The eye that fixes on a javelin in flight loses the javelin's surroundings. There is no context but blur, so the shivering spear is free to evoke classical myth. You might be watching a javelin thrown by Achilles in the Trojan War, his "shaft with the long shadow." It will impale the throat of Hector and lead to Greek victory, Trojan slaughter and the invention of literature.
Fanciful? Sure, but after whom did we name that crucial athletic connection, the Achilles tendon? Track and field is atavistic, acknowledging its roots, and the javelin is the most effective of its symbolic weapons. Could you hunt with your discus? Lay siege to a castle with a hammer? What good would putting a shot have been in a battle? "Maybe when they invent the cannon, pal," the Greeks would have laughed, as they ducked the iron ball you had hurled and came at you with...javelins.
Too, the modern spear has an aesthetic of its own. If launched exactly right, a javelin is transformed from the lethal thing the thrower lugged down the runway. Fired 30 meters per second at 35 degrees above horizontal, it joins the family of kites and sailplanes and parachute silk. It floats on air.
At least it used to. These days a javelin, even when thrown well, looks like a weary pelican collapse-diving after a mullet and finding the pond is a football field.
Because Tom Petranoff of the United States added almost 10 feet to the world record with his 327'2" in 1983, and because his successor, Uwe Hohn of East Germany, put another 16'8" on it in 1984 with an amazing 343'10", the International Amateur Athletic Federation hastily rewrote the specifications for the men's javelin (the women's javelin, of different specifications, was left unchanged). For the first time in its 3,200 years (since the Trojan War), the spear was reined in.
"Basically, they thickened the tail and moved the center of gravity forward," says Petranoff. "That gives the javelin a new trajectory. You can throw it with the same velocity as ever—but it won't sail. The nose will drop, and it will dive-bomb and stick."
The longest throw since the new javelin became mandatory on April 1 is Petranoff's 280'1" at the World Games in Helsinki on July 7. That distance is still more than 63 feet short of Hohn's world record and more than 20 short of Petranoff's best performance last year. "No one is sure yet what effect it will eventually have," continues Petranoff. "It's a disadvantage to the most experienced throwers, especially to the little guys who rely more on technique." Petranoff, 28, includes himself in that skilled company, though at 6'2" and 220 pounds he's a fair-sized cannon. "Size and brute strength will benefit."
Hohn is 6'6", 255 pounds, the largest of the top throwers, and only 24. "I'm not worried that it will affect my future," he has said. "I'm young enough to start again. But the beauty will be taken out of the event."
For Petranoff it may be a matter of taking himself out of it. The American-record holder is thinking of belatedly switching to a career in baseball. That would bring him full circle. The Petranoffs, Tom and Carolynn and their daughters, two-year-old Shannon and five-month-old Whitney, recently moved into a bright new house in Oceanside, Calif. "Just five miles from where my whole career as a javelin thrower started," says Tom. In February 1977 he had just transferred from Ball State, in Indiana, to Palomar C.C., in California. In high school and later at Ball State he had played baseball, mostly as a pitcher.
"I tried out for baseball at Palomar the second day. They said I was good, but they were honest. It was midseason. I was welcome to sit, but I wasn't going to play." Walking off the field after that dismal chat, he saw some guys throwing spears.