Early History

David slew Goliath with a sling-shot. Since earliest times man has propelled stones or sharpened staves of wood in order to hunt animals or fight his fellow kind.

Javelin is thus one of those fortunate events of modern Track and Field able to trace its lineage right back to classical Greece, and to the Ancient Olympic Games of 776 BC to 395 AD. Although it is known that the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Nubians, Assyrians and Egyptians were proficient with spears or javelins as devices for hunting and warfare, it is generally believed that it was left to the Greeks to develop their use in sport. At some venues, as depicted in Fig.1, javelins were thrown at a target from horse-back, but at Olympia they were always thrown on foot, as shown in Figure 2.

Fig.1                                Fig2

In its ancient context javelin throwing was not an event in its own right It was the third event of the Pentathlon, an all-rounder’s event involving discus, long jump, javelin, running and wresting

Some authorities claim that the javelin, like the discus was thrown from a raised platform called a balbis Since all agree that some form of short approach run was used it is difficult to visualise how the balbis was involved without also endangering the thrower.

The javelins were about 184m/6ft long, lighter than everyday javelins, being made of elder wood as opposed to cornel wood from which the hunting javelin was made. They were also blunt ended, at least for practice purposes. A leather thong about 4Ocms/l5ins long, called an amentum, was doubled and wound tightly around the centre shaft, leaving a loop into which the middle and index fingers were inserted The grip on the thong was retained as the throw was made, making the javelin rotate about its long axis, and giving it stability in flight, in much the same way that the rifling of a modern gun barrel affects the shell which it projects. According to ancient rules the javelin had to land within a prescribed landing sector. As in all Greek contests, points were also awarded by judges for style. The concept of  kalôs k ‘agathos (beautiful and good) pervaded all Greek life. It was the spirit of life, and of the Games. Thus, as in modern ski-jumping, the longest effort was not automatically declared the winner. The throw had also to stand aesthetic scrutiny. Indeed at the 82nd Olympic Games, Eumin of Korinth, who threw the furthest, is said to have protested against an adverse decision of the judges, but the appeal council upheld the decision, because “he lunged in so ungainly a manner that he was thrown off balance and fell to the ground”. The throw was judged to be not aréte (of the highest quality). The Council even went so far as to lecture him for action “unseeming to an Olympic competitor”.

Modern Javelin Throwing

During medieval times jousting replaced javelin throwing as the appropriate, popular sporting practice of deeds of war. Even in the swell of European 19th Century philanthropy in which the Modern Olympic Epoch was conceived, except in Scandinavia, the javelin event initially ‘lost out’. It was excluded from the first three of the Modern Olympic Games.

For some strange reason javelin throwing appealed to Scandinavian instincts. In 1896 (the year of the first Olympic Games) Harald Andersson won the javelin event at the inaugural Swedish championships with a throw of 61 .61m/202ft 1+ins. This was in the ‘both hands’ type of competition popular at that time. In it, the result was decided by the aggregate of the best throw with each hand. Eric Lemming, who succeeded Andersson as the Swedish champion, recorded 53.90m/176ft 10ins (better hand) to win the first Olympic javelin title. This was at the “intercalated” Games of 1906 held in Athens. He won the first official title in  the “Greekstyle” or “Orthodox” javelin event at the London Games of 1908. He also won the “Free-style” javelin event at the same Games

Fig. 3 Javelin throwing – “Free-style”

In the “Greek” or “Orthodox” style the javelin had to be held at the centre of the shaft: In the “Free-style” event it was thrown any way; two fingered at the tail, like fly-casting; ‘shot’ by a thrust from behind through a left-hand bridge rather like a billiards cue; or grasped at the tail and slung discus fashion. Lemming preferred the orthodox grip at the centre of the shaft, and outdid them all. At the Stockholm Games of 1912 Lemming retained his “Orthodox” title. Saaristo of Finland came second, and also won the “Both hands” event, which had replaced the “Free-style” version. This signalled both the first medal involvement of Finnish javelin throwers (indeed they took all three places in the “Both hands” event) and the demise of the ‘odd versions’ of javelin throwing, since they never survived the first World War. Kovacs of Hungary placed third in the “Orthodox” event, heralding the long, and distinguished, traditions of Hungarian javelin throwing. Meanwhile back among the English-speaking nations javelin had made little impact. When it was first introduced into the Olympic programme it was “considered a pretty event, which should prove popular in the United States. Although somewhat hesitant in its beginnings, a distinct American strand of javelin throwing did emerge. This stressed a hop into the throwing position, claimed to be vaguely reminiscent of the baseball throw familiar to American High Schools and Colleges. This basic style survived until after the second world war in America, and spawned occasional Olympic medalists and World Record holders. Even to this day the prominent place of baseball on the American sporting scene greatly influences recruitment into American javelin throwing, making it more individualistic than the remainder of the world. The pre-eminence of Scandinavia at javelin throwing was already firmly established by the time of the 1912 Olympics. This was in part due to the superior “sun-side” Finnish birch ‘weaponry’ available to them, which limited the javelin’s vibration in flight. Lemming was truly a colossus of the beginning of the modern era. He won his first Swedish javelin title in 1899, at the age of 19, and his last title, at shot put, in 1917 at 37. During this period there was no one who could match him, either in Sweden or the rest of the world. He improved the World Record nine times. The 40.04% increase, for which he was responsible, is still the greatest percentage increase on any record during the career of any one athlete. His last World Record (62.32m/204ft 5ins) set in 1912, was also the first javelin record ratified by the I.A.A.F.


