For the past 10 months I’ve been cycling past Sutcliffe Park Athletics Track on my way to work. One day I stopped, pushed my bike in, and asked which field athletics I could try. Mik on reception gave me a quick rundown, explained about future plans for the track (which excitingly involve a BMX track and indoor athletics track), and suggested I contact Cambridge Harriers Athletics Club – one of the clubs based at the track.
Cambridge Harriers put me in touch with Mick, one of their volunteer coaches. I called Mick and, after explaining what I wanted to do, we arranged to meet at Sutcliffe Park. Mick kindly made time for me on a Thursday evening, between finishing work at a leisure centre in NE London and starting a training session at Sutcliffe Park.
It was a warm evening and people of different ages were warming up, running, race walking, throwing stuff, talking, laughing. The place had a lovely, welcoming atmosphere.
‘We’ll start with the shot put,’ Mick said as we each carried a shot onto the field.
The women’s shot weighs 4kg and women have been competing in shot put at the Olympics since 1948, men have been competing since the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Stone or weight-throwing events date back to about the first century and have a strong link to the Scottish Highlands. In the Middle Ages soldiers hurled cannonballs competitively, and King Henry VIII was noted for his prowess in weight and hammer throwing in court competitions. The first recorded shot put competitions were in early 19th century Scotland, and were a part of the British Amateur Championships beginning in 1866.
The shot is a round, heavy ball and Mick explained how to hold it: in my right hand, tucked against my chin, with my elbow raised. Then he demonstrated how to put the shot: standing with legs apart in a 2.135m circle, shifting weight and momentum from the back to the front foot, turning the body, and releasing the shot.
I had a go.
The shot fell forward.
‘You’re trying to throw it,’ Mick said. ‘It’s not a throwing action. You want to push, don’t throw.’
I tried again, and again.
The furthest throw I managed was about 3m. The world record is 22.63m, set by Russia’s Natalya Lisovskaya 1987, and the Olympic record is 22.41m, set by East Germany’s Ilona Slupianek in 1980.
We left the shot put circle and walked across to the net for the discus and hammer. The discus must land within a 34.92-degree sector, the net is to prevent any rogue throws injuring people elsewhere – and it came in useful.
The circle for the discus and hammer is 2.5m, and each discus weighs 1kg with a diameter of 0.180m. Mick showed me how to hold the discus: with my palm flat and my fingers lightly gripping the edge of the discus. We stood at the edge of the net and took it in turns to launch the discus in a vertical line, watching it land and roll across the grass.
After a few attempts, Mick decided I was ready to try the complete move.
We walked back to the circle and Mick stood at right angles to the direction in which he wanted to throw the discus. Holding the discus in his right hand, he swung his arm out and down, turning his body to follow the line of his arm. As his body moved anticlockwise towards the front of the circle, he transferred his weight from the back to the front foot, and, with his arm outstretched from his shoulder, released the discus. It flew up and out past the net and landed about 25m away.
I took my place in the circle. Mick corrected my stance: feet apart but not too wide, bend the back leg to get more momentum and movement. I followed his advice and let go of the discus. It left the safety of the net but didn’t travel far.
I told Mick the discus felt more comfortable than the shot put and I could feel how my body was working to propel the discus.
I threw a few more, and there may have been a slight improvement.
I managed to throw the discus about 10m. East Germany’s Gabriele Reinsch holds the world record with a throw of 76.80m, made in 1988. The Olympic record is held by Martina Hellmann, another East German, who threw 72.30m in 1988.
Women have been competing in the discus at the Olympics since 1928, men have been competing since the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Women’s hammer throw was first included in the Olympics programme at the Sydney2000 Games, it’s been part of the men’s programme since 1900. For women, the hammer weighs 4kg and measures 119.5cm in length.
‘This is my favourite,’ Mick said as we dragged the two hammers across the track and the grass to the shot put circle. And I confided how much I’d been looking forward to having a go. This was the only piece of throwing equipment I hadn’t previously used so Mick wanted to make sure I’d grasped the basic technique before giving it a go in the net.
The hammer is actually a small, heavy ball attached to a handle. Mick showed me how to hold the handle and stand with the ball to the right of and slightly behind my right foot. And how to stop the hammer.
‘Straighten your arms and pull the hammer round in front of you. As you move it from right to left, lift the hammer up and bring your arms up so they’re bent at the elbows and circle the ball around your head, keeping your arms in front of your forehead.’
I did most of what I’d been told. But forgot to bend my elbows so ended up making large and awkward circles above my head.
Mick told me to stop the hammer and went through the drill again.
My next attempt was better and tougher because I was trying to hold my arms steady, while whirling the hammer above my head: two movements that don’t seem a natural fit.
After a while, Mick was happier with my technique and we moved to the net.
‘Stand with your back to where you want to throw the hammer. You have three turns. The first two are just you turning the hammer. On the third turn, you want to turn your body, and let go of the hammer. And you need to make sure the hammer is low on the right and high on the left, so that when you turn, it’s in a high position as you release it.’
I had five attempts. My shoulders felt each one. I kept thinking about the weight I was spinning and how much I wanted it to leave the net high – and safely. I had one mishap. I released the hammer too late and it brushed the side of the net and landed outside the target throw area – Mick and I both shouted a warning to my audience of one.
My best throw took the hammer about 10m. Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk holds the world record with a throw of 81.08m in 2015, Tatyana Lysenko holds the Olympic record with a throw of 78.18m in 2012.
Like the shot put, the hammer throw has a strong connection with Scotland, where it’s still contested as part of the Scottish Highland Games. It’s been suggested the origin of the hammer throw is linked to a ban by Edward I on Scottish people possessing weapons during the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
I never really got on with the javelin at school so wasn’t sure what impact the intervening years would have had.
Women first threw a javelin at the Olympic Games in 1932, while men had been doing the same since 1906. Javelin throwers have a runway 4m wide and at least 30m in length, ending in a curved arc from where the throw is measured. Women throw a javelin of 600gm in weight and 2.2m-2.3m in length.
First, Mick showed me how to hold the javelin and move my arm from behind my head, bringing my arm up and forward before releasing the javelin. I practiced the movement a few times before trying it.
My javelin skittered and slid across the grass.
‘Not bad. But you need to throw it earlier so the javelin can travel up then come down and land in the ground.’
I tried again. More skitters and slides.
‘The javelin has more of a throwing action compared with the other three,’ Mick said, spotting the weakness in my delivery.
I tried again.
And something clicked. In a good way. The javelin sailed up, dropped down, and the tip sank into the ground. I jumped up and down. My first successful javelin throw.
I managed a few more successful throws, the greatest distance I threw was about 8m. Barbora Špotáková, of the Czech Republic, holds the world record at 72.28m, set in 2008. No Olympic record has been set but Cuba’s Osleidys Menendez holds the recognized current mark at 71.53m.
Thank you, Mick. My long-dormant muscle memory for throwing is back, and I suspect I may be back to Sutcliffe Park to practice my discus, hammer, javelin, and shot put skills.
Discus, hammer throw, javelin, shot put. 4 August 2016