This August, for the third summer in a row, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Europe to view some fantastic track and field. As in the past two years, I was able to attend the Weltklasse Zurich Golden League Meeting, but after that my itinerary changed due to the cancellation (apparently owing to lack of corporate sponsorship) of the Weltklasse am Rhein thrower’s meet. To assuage my disappointment over the passing of this remarkable event, I decided to venture by train into Austria to catch the Linz GPII meet. I’ll forever be glad of having made that decision, as it introduced me to the considerable charms of a part of Europe which I had not previously explored. What follows is a brief description of my experiences at the Zurich and Linz meetings. For complete results, check out the meet web sites. For a fantastic experience, get over there next year and check out these meets in person.
Friday, August 16, Zurich, Switzerland
I’m standing with Larry, my brother-in-law, on the street outside Letzigrund Stadium sipping a beer amid the hustle and bustle and sizzling brats that characterize the Zurich Weltklasse track meet. The road running along the east side of the stadium is blocked off to traffic, and numerous booths have sprouted here vending food and beer to the giddy multitudes milling about on their way into the arena. Robert Fazekas, the fine Hungarian discus thrower, hurries past and I note that he is a young man of thick neck and fierce countenance. Though he lacks the “How’s the weather up there?” ranginess characteristic of most seventy-meter discus throwers, to look upon him is to understand why the Huns succeeded in barging their way into Europe a thousand years ago. Tonight Fazekas, fresh off a win at the European Championships, will attempt to barge his way to the top of the awards platform—quite an exclusive piece of real estate considering that only Lars Reidel and Virgilius Alekna have set foot there over the past ten years.
Unfortunately, Reidel will not be competing tonight as injury caused him to pull the plug on his 2002 campaign several weeks ago. To me, this is a bummer of major proportions as half the fun of the Zurich discus competition is watching the crowd in the north end of the stadium swoon over their favorite ubermensch.
Fortunately, the field, sans Reidel, is still stacked. Present are Fazekas and another recent addition to the seventy-meter club, Dmitri Schevchenko of Russia. Present as well is Alekna, the defending Olympic and Weltklasse Zurich champion. Franz Kruger, the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist and a bit of a local favorite himself is also in the field, a pleasant surprise to me as he told me in conversation a year ago that, due to the demands of medical school, he would not be competing outside of South Africa this year.
The presence of these gentlemen combined with the ever present smell of brats and very tasty local beverages is enough to produce an intoxicating sense of anticipation as Larry and I enter the stadium and maneuver for an unobstructed view of the discus cage from the north standing room section. Much to my dismay, however, it is apparent during warm-ups that a major case of the blahs has infected the field on this perfectly gorgeous, windless evening. I have seen Alekna take eighteen competitive throws in various meets over the past two years, and I’d estimate eighty percent of them traveled past the sixty-seven meter mark, including four of six throws over seventy meters at this meet in August, 2000. Tonight, he comes nowhere near sixty-five meters in warm-ups. Nor does Kruger, who seems to be a bit jumpy, many of his warm-up throws landing out of bounds beyond the right sector line. Shevchenko is also unable to get it going in warm-ups, in spite of the strength evident in his Ruthian physique. Fazekas looks fast and aggressive, clearly a man on a mission, but barely threatens the sixty-five meter line. As the competition begins, it is quickly apparent that the warm-ups were no fluke. The early leader is Mario Pestano of Spain, a thrower who appears to be cut from the same mold as Fazekas: not huge, but quick and strong. He opens with 65.37, a mark that holds up until the end of round two when Fazekas nails 66.81, ultimately the winning toss.
Even though the big guys never find their mojo (Kruger finishes third with 64.98, Alekna fourth with 64.83, Shevchenko sixth with 63.29)it is still fun to see a variety of throwers from around the world and their different approaches to technique. Alekna is remarkably nimble for his size (6’8”, 280?) and uses what I would call a classic “American” technique with a wide leg sweep out of the back and an aggressive reverse out of the power position. The South African Kruger, and Germany’s Michael Mollenbeck each employ more of a swing kick out of the back, and a very efficient-looking fixed feet delivery. Shevchenko reminds me of Fred Flintstone tip-toeing his way into his bowling delivery. When his right foot touches in the middle of the ring his left foot has barely left the back, and Lord only knows how he gets it grounded at the front in time to deliver the disc. Watching Fazekas cracks me up as he, like most of my young throwers, is an ardent proponent of the “haul ass out of the back and hope for the best” school of discus technique. Only he throws far. Fazekas is also the current king of goofy windups, apparently falling into some kind of trance at the back of the ring with the discus held out in his left hand (as if offering it to the cameraman stationed just outside of the cage) before finally switching hands, winding quickly and zooming his way across the circle. Not the kind of approach I’d recommend to my young throwers, but it clearly works for him. He has been a dominant thrower this summer, and finishes this night the new Weltklasse Zurich champion.