Matti Järvinen (Finland)

By the time that Matti Järvinen of Finland succeeded him, in 1930, his style of throwing, which involved a very short approach run in which the javelin was tucked under the throwing armpit, in much the same manner as that used in schools, and by African tribesmen, had given way to an over-arm carry, followed by a ‘forward, downward and backward’ withdrawal, carried out Over three ‘bounding’ strides This type of withdrawal is still occasionally used by modern throwers A “Cross-step” and a pronounced backwards lean were also features of this Scandinavian style. Järvinen, who eventually became known as “Mr Javelin” because of his exploits, rewrote the World Record book ten times in eight years. During this time he also won the 1932 Olympic title, and the European Championships of 1934 and 1938. Only a severe back injury kept him out of the 1936 Olympic medals.


Figure. 5 – Stars of the past





Ruth Fuchs

Six post second world war events, and throwers, are worthy of special note. The first three of these concern American contemporaries of the 1950s. Each in turn brought his own brand of originality and inventiveness to the technique of javelin throwing. “Bud” Held was the first of these. He eschewed the side, or dropped, withdrawal in preference for a high carry and withdrawal, and used a double cross-step in attaining a side-on, very deep, pre-throwing position. The Held style emphasised leaving both implement and body parts behind, in order to get maximum effect from hip drive, before the pull. It took him to a competition on 21st May 1955, during which he threw 81 .29m/266ft 8f ins and 81 .75m/268ft 2ins, both of which took the World Record further than his own previous best distance.. With his brother, Dick Held, he was responsible for the early development of aerodynamic javelins.

The same Dick Held was instrumental in designing and developing the new javelin which was introduced by the I.A.A.F. in 1986, and which changed the entire nature of the event at a stroke.

Bill Miller, the second American, was important for realising the value of careful alignment of the javelin. This he did earlier in his approach run than contemporary throwers. The third American, Al Cantello, burst onto the javelin scene at the Compton Relays of 1959, when he threw a new World Record of 86.05m/282ft 3+ins. This was the product of a very long and fast approach, which terminated in a semi-handstand after delivery – the Cantello hallmark. What he was undoubtedly trying to do was to maintain as much momentum as possible, through the throwing position and into the throw.

Figure 6 The Reverse – Al Cantello style

Whilst most Europeans of this period held to very traditional views as to what efficient, effective javelin throwing ought to be, a previously unknown Basque javelin thrower, one Felix Erauzquin, revolutionised the event (literally) in 1956 by developing a rotational style of throwing in which the javelin was first dipped into soapy water. It had tremendous potential; both to project the implement great distances, and to endanger the lives of all bystanders. It was quickly banned by the administrators, and the precise, restrictive ‘style’ rules in force today are the direct consequence of their efforts.

 Figure 7 Felix Erauzquin ‘s rotational style

At Oslo, on 1st July 1964, Terje Petersen (Norway) broke his own World Record of 87. 12m/285ft l0ins by the enormous margin of 4.70m/15ft on. In one gigantic leap he took the World Record past the 90m and 300ft barriers. This was the biggest margin of improvement ever recorded for any I.A.A.F. record until 1984. It took a further four years to better the mark, and there are those who to this day doubt its authenticity.

Since then other Russian throwers, together with ascendant East German throwers, have begun to dominate the scene, see Figures 9 and 10. Uwe Hohn (GDR) became the first thrower to better l00m in Berlin on 20th July 1984.Enter into the Arena Jan Zelezny(CZ) and a whole new era of throwing evolving with a World record ( new specification javelin) set to the present day mark of 98.48m and fast approaching the hundred metre target again. and one wonders if a new change in the specification of the javelin itself in needed once again to reduce the distances to safe margins.


Women’s Javelin Throwing

Women’s Track and Field was not recognised by the I.A.A.F. until 1932. The first women’s World Record holder and the first women’s Olympic Champion in the javelin event were both Americans. Nan Gindele set the first World Record at 46.74m1153ft 4ins, and Mildred (“Babe”) Didrikson (later to become much better known as a golf professional) won the Olympic title.

The Russian influence upon the women’s event commenced soon after the end of the second world war, first through Natalya Smirnitskaya, who set two new World Records in 1949, and who became the first woman to throw the javelin over 50m in doing so. It continued through Nadyezhda Konyayeva who took the record beyond 55m in 1954, and Yelena Gorchakova who, besides securing Olympic bronze medals in 1952 and 1964, set the World Record beyond 60m, for the first time, during the 1964 Olympic Qualifying Competition. Her mark of 62.40m/204ft 8ins stood for eight years before it was beaten. It was then beaten twice in the one day, first by Ewa Gryziecka (Poland) at Bucharest, and then 30 minutes later by Ruth Fuchs (GDR) at Potsdam.

