"86.74 is going to stand for a long time"
How did the longest hammer throw in history become one of the most untouchable records in sports?
This story appears in the June 27, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
THE SOUND OF 100,000 HANDS CLAPPING has been messing with Yuriy Sedykh's mind all day. Three times he has stepped into the throwing circle at Neckar Stadium in Stuttgart, West Germany, to fling the 16-pound ball-and-wire contraption known as the hammer. And three times the beefy Soviet has failed to wrest the lead from Sergey Litvinov, his teammate and most bitter rival, who shattered the European championships record on his first attempt. Sedykh is unnerved by the steady thwack-thwack-thwack that builds in volume as the crowd anticipates his every throw. He wishes he could yell at the 50,000 fans to shut up and let him concentrate.
As he awaits his fourth turn, Sedykh sits glumly on the sideline, trying to get his head straight. At 31, he's in the prime of his career, having dedicated his youth to mastering the most esoteric of track-and-field events. His body is in peak condition, his drive to beat Litvinov stronger than ever. Sedykh breathes deeply and lets the rhythmic clapping wash over him, until it seems to fade into a distant roar. Something inside his mind clicks. He's ready to throw.
Sedykh strides into the circle. He scrapes his blue suede Adidases against the concrete and places the hammer's iron ball on the ground behind his legs, with the handle off his right hip. Then he explodes in a blur of motion, whipping the hammer around his head as he spins his body counterclockwise. An inch from the foul line, whirling so rapidly that he appears in danger of face-planting, Sedykh releases the hammer with a guttural roar. The ball's four-foot wire tail shimmies slightly as it rockets through the air. A moment later, Sedykh's primal scream of joy echoes through the stadium. He doesn't have to wait for the hammer to land to know that he has set his sixth world record: 86.74 meters.
Never again will he match his mighty throw of Aug. 30, 1986. And neither will anyone else.
SPORTS FANS NEVER tire of arguing over which hallowed records are unassailable. This summer, as with past summers, bleacher-seat squabbles will pit supporters of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak against those who swear that Rickey Henderson's 1,406 stolen bases will never be threatened. As the baseball diehards bicker, a handful of elite hammer throwers will spend their days flinging their peculiar projectiles, to little acclaim. None of them will come within a country mile of challenging Sedykh's mark, which just may be the most invincible record in sports. "I don't know anyone who's even getting within four meters of that right now," says Michael Mai, a top American in the hammer throw, whose personal best is more than 10 meters shorter than Sedykh's milestone. Last year's world-best heave was 80.99 meters, by Japan's Koji Murofushi. Adds Mai, "86.74 is going to stand for a long while, I can guarantee you that."
Sedykh's record isn't quite the oldest in men's track and field. Two months before the Stuttgart meet, East Germany's Jürgen Schult set the discus mark that still stands. But Schult's achievement has been tainted by revelations about his country's systematic doping program. To be fair, Soviet athletes were far from clean during the Cold War, and Sedykh may well have dabbled in steroids -- something he has long denied. But even if he did, chemicals can explain only a small part of his magnificence; compared with the discus and shot put, the hammer rewards technical skill far more than it does brute strength. "The bottom line is that the hammer throw is a math equation," says Jud Logan, a four-time U.S. Olympian.
No athlete has ever mastered that equation better than Sedykh, who refers to his elegant throwing motion simply as "the dance." But his physical gifts are far from the only reason his record is so untouchable. Sedykh entered his prime just as the Soviet sports machine was at its peak, creating an environment in which even hammer-throw success was considered essential to national pride. The machine provided him with advantages that today's hammer throwers can only dream of: generous financial support and state-of-the-art coaching. It also blessed him with that one key factor that few aspiring record-breakers can live without.
MY FIRST ATTEMPT at throwing the hammer is an exercise in humiliation. It is a blustery spring day at Mount Vernon High School, just north of New York City, where reigning U.S. national champion Jake Freeman practices on a weed-strewn field. He has coached me on the basics -- relax the arms, pivot on the left foot -- and I figure the time I've spent studying Sedykh's YouTube videos will serve me well. But once I put the hammer in motion, chaos ensues. My feet shuffle clumsily as the weight pulls my skinny body to and fro. When I finally manage to chuck the hammer over my left shoulder, I stumble backward like a drunkard.
"Nice!" Freeman snickers as the hammer plops to the earth, having traveled eight meters. He steps forward to show me how it's really done.
A gargantuan man whose T-shirt can't quite contain his prodigious belly, the 30-year-old Freeman is amazingly nimble on his feet. As he gracefully spins his 330-pound body to accelerate the hammer, he resembles the dancing hippopotami from Fantasia. Just as he seems to be losing control, he effortlessly flings the hammer so far that it nearly disappears from view. And yet, like his teammate Mai, Freeman has never come within 10 meters of Sedykh's record. That is partly because the life of an American hammer thrower isn't easy. Freeman estimates there are only five men in the world who earn a full-time living in the sport -- mostly Eastern Europeans who cobble together enough $2,000 first-place prizes to make it to the next season. Every year, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) sponsors a grueling nine-meet hammer-throw series, considered the event's richest professional prize. The winner gets $30,000, less than Angels outfielder Vernon Wells makes for a single at-bat.
