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The javelin is one of the eight Olympic field events. It is also one of the ten decathlon events. In this Entry, the rules of the javelin throw and the methods used will be explained, and some mentions of the javelin in history will be noted, as well as some men and women who truly got the point of the javelin1.
The following section covers the Olympic rules about the javelin and the competitors themselves. Evidently, trained athletes throwing sharp spears long distances does cause potential risks for any spectator without the proper chain mail. As such, the safeguards emplaced on the sport will also be shown.
The javelin does not quite have a fixed length, but there are both minimum and maximum lengths for male and female competitors. Men throw javelins that are between 2.6 and 2.7 metres long while women throw javelins between 2.2 and 2.3 metres long. The grip, made by a cord, will be positioned near the centre of gravity for the javelin (which evidently varies depending on the exact javelin length).
There are also weight requirements for the javelin. There is no maximum imposed; that is up to the competitor. There are however minimum levels for male and female competitors. Men's javelins must weigh at least 800 grams and women's javelins at least 600 grams.
Surprisingly, the centre of gravity must not be at the centre of the javelin. It is instead positioned four centimetres forward from the middle of the javelin. This encourages the javelin to land point down – a requirement for any throw to count. The introduction of this rule had the effect of reducing distances thrown. Distances fell by around 10% (almost 10m in the best throws).
Competitors must not go outside their runway during their throw. The runway is a 4m-wide corridor, which is a minimum of 30m long. They must not leave the corridor until the throw has landed, so sufficient stopping distance must be left. Any throw must land within a 29-degree sector from the end of the runway or it is a foul throw.
Unlike in shot put (where two methods are used by competitors) there is only one method used in javelin. This is stipulated, not just because it is the most effective method, but by rules set by the competition associations. It requires an overhand throw over the shoulder. While this seems obvious, it prevents athletes from trying to spin it around and twirl it like a giant discus. It is difficult to see why anyone would attempt this except to attack their doting audience, but the rules are very firm on the style of throwing that must be used. All instructions are given for right-handed throwers – to adapt for left-hand throws, simply switch relevant instructions.
Firstly any competitor will have to decide how they plan on holding their javelin. There are three styles that are used: the 'Finnish Style', which means gripping the cord by the middle finger and the thumb; the 'American Style', which is gripping the cord by the index finger and the thumb; and finally the 'Fork Style' where the cord is held by the index and middle fingers. Once you have chosen which fingers to use, clasp the grip with your palm facing upwards.
Lift your elbow up, so that your forearm is horizontal and the javelin is above your right shoulder. The javelin should be tilted slightly downwards (in order to help the javelin land tip-first) and aimed at the target.
Accelerate towards the throwing line. Make sure that the javelin keeps its position while you run. One argument over technique is that over running style. Athletes of the same height will take different numbers of steps, with some experts taking six or seven steps more than the novices would in the same distance.
At the penultimate step, the body must be rotated so that the left hip faces the target with the left leg crossing onto the right leg's path. The javelin must be tipped back until the right hand is at shoulder height with a straight arm.
Fix the left leg and use the right leg to push off the ground. The body should rotate quickly back to face forward towards the target again. The right arm must come up and forward while keeping the elbow as high as possible (which may feel strange at the beginning). Only release the javelin once it is past the right foot and then follow through with the body.
Stop. While most of your forward motion should have gone into the throw, athletes must stop as quickly as possible in order not to nullify their throw – evidently, if you can stop quicker, then more of the run-up can be devoted to accelerating, which both gives more distance directly (remember, distance is counted from the end of the run up) and more speed for the javelin.
The javelin, unsurprisingly, has a distinct part to play in history from the earliest written records to modern day. Even in the world today it is used as a weapon, where it is the thrown equivalent of the spear, which is used for jabbing or lunging. It has also been used as a source of food, and in its basic form it can be assumed that the javelin was used in the earliest of tool-using days to hunt prey.
The javelin throw was an Ancient Olympic event. It was in the Olympics as it was a common weapon of war, and the Olympics were used to test and demonstrate prowess at war and to honour the gods by doing so. In the Ancient Olympic pentathlon, the rules were similar to the modern day version, with a shorter run up. However, the Olympics were not the first competitive use of the javelin. The javelin throw was one of the sports that made up the games that took place after the death of Patroclus, recorded in the Iliad.
The Romans, as part of their auxiliary forces that were part of the Roman army, had two different types of soldiers equipped with javelins. The first type of soldiers were the Principes. They were armed with the pilum, a form of pseudo-javelin. The pilum would not be an easy weapon to win any world record with. Weighing anything up to four kilograms with a lead ball to increase penetration, the maximum possible throw with a modern equivalent was 30m, and it was only likely to be a weapon at half that range. The second type of javelin throwers were the Velites. These were auxiliary troops armed with weapons that resemble the modern day javelin. Due to their lighter armament (and armour) they were able to avoid cavalry and other charges. It is believed that it was the effectiveness of their javelins that stopped Hannibal's elephants in battle.
The javelin, while part of the Ancient Olympic games, was not in the first modern Olympics in 1896. It was not until 1908 that it was included; nor were women able to compete in the javelin upon their admission to the Olympics in 1928. The first women's Olympic javelin throws took place four years later in 1932, making it the second of the throwing events that women competed in, within the Olympic games.
Famous Javelin Throwers
The following are a selection of famous javelin throwers, record holders both past and present, and javelin throwers at the Olympics.
The longest javelin throw ever recorded was by Uwe Hohn in East Germany during the Olympics at Berlin in 1984. His throw was an absolutely staggering 104.8m – imagine watching Usain Bolt run while a javelin sails past him for the entire track. His throw is not only still the current world record; it is likely to stand forever, since the rules changing the design of the javelin have reduced the distance thrown considerably.
After the drop of some ten metres following the rule change, current world records are creeping upwards again. The current records with the new rules are 98.48m by Jan Zelezny, from the Czech Republic, in 1996 in Germany, and 72.28m by Barbora Spotakova, also from the Czech Republic, in 2008 in Germany.
The Olympic records for javelin are both below the world records. For women, the record of 71.53m by Osleidys Menéndez, set in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, is only 75cm below the world record. For men, however, the Olympic record by Andreas Thorkildsen in the 2008 Beijing Olympics is 90.57m, far below the world record.
Odd Facts About the Javelin You Will Never Need
The Norse believed that their main god, Odin, carried a javelin that was made by a clan of dwarves. Unlike in modern-day javelin throwing, where only a modicum of accuracy is necessary, this javelin was designed never to miss the target – a helpful ability when the god is forced to use it in Ragnarok.G
Although it is banned for safety reasons, a spinning technique is possible. Apparently the technique was discovered by workers who would throw their tools around (who doesn't want to chuck their work away?), and a crowbar would fly best if spun while throwing over the shoulder.
The Finns, and to an extent the other Scandinavian nations, have indoor javelin centres. With these centres approaching 90m in length, all but the best male athletes are capable of doing their throws here. This allows nations with six months of snow to compete internationally. Several full competitions take place during the winter months, with 80m throws being registered each year.