Fuchs threw 65.06m/213ft ins and eventually became the female equivalent of Janis Lusis. Having set her new World Record in 1972 she went on to win the Olympic title of that year, and of 1976, and to set five more World Records in a career lasting until 1980.

Tatyana Biryulina (USSR) became the first woman to better 70m (70.08m/229ft 1 lins) on 12th July 1980, and Petra Felke (GDR) setting the unbelievable record of 80mts in 1988. The change in Javelin specification in 2002 brought with it lower distances but still 70m is no barrier and  Osleidis Menendez (Cuba) set a new World record with this new model with a throw 71m54 in 2001.


Figure 10 World and British Javelin landmarks



WORLD MEN  British Men
1906 First unofficial Olympic Javelin – Athens  
1908 First official Olympic Javelin – London  
60m 1912     E. LEMMING (Sweden)  
65m 1919     J. MYRRA (Finland)  
70m 1928     E. LINDQUIST (Finland)  
75m 1933     M. JARVINEN (Finland)  
  60m            1938     J. McKillop
80m 1953     Bud HELD (USA)  
85m 1956     E. DANIELSEN (Norway) 70m            1956     P. Cullen
  75m            1957     C. Smith
90m 1964     T.  PEDERSEN (Norway)  
  80m            1968     J. FitzSimons
95m 1980     F. PARAGI (Hungary) 85m            1980     D. Ottley
l00m 1984     U. HOHN (GDR)  
  90m            1985     R. Bradstock
New Spec Javelin 1986  
98.48m1996  JAN  ZELEZNY  (CZ) 91.46m1992 S Backley


Tina Lillak

Miklos Nemeth

Tom Petranoff


Uwe Hohn


WORLD WOMEN  British Women
40m 1929  E. BRAUMULLER (Germany)  
45m 1932  N. GINDELE (USA)  
50m 1947  N. SMIRNITSKAYA (USSR)  
  45m 1950    D. Coates
55m 1954  N. KONYAYEVA (USSR)  
  55m 1960    5. Platt
60m 1964  Y. GORCHAKOVA (USSR)  
65m 1972  R. FUCHS (GDR)  
  60m 1976    T. Sanderson
  65m 1977    T. Sanderson
70m 1980  T. BIRYULINA (USSR)  
  70m 1983    T. Sanderson
75m 1985  P. FELKE (GDR)  
  75m 1986    F. Whitbread
80m 1988 P. FELKE (GDR)  
New Spec Javelin  
71m54 2001  Osleidis Menendez 64m87 2002 K Morgan


British Javelin Throwing

How long does it take to establish a tradition? Until very recently there was not much that one could write in praise of British exploits in the event. Before 1983 we had very little to show for our efforts. As Figure 10 indicates, we languished well behind the best throwers elsewhere in the world.

Our best achievement was a 7th place by Sue Platt at the Rome Olympics of 1960, although we are told that this could have been a silver medal had she controlled the excitement which caused her to step beyond the scratch-line after a 54m/177ft throw. Other than that, Tessa Sanderson had placed 10th in 1976, and our male throwers had never been higher than 14th. Charlie Clover established a new World Junior Record, and won the 1974 Commonwealth Games gold medal with 84.92m/278ft 7ins at the age of 19. Sadly he didn’t stay in the sport. At that time our best throwers were good enough to win Commonwealth Games medals, but were not world class.

Although it had been heralded for some years previously, that all changed in 1983 and 1984. Fatima Whitbread led the first World Championships until the final throw of the competition, being beaten into 2nd place by the then World Record holder Tina Lillak (Finland). Tessa Sanderson, who placed 4th in that competition, went on to win the 1984 Olympic gold medal, with Fatima third. Both had enjoyed top ranking in world women’s javelin throwing since 1982.

However, not to be outdone, the men also got things going. David Ottley placed 2nd at the 1984 Olympic Games, and both he and Roald Bradstock took British throwing beyond the 90m barrier the following year. With three Olympic medalists, and four throwers in the top bracket in the world, a new standard had been set and a new era began in British javelin throwing. More superb achievements followed soon: in 1986 Fatima Whitbread improved the World Record by a massive margin and won the European title; in 1987 she won the gold medal at the second World Championships. Since then the Javelin specification has been modified in both  the Mens and Womens Implement which has reduced the distance it travels. Nevertheless  Steve Backley has taken British Javelin throwing to new heights and has held the world record with a 90m + throw whilst one must feel sorry for the perennial Mick Hill who has always stood in Backley`s shadow but is world class in every respect in his own right. For the women Kelly Morgan looks set to follow on from Ms Sanderson and Whitbread with her British record of over 64m set in 2002.

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