Forced to squeeze in training while working day jobs, American hammer throwers simply don't have enough time to master a sport that rivals the pole vault in terms of technical complexity. Unlike the shot put and discus, which primarily reward upper-body strength built in the weight room, the hammer taxes core muscles that can be developed only with constant throwing. More challenging still, the movements are deeply intuitive: Arms and shoulders must be kept slack, which is precisely what the human body resists doing while swinging a heavy iron ball. Power is supposed to come from the spinning of the lower body, at speeds that approach 65 mph within the confines of a circle that is seven feet in diameter. "They say it takes 50,000 throws to make it so you can throw over 80 meters," says Freeman, who designs websites and cares for a young daughter in addition to training for the 2012 Olympics. "I've got, what, maybe 15,000 throws? And I've been doing this a long time, for years."
Sedykh, by contrast, never lacked for opportunities to throw. Eager to prove communism's superiority after World War II, the Soviet Union focused vast resources on racking up Olympic medals. The Soviets were particularly keen to dominate the hammer, since the event had long been ruled by Americans -- particularly those of Irish extraction, for whom the sport was an ancestral specialty. (The modern hammer throw descends from an ancient Celtic game in which competitors tossed rocks affixed to wood handles.) John Flanagan, a New York City policeman, won three consecutive Olympic golds, starting at the 1900 Paris Games; in 1913, fellow New Yorker Patrick Ryan set a world record with a throw of 57.77 meters that stood for 36 years.
But starting in the late 1950s, Soviet hammer throwers became unbeatable. As with many other sports, scouts crossed the U.S.S.R. in search of gifted youths, who were taught the rudiments at local clubs and lured into the national system with the promise of fantastic perks: apartments in Moscow, cars, travel to the West where they could buy authentic Levi's. But these privileges would be revoked if an athlete didn't meet expectations.
Sedykh, who grew up in the Ukrainian town of Nikopol, took up the hammer as a preteen. His prowess soon earned him an invitation to train with an elite club sponsored by the Soviet army, a traditional cultivator of Olympic talent. (Many athletes, Sedykh included, were commissioned as officers solely so they could receive military benefits; no soldiering was required.) At 17, he was elevated to the national team, where he came under the tutelage of Anatoly Bondarchuk, the Soviet Union's resident hammer guru, who was fresh off winning gold at the 1972 Munich Games and just getting into coaching. Sedykh didn't score well on the eyeball test: With his sloped shoulders and unfortunatemustache, he looked destined to become a bouncer at a midpriced Kiev nightclub. But Bondarchuk quickly realized that his pupil was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. "When Sedykh first come to me, I don't think he can throw 86 meters," says the coach, who now works with throwers outside Vancouver. "But he take only six months to adjust to training, after which technical development can begin. Lots of athletes take three, four, even five years."
At 6'1" and a fleshy 240 pounds, Sedykh was neither the biggest nor the strongest thrower in the Soviet system. But he possessed an attribute that is far more critical to hammer success than mere muscle. "I understand my body," he says. "I give orders to my body and make everything coordinate." That skill was key because the hammer throw heavily penalizes the most microscopic of errors. When the ball and wire are whipping around at maximum velocity, every tic is amplified until it threatens to become ruinous. The difference between a gold medal and 28th place is often a matter of a foot pulled a few degrees off-center, or a shoulder dipped an inch too low. Bondarchuk had Sedykh practice with 10- and 12-pound hammers until he understood every nuance of "the dance."
As he struggled to develop the most seamless throwing motion possible, Sedykh came to view the hammer as having more in common with ballet than the discus. "When you see a ballerina jump, she's like a bird, how she flies so easy," he says. "People are always excited when they see this. They cannot imagine how hard it is to come to this easy, the hundreds of hours of practice, practice, practice. This is also true for hammer."
With so many thousands of throws required to hone technique, the sport's best competitors are typically in their early 30s. But at 21, Sedykh won gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with a throw of 77.52 meters. Four years later, in the Black Sea resort town of Leselidze, he broke the world record twice at a single meet, raising the top mark to 80.64 meters.
His first reign as world-record holder lasted a mere eight days. On May 24, 1980, a 22-year-old Soviet thrower named Sergey Litvinov stunned the track-and-field world by besting Sedykh's mark by more than one meter.
The nemesis had arrived.
ELITE ATHLETES AREN'T always motivated by their better angels. Sometimes they're inspired by a desire to crush a foe who dares consider himself an equal. Last October, a study led by Gavin J. Kilduff of NYU's business school analyzed 71 Division I men's basketball teams. The authors found that the two main determinants of a rivalry's intensity are familiarity and similarity. "The closer the historic matchup between teams was to a 50-50 split," they wrote, "the stronger the rivalry between them, even when we controlled for similarity in the teams' all-time winning percentages."
