Thirty thousand dollars–the prize for winning the Diamond League final–is a nice chunk of change, but is it enough to make up for a disastrous Olympic experience? Not for Johannes Vetter.
“I’m still sad,” he told reporters after the comp in Zurich, “that the producers of that f—ing surface in Tokyo…”
He did not finish that sentence, but he didn’t need to. Track fans know the story of Vetter’s Tokyo nightmare. He came into the Games the prohibitive gold medal favorite after surpassing ninety meters on seven occasions this season.
But Vetter ended up finishing a dismal ninth at the Games, a direct and disastrous result of that “f—ing surface.”
The surface in question was the same Mondo concoction that produced a spate of remarkable performances in the running events. Unfortunately, it turned out to be entirely unsuitable for javelin throwing.
When I contacted Tom Pukstys after the Games to get his thoughts on what had happened, he told me that the top layer of the Mondo surface softens up under extreme heat, causing it to come apart when a javelin thrower plants his left foot on release. “When you throw on Mondo,” he explained, “it just doesn’t hold. When the weather is hot like it was in Tokyo, you rip right through the top of it–especially if you have a dramatic block angle like Vetter.”
“And when your left foot slips on your block, even just an inch, it feels terrible.”
Pukstys says that it would help if javelin throwers were allowed to wear longer spikes on Mondo. Current regulations allow for spikes no more than twelve millimeters, but that leaves only about eight millimeters sticking out of the bottom of the shoe, not enough to handle the forces created when a thrower like Vetter slams his left foot down as he releases the implement. Vetter estimates that his left leg has to absorb one ton of pressure at that moment–an impossibility when the surface under his foot gives away.
The Mondo surface in Tokyo was more manageable for throwers who do not demand so much force absorption from their block leg, but bottom line, the jav runway should not have been covered with it. According to Vetter, he and his coach–Boris Obergföll–”have already had some good conversations with the company who made the surface in Eugene (host of the 2022 World Championships) and for Paris. We are trying to find a standard for every javelin thrower. If I have a good stand on the runup in the last eight meters, then anyone has a good situation to throw far. We are trying to make our sport equal for anybody.”
Shot putter Maggie Ewen endured her own disaster earlier this summer when she finished fourth at the Olympic Trials, three centimeters behind Adelaide Aquilla, and failed to make the team for Tokyo.
In Maggie’s case, the throwing surface was not a factor. The ring used at Eugene’s Hayward Stadium for the men’s and women’s shot finals was reportedly quite slick, but the results (five men over twenty-one meters, a world record for Ryan Crouser and an Olympic Trials record for Jessica Ramsey) indicated that the folks were comfortable throwing from it.
Maggie agreed. “With no rain, that ring is fine,” she said recently. “It was just one of those days where things didn’t quite come together for me.”
Her schedule left her no time to grieve. “I couldn’t take a week off after the Trials to sit down and be like ‘Oh, darn!’ because I had to be in Stockholm just a few days later.”
A throw of 19.04m at that July 4th Diamond League meeting lifted her spirits and helped restore some confidence.
Maggie’s coach, Kyle Long, says that her performance in Stockholm was “reassuring,” and after a week off, they revised Maggie’s training plan to focus on a new goal–winning the Diamond League final.
The Diamond League schedule would require Maggie to spend nearly a month in Europe training on her own without Kyle, and in preparation for that they tried to narrow her technical cues down to “two or three major thoughts.”
“If you are going to do something wrong,” Maggie explained, “it will probably be one of maybe three things, so we decided to focus on a few simple, basic cues to make the mental side of training easier without Kyle there to see me throw every day.”
The main focus of those cues was to create a seamless throw featuring a smooth buildup of momentum from start to finish.
One way to promote smoothness, according to Coach Long, was to “make sure when she turned out of the back that her shoulders and hips turned together.” Another was to adjust her right leg sweep.
“She had the habit of letting her right leg drift too wide,” Coach Long explained. “With some throwers, Ryan Crouser for example, there is a moment of pause as they sort of gather themselves coming out of the back to let the right leg get out wide, but that doesn’t work for Maggie.”
Cues in hand, Maggie set off for Europe where she set up shop at a training base in Belgium. She shook off the jet lag with an 18.68m performance in Bern on August 21st, then went 19.22m three days later in Budapest.
A 19.31m mark in Poland on September 5th showed that she was ready to contend in Zurich, where the men’s and women’s shot finals were combined into one flight and held in the center of the city.
It was, according to Maggie, “a cool setup, and the crowd seemed super invested. And it was fun to throw alongside the boys, although the competition had a little bit of a weird flow to it, especially after Tom (Walsh) broke the toeboard.”
That was near the end of round three. Maggie was leading at the time with a 19.41m opener, which, after a fifteen-minute delay to replace the broken board, an additional warmup period, and three more rounds of throwing, held up for the win.
Aside from the prize money and the positive energy that comes from finishing the year with a season’s best, Maggie will now enjoy the advantage of having an automatic berth in next summer’s World Championship.
