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Tiina Lillak, standing on the javelin runway, with the anguished appeals of the great crowd resounding in her head, was feeling the weight of generations. This was last August's World Track and Field Championships, in her hometown of Helsinki, Finland. Lillak, then 22, had set a world record of 237'6" in the women's javelin throw the year before, had seen it broken by Sofia Sakorafa of Greece (243'5") and then had regained it with a 245'3" two months before. She was the only Finnish athlete picked to win a gold medal in Helsinki, but her eminence was far greater than that of a mere favorite.
The javelin has been a soaring means of Finnish national expression. The country has produced five Olympic gold medalists in the event and six world-record holders. Indeed, the height of the great tower of the Helsinki Olympic stadium that loomed above Lillak is 236'3", nearly the distance of the world record (238'6") established in 1932 by the greatest of them all, Matti Järvinen.
But Finnish men in recent years had fallen short of their remarkable heritage. And no Finnish woman before Lillak had ever set a world mark. Thus, she inescapably bore the hopes of all five million Finns. She had been interviewed for months, until she was dry and distracted, finally having to take refuge in a secret place in the forest.
Upon arriving at the stadium on the afternoon of the final, she had seen this headline in a Helsinki paper, filling half the page: TIINA, TODAY IS YOUR DAY!! Her stomach had tightened.
She had felt fortunate to make the final. Four days before the preliminaries, she had burst into the office of her friend and trainer, Jormo Ahonen, and accidentally, goofily, slammed her right—throwing—elbow into the doorframe. "It was swollen and blue for the next three days," recalls Ahonen. "She couldn't even mime the throwing motion."
Four days later, 55,000 Finns had skipped work and school to pack the stadium at 10:30 on a weekday morning to see her qualify. When she'd thrown, there had been, blessedly, no pain. She'd won the qualifying round, to the confident roar of her nation. She'd given only an upturned-eyes expression of relief.
Then, later, she had warmed up for the final. Her routine at such times is to sip some coffee and jog for a few minutes, then stretch and listen to something with a powerful beat on her Walkman. "To get to be like a wild beast," she has said. "A female cat. Ready to be aggressive." But on this day her coach, Kalevi Härkönen, had been allowed to accompany her on the warmup field, which is rare in important international competitions. To listen to him, Lillak had put her earphones away. "He took all the concentrating time," she would say later. "After that, the finalists had a lot of short waits, before going to the stadium, then before going onto the field. There was no time to listen to anything. Everyone was really nervous."
The situation had been anticipated by Fatima Whitbread of Great Britain, who had fixed on a strategy tailored to this pitch of tension. She would go all out on her first throws, get an intimidating mark, and then watch Lillak try too hard, press and come apart. Whitbread had executed this tactic superbly. She'd reached 226'10" on her opening attempt.
Lillak hadn't been able to match it. Her first throw had been 220'10". And for throw after throw thereafter, she had pressed too hard. Always she'd thrown too high, the spear stalling out and dropping to the turf like a wounded crane, short of Whitbread's mark.
After her fifth throw had fallen short and the embrace of her people became all the more crushing, she clung to what Härkönen had said during the warmup: "Remember, you get six throws out there." And as she paced and tried to bring the tension under control, she thought, "There's no way to escape this place if I get second."