Monday, August 19, Linz, Austria
It is fifteen minutes before the start of the shotput competition at the Linz Grand Prix II meet, and Paolo Dal Saglio is fuming. John Godina and Adam Nelson have just been summoned to participate in a pre-meet “Introduction of Champions” ceremony, and the shotput officials have refused to allow warm-ups to continue in their absence. I’m no lip reader, nor do I understand Italian, but it is pretty easy to tell from his gestures and body language that Paolo has taken issue with that decision. His protests are to no avail, however, and all he can do is stand around and watch along with everyone else while Nelson, Godina, and a dozen or so other track and field notables are paraded around the track in what look to me like antique fire engines.
As the ceremony ends, Nelson and Godina jog back to the shot ring where the entire field is allowed two more warm-up throws each. Everyone except Paolo. He is the last thrower in line, and as he enters the ring for his second warm-up toss the head shotput judge steps into the ring with him and informs him that warm-ups are over. While I think it is ridiculous not to give these guys all the warm-up tosses they want (Why wouldn’t the officials do everything in their power to help the athletes put on a good show?) I admire the nerve of this man as he refuses to budge even after Paolo literally tries to shove him out of the way. Finally, Paolo slams his shot onto the concrete and storms out of the ring, Godina and Nelson rushing over to calm him down.
As the competition begins, it quickly becomes apparent that Paolo’s outburst would be the only fireworks going off in the men’s shot ring this evening. As in the Zurich discus competition, the athletes appear sluggish and off kilter. Nelson is the class of the field, winning with what is for him a fairly pedestrian put of 20.67. The other Americans in the field, Kevin Toth and John Godina, stagger home in fifth (20.07) and sixth (20.04) respectively. Though it is odd to see Godina struggle like this, Toth’s difficulties come as no surprise to me as I am his bad luck charm. I have seen him throw in person on at least half a dozen occasions over the past four years, and he has stunk it up every time. A typical performance by Toth when I am in the stands involves a lot of fouling and a lot of cussing, and tonight is no exception. Hopefully, he will not read this and kill me, but I figure it is high time I share my secret with the world. It is lonely business being a bad luck charm.
Anyway, even though nobody gets off a big throw it is, as in Zurich, great fun to see European throwers and to muse on their different approaches to technique. Szilard Kiss of Hungary appears huge and lumbering, but spins his way to second place with 20.25. He reminds me of the kind of athlete we high school coaches come up against on occasion: so big and powerful that he can beat most people in spite of suspect technique. By contrast, Milan Haborak of Slovakia (who finishes third at 20.11) has a very nifty spin. He is quick and smooth, and hits a nicely wrapped power position. Clearly, someone in Slovakia knows how to coach the rotational shot. The guy who I am most interested in though, is the German glider Ralf Bartels. I have been an ardent student of the German approach to the glide since I was in high school in the 1970’s, and it is exciting to get a look at the latest incarnation of the legendary German short-long technique. I love the way he uses his left arm coming out of the back of the ring. Before leaving the back he raises up on his right toes sort of like Ulf Timmerman, but as he does so he cranks his left arm back so that his palm is facing skyward and his left thumb is just about touching the middle of his back. As he drops into his glide and reaches toward the toeboard with his left leg, he swings his left arm in the opposite direction so that the back of his hand ends up directly in front of his face. It looks kind of goofy, but really seems to help him stay back while gliding. One aspect of his technique that I do not like, however, is that after driving hard into the throw with his right hip and leg his right foot actually comes off the ground before the shot has left his hand. But, as with Robert Fazekas in the disc, he seems somehow to have found a technique that works for him without consulting me.
I have plenty of time to ponder these and other great matters (Why is wine so cheap in Europe? And so good? Can a person overdose on chocolate? Did I really see a woman sunbathing nude along the RhineRiver yesterday? Is this what heaven is like?) as I walk back to my hotel after the meet. Linz is a beautiful city, and I am very glad that I ventured here. As always, I am eternally grateful to my beautiful wife Alice Wood for letting me make this trip, and to Larry and his lovely wife Suzie for putting me up and putting up with me. I hope to get back over here again next year, provided Toth doesn’t get his hands on me in the meantime.
by Dan McQuaid