This implies that the most bitter rivals are essentially mirror images of each other. Beating such a similar foe is akin to triumphing over one's personal demons, giving the competition an almost spiritual dimension. With so much psychological well-being at stake, athletes somehow tap a hidden reservoir of energy when facing a rival.
Or so Kilduff and his team theorized. To find supporting evidence, they looked at the teams' defensive efficiency statistics, basketball's best metric for raw effort. Just as the researchers had expected, defensive efficiency greatly improved when a rivalry was heated -- because the players were so psychologically invested in the outcome.
This study merely confirms what most sports fans instinctively know. After all, if you look at the 20th century's greatest athletic feats, you'll find that many owed much to the performance-enhancing effects of a rivalry: Roger Maris vs. Mickey Mantle for the 1961 home run title, the Cowboys vs. the Steelers for 1970s NFL supremacy, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. "The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did," Bird once confessed. "I didn't care about anything else."
Which brings us back to Sedykh and Litvinov. The two were civil to each other -- the Soviet sporting ethos wasn't big on trash talk -- but they shared little in common other than the burning desire to be remembered as history's greatest hammer thrower. The 5'10" Litvinov was diminutive in a sport that favors athletes several inches taller, as long arms are essential to increasing the radius, and thus the speed, of the hammer as it's being swung. Still, he was considered the Soviet program's finest physical talent, blessed with uncommon explosiveness. Boyishly handsome, with shaggy blond hair and mischievous eyes, he possessed a certain star quality that the pensive, balding Sedykh lacked.
The two men also differed in throwing style: Sedykh made three turns before releasing the hammer, while Litvinov was a devotee of the more common four-turn approach. "The idea is that if you put an extra turn in there, the result is 30 percent more acceleration," says Jesus Dapena, a biomechanics professor at Indiana University and one of the few scientists in the world to have closely studied the hammer throw. "But with another turn, if you have a little mistake in there, it gets bigger and bigger as you go on."
Throughout the 1980s, Sedykh and Litvinov clashed on stages both large and small, regularly swapping records back and forth as they vied for the affections of the Soviet public. At the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Sedykh came out on top, breaking Litvinov's two-month-old world record along the way, with a throw of 81.80 meters. Two years later, Litvinov bested that mark by a whopping two meters. And on July 3, 1984, at a meet in Cork, Ireland, the two men exceeded the world record five times between them. Sedykh ultimately earned first place with a heave of 86.34 meters, despite the fact that he'd spent the previous night drinking beer at a local pub. To hammer-throw aficionados, it was the single greatest day in the history of the sport.
Then came that August afternoon in West Germany. Sedykh barely celebrated when the scoreboard at Neckar Stadium flashed "86.74." He hopped up once, calmly accepted a handshake from a Swedish thrower, then waved a clenched fist at the crowd. That was it. At the rate he and Litvinov were going, surely there would be many more records to come.
It didn't happen in Stuttgart. Inconsistency at major meets was always Litvinov's greatest flaw; under pressure, he tended to speed up his motion and spin out of the circle. And so he came up short on each of his last few attempts. In the years afterward, the rivalry lost some power as age caught up with Sedykh. He finished second to Litvinov at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, with neither man breaking the 85-meter barrier en route to their medals. Sedykh enjoyed one more great victory, at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo, but his winning mark was just 81.70.
Like Bondarchuk before him, Sedykh moved into coaching after retiring from competition in 1995. He traveled the world conducting hammer clinics, teaching the next generation to approach the sport with a certain sense of Zen. "Athletes are always looking for some secret Soviet exercise or program, and this makes damage to them," he says. "The most important thing is for them to understand the vision of the global movement, of the dance. This is my philosophy." He now lives in Paris with his second wife, Natalya Lisovskaya, who has held the world record in the women's shot put since 1987. The couple's teenage daughter, Alexia, has proven herself a hammer prodigy, taking gold at last year's Youth Olympics in Singapore.
Sedykh doesn't consider his record beyond reach, but the numbers tell a different story. Three years ago, a team of French sports scientists concluded that the rate of improvement in track-and-field performance peaked in 1988, and it has rapidly diminished ever since. "Present conditions prevailing for the next 20 years, half of all world records won't be improved by more than 0.05 percent," the researchers wrote.
Sedykh's world record was seriously threatened once. Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus came within a single centimeter of the mark in 2005, and it seemed only a matter of time before he exceeded 87 meters. But then Tsikhan tested positive for excessive testosterone at the Beijing Olympics, and he spent the next two years appealing his suspension. He eventually won a reprieve on a technicality, but the legal struggle took its toll: He is not the thrower he once was, and at 34, his best days are behind him. (The missed opportunity to break Sedykh's record was surely most agonizing for Tsikhan's coach: Sergey Litvinov.)
And so the hammer record may never fall unless someone with deep pockets -- a national government or an eccentric billionaire -- decides to pour substantial resources into the sport, as the Soviets once did. Barring that, the track-and-field world can always hope that some freakish talent emerges out of nowhere, a Usain Bolt who throws 16-pound iron balls attached to wires.
Hammer fans eagerly await his arrival. After which, they will await his rival.
ESPN The Magazine: June 27, 2011