“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” she says. “Joe and Ashley Kovacs were the first to mention it to me. ‘Hey, congrats on making it into the Worlds.’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’”
“I already feel a little lighter looking ahead and not having to worry about qualifying at the US Championships.”
Speaking of those Championships, I inquired about the possibility of Maggie trying to make the team in the hammer as well. She did, after all, throw 75.04m as recently as 2019.
“That’s a tricky situation,” Kyle explained, “with the way the women’s hammer has taken off. When Maggie threw 75.04m, it was a tribute to her athleticism that she could do that only throwing the hammer twice a week. But, the women have pushed the event so far now that it might be disrespectful to think that we could compete with them when only training the hammer part time. It would take a lot of experimental training, and mental exhaustion might be a problem. Instead of chasing eighty meters in the hammer, our time might be better spent chasing twenty meters in the shot.”
Either way, Maggie’s win in Zurich has her feeling refreshed and looking forward to the 2022 Worlds.
“Who knows, maybe having the Worlds at home will be the magic I need. I‘ve had a lot of Hayward magic in my career. Hopefully, it will happen again.”
I’ll Take That As A Maybe
Like Maggie, Ryan Crouser has been world class in more than one event. When he threw 237’5’ in high school, it seemed like he was poised to become the long awaited Next Great American Discus Thrower. But he decided to focus on the shot instead, leaving it to Val Allman to show that Americans can throw seventy meters when it counts. Now, after definitively proving himself the best shot putter in history, could Crouser be ready for a new challenge?
“I get asked about the discus all the time,” he said after notching the win in Zurich with a third round toss of 22.67m (which, by the way, he threw from a static start while trying to regain his bearings after the exploding toeboard delay).
“And I’m always looking forward to the next step in my career, which is both a gift and a curse. My grandfather used to tell me to stop and smell the roses, but I’m always looking ahead and I still think I can throw farther in the shot. I’m excited to get back in the weight room, throw into the net, do drills.”
“For now, I have unfinished business in the shot. I owe the shot some farther throws. The event has done so much for me, and I want to get some farther throws out before transitioning to the discus.”
Raise your hand if you think that the “Final 3” format instituted by the Diamond League for the throws and horizontal jumps this year was a great idea. I’ll wait.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at how that experiment played out.
Under the Final 3 system, each thrower/jumper received five attempts, after which the top three competitors (after an often lengthy delay) would receive a sixth try. That sixth attempt would determine the order of finish no matter what had happened earlier in the comp. And those final three throws/jumps would often be the only ones included in the televised coverage of the meet.
Aside from regularly preventing the person with the best overall performance from winning the meet (You could, in theory, break the world record record in an early round and still not win the comp) the Top 3 format generally assured that the television audience would be treated to three crappy throws.
In Stockholm, for example, Valarie Adams, Auriol Dongmo and Maggie Ewen each broke nineteen meters during the first five rounds then failed to throw anywhere near that on their “winner take all” sixth attempt.
Afterwards, Val told Maggie that all she could think about on her sixth throw was “Oh god, what if I foul?”
Maggie says that she’d felt the same way in Gateshead where the Final 3 format debuted. “I was more ready for it in Stockholm, but to hear Val Adams say that after all she’s been through in her career, it just shows how stressful that format is.”
According to Maggie, there is a movement afoot to get the Diamond League to ditch the Final 3 format. “At the Diamond League final, all the throwers and jumpers had a big meeting. The athletes committee wants to propose an alternative idea. The Final 3 setup just confuses the average person. They’re like, ‘Wait, why did the girl who threw sixty-six meters not win?’”
“But, the Diamond League has basically already said no matter what we are not going back to the normal six throws. They are looking for a way to create “magic moments” for the TV audience, and they don’t understand that you can’t really force a “magic moment” to happen.”
One wonders if the Diamond League folks have ever watched a golf tournament. Viewers of the Ryder Cup event this past weekend, for example, saw plenty of “magic moments” as they played out naturally in various spots all over the course. These were captured using the ingenious strategy of having cameras set up at numerous holes. Viewers could be shown one player smashing a tee shot on sixteen, then another sinking a huge putt on eighteen and still another ripping a par-saving shot out of the rough on fifteen–all in the space of two or three minutes.
Golf has broadcast tournaments this way for, I don’t know, fifty years? And people love it because they get to see all the good stuff as it plays out naturally during the competition. Call me crazy, but couldn’t Diamond League meets be broadcast the same way? I remember sitting in Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium one night during the 2014 European Championships as Anita Włodarczyk took shots at the hammer world record while Bohdan Bondarenko dueled with fellow Ukranian Andriy Protsenko in a high jump battle that came down to two centimeters while the crowd went nuts over the 1500-meter final. “Magic moments” seemed to be popping up all over the place. The same thing happens routinely at Diamond League meets, so why not share that with the viewers rather than trying and failing to engineer drama?
But, back to that show of hands. Those who loved the Final 3 format? Ah, yes, Lord Coe. Anyone else?