struggled in the qualifying rounds, going Foul, 59.48m, and then finally 62.26m which got him in the final. I asked him how he had been able to get his act together after almost failing to qualify.
“This was a new day. And also, I know that Alekna once placed eleventh in qualification and ended up with gold medal, so I knew I could make a medal today.”
Lukas also credited the atmosphere in the stadium for elevating his performance.
“It was awesome! They clap for everyone, not just the Germans. And there were a lot of Austrian fans. That gave me power!”
I couldn’t resist asking Lucas how he had developed his rather unique setup at the start of his throw. If you’ve never seen it, he has his left foot back like Tom Walsh in the shot, and he winds the disc very high before beginning his entry.
“I’m not the biggest guy,” he explained. “Or the tallest guy, so I have to make something different, so we try this.”
Is his setup an attempt to increase the path of acceleration? Does it have something to do with creating a certain orbit of the disc?
“That I cannot tell you. It is top secret.”
Not wanting to offend a man that beefy, especially at the happiest moment of his life, I changed the subject and inquired about the future. Was he thinking ahead to Doha?
“It is really hard with the World Championships in October, then followed by the Olympic Games. It is really hard to make a perfect plan for those two competitions.”
I have asked a few coaches recently how they plan to handle their training schedule next year with the Worlds coming so late. But talking to Lucas, I realized that it wasn’t just next year, but the following year as well (when everyone will want to peak for the Olympics) that will be thrown off by the odd schedule.
Torsten Lönnfors, coach of Chris Harting, told me that Chris will be in an exceptionally difficult situation as he is required to put in four weeks of police training at the end of each season. So, if he competes in the 2019 Worlds in October then takes a break then has to do his four weeks with the police, that makes for a very late start for his Olympic preparation.
But those are matters for people much smarter than me to figure out.
This was a night to celebrate giant, sweaty men who devote their lives to throwing things far.
Speaking of which, after all was quiet I stood with a group of journalists waiting for a final word with Robert Harting. But the hour was late, and I had a long train ride ahead of me, so after a while I gave up and began the long walk up the stadium steps towards the exit.
And there he was. Signing autographs, Surrounded by fans. Happy and sad and probably wishing that this long, humid Berlin night would never end.