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Only the most wildly patriotic of Americans might grieve, and even they but briefly, to learn that the world's premier javelin throwers come not from the U.S. but from the farthest reaches of northern and eastern Europe. Such are the disparities between Old World and new that if you utter the word javelin to a schoolboy in, say, Finland or Poland, it summons up images of something soaring through the air, bringing fame and honor to the person who launches it. Try the same word on an American schoolboy and it calls to mind something that coaxes 15 miles out of a gallon of gasoline and brings profits and salvation to American Motors.
Among sports attractions in this country, the javelin is regarded as a mere curiosity and the art of propelling it as a rather dubious skill whose practitioners rank along with locker-room thieves as track and field's leading outcasts. To a people who customarily think of throwing as part of some grander whole, as in baseball or football, throwing for throwing's sake seems like some sort of profligate self-indulgence. And throwing an 8�-foot pole is an event even some track coaches wouldn't touch with, well, an 8�-foot pole.
The ignominy in which the sport is held is a pity because javelin throwing at its best achieves poetic dimensions, a creative act that is at once furious, in the violent action of the throw, and calm, in the graceful pattern of the flight. In the annals of athletic prowess there are few feats any more impressive than the 304'1�" pending world-record heave of Finland's Jorma Kinnunen, made last month in Tampere, Finland, an end-zone-to-end-zone distance with a projectile twice as heavy as the football that pro quarterbacks strain to throw half as far.
The lack of public appreciation in this country is doubly unfortunate since the U.S. has, against all odds, produced a fair share of outstanding throwers to challenge Kinnunen, more than 20 of whom have already bettered 250 feet so far this year. And their ranks would doubtlessly be far greater but for the fact that javelin competition at the high school level, where athletic ability is ordinarily shaped, exists in only 19 states.
Acceptance lags farthest behind in the Midwest, with only Kansas and North Dakota holding high school competition. In Indiana, says Herman Keller, the assistant commissioner of the state's high school athletic association, "most of our youngsters probably don't even know what a javelin looks like." The event fares little better at Midwest colleges, having been omitted from Big Ten track meets since 1941. One of the few javelin powers in the area is Ohio University at Athens, which began recruiting throwers from Eastern high schools a few years ago, an inspired stroke of opportunism, confesses Coach Stan Huntsman, that has "enabled us to capitalize on the lack of competition and pick up quite a few extra points in meets."
The reason for the javelin's neglect, of course, is that it is a potentially dangerous implement that can leave spectators, officials and athletes alike distressingly en brochette. The discus and shot wreak their havoc, too, but there is something about the javelin, with that menacing spearpoint, that brings out the Ralph Nader in people. U.S. educators and coaches often find it easier to ignore the event, rather than provide the supervision and safety education necessary for reducing the dangers as the Europeans try to do. Even where it is held, complains Frank Covelli, one of the best U.S. throwers, "The coach tells you, 'Get out of here with that thing. Go practice on the other field.' "
Such high-handed treatment should by rights make a fellow feel rejected, but javelin throwers as a breed apparently find ample compensation in being allowed into track meets free. Like the loneliest of long-distance runners, they seem to be governed by a steadfast, even stubborn, nature. For example, Covelli, who grew up in California, a state without high school javelin competition, took up the sport upon joining the Air Force at age 21 ("It just felt comfortable to me"), later threw the javelin at Arizona State and continues to compete today despite a full-time job as an engineer for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft. "There's quite an apprenticeship in the javelin," Covelli says. "But once you put it all together, you've got something. It's not like being a sprinter, where any kid can come along and beat you just as long as he's fast."
It is a matter of considerable pride among javelin throwers that brute strength alone counts for far less in their specialty, and proper technique for considerably more, than in any of the other throwing events. The trick is to tailor the throwing style to one's own specifications. With the lithe and rangy Covelli that means a fluid, unhurried delivery that seems to draw more impetus from the cerebrum than the sinews. In the case of Russia's Janis Lusis, a compact, well-conditioned athlete who held the world record until Kinnunen broke it and who outdistanced the Finn for the gold medal at last year's Olympics, it means a style that is forceful and efficient, characterized by a pistonlike delivery and little in the way of wasted motion.
Kinnunen, the most accomplished technician of all, stands only 5'9", weighs 165 pounds and is revered by his countrymen as the Little Giant. He compensates for his lack of size with a rhythmic, flawlessly coordinated throwing style in the best tradition of Finnish javelin men. Competing in the U.S. last May, Kinnunen won the javelin at the Modesto Relays, edging out Tennessee's Bill Skinner, who at 6'6" has long arms that give his throwing motion the leverage of a Roman catapult.
"If I had Skinner's size," said Kinnunen, "I'd throw 330 feet."