There is not much to attract even antelopes to Antelope Valley, a dull, reddish-gray stretch of desert on the edge of the Mojave some 70 freeway miles north of Los Angeles. Its major enticements are Palmdale, which has a reservoir, Lancaster, which is the home of Antelope Valley Junior College, and some pretty good rabbit hunting. Then, quite by accident, a couple of visitors built more like bull elephants than the fleet creatures that gave the valley its name discovered the wind, and Antelope Valley became hallowed ground. The visitors were discus throwers, and to anyone whose cup of tea is sending saucers flying, a reliable wind is a precious commodity.
Miles Lister and Dave Weber were the pioneers. Discus throwers living and working in Los Angeles, they had driven out from the city one chilly dawn in 1968 to shoot rabbits. They parked Weber"s Volkswagen in a likely spot and Lister opened the door to climb out. Well. no, that isn't quite the way it worked. Lister, who is 6'5" and 265, tried to climb out only to find himself penned in by the force of a 50-mph gale.
"Wow!" he shouted when he finally shouldered his way out of the car and clung to its side to keep from being blown off into the desert. "What a great find!"
Only Hollywood special effects men and discus throwers could say that. A wind that bends palm trees nearly double, hurls sand and debris through the streets of Palmdale and Lancaster like grapeshot and regularly obliges the residents to walk backward is virtuous only because of regulations in track and field that mainly concern the discus throw. In most other events—sprinting, the jumps, the hurdles—no official record can be claimed if a wind greater than 4.4 mph is at the performer's back. In races of one lap or more the runners get the breeze coming and going. But in the discus any wind is allowed.
There is no doubt that a strong one can help a throw, but the degree cannot be measured. To obtain meaningful data anemometers would have to be spotted from ground level up to 30 feet in the air, like barrage balloons. And which wind direction provides significant aid? Among discus men the consensus is that the wind helps most when it is steady and quartering, and that 40 mph can add at least 20 feet to a well-executed throw.
The kinesthetic delight of hurling a discus 10% farther than heretofore, plus the esthetic gratification of watching a smoothly tapered, two-kilo wooden platter soar so far and so gracefully, are only two of the reasons why discus throwers are so turned on by the wind. There are also practical factors. No recent world discus record has been set without the aid of a good, brisk wind. The wind can also help run-of-the-ring performers achieve the qualifying standards they need to compete in national championships or in the Olympic Games, or possibly just to surpass 200 feet, the event's four-minute mile. Even for the very best, such an ego trip can be an essential morale booster. This is because throwing the discus is an act that often tumbles the athletes who try it into a state of acute depression.
"Discus throwers are a breed apart." says Gary Ordway, a high school teacher from Huntington Beach, Calif. who ranked ninth in the U.S. last year although he is only 5'10". "Our event is such a problem in timing, involving so many complex motor skills, that we are prone to high cycles and low cycles. We get frustrated, moody and withdrawn."
"The technique is like the golf swing," says John Powell, a San Jose policeman who finished fourth in the discus at the 1972 Olympics. "It involves precise moves carefully linked together. If one or two go wrong the whole thing goes haywire."
Who can blame discus throwers, then, for seeking out such meccas of the wind as Reno, Nev., where Jay Silvester set the current world record of 224'5" back in 1968; or Malm�. Sweden, where the monstrous Swede. Ricky Bruch, used the wind blowing off the �resund Straits to equal Silvester; or Long Beach, Calif., where the 1972 Olympic champion, Lud-vik Danek of Czechoslovakia, has posted three of his best marks—or Antelope Valley?
Silvester is a special case. Usually a calm athlete, he got carried away one Sunday afternoon in May 1968 when a sudden wind slammed a storm door shut at the back of his house in Smithfield, Utah and shattered its windows. Ignoring the scattered pieces of glass, Silvester snatched up his discus, rushed out to the high school track three miles away and launched an ego builder of 242'5", a prodigious 29 feet over the then existing world record. "The wind must have been between 40 and 50 mph," he recalls, "and there was a slight snowfall. It was a glorious day."