Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Nonlinear Athletic Niches

May 5th, 2011 · 2 Comments

I’m heading upstate today to attend a workout with a world-class track-and-field athlete, as part of my reporting for a story about the limits (or lack thereof) of human performance. In the course of my research, I’ve had occasion to give a lot of thought to nonlinear athletic niches, a spin on the economic phenomenon previously discussed on Microkhan. Why do some nations tend to dominate certain off-the-beaten-path sports? There are clues to be found in this examination of Finnish javelin throwers, who have long ranked at the top of that sport’s tables. One of the more convincing pieces of theorizing:

It is by no means a secret that there was money around in Finnish sports as early as the 1920s. Paavo Nurmi‘s hectic racing schedule on his home tracks as well as in Europe and the United States was the firm background for his later success as a business man and building contractor.

As for the javelin throw, sportswriter Urho Salo tells an interesting story. The late Yrjo Nikkanen – a magnificent natural talent, whose world record of 78.70m from 1938 stood for 15 years – told him he sometimes earned ‘an equivalent of an army officer’s monthly wages in one meet as an under-the-table payment – and there were many meets like that during the summer’.

According to sports historian Anttoi O. Arponen, ‘thanks to his javelin capacity, a poor country boy could become a member of a leading club, at the same time getting better-paid work and climbing higher on the social ladder’.

And a hypothesis that I don’t quite buy, though I certainly appreciate its poetry:

‘The Finns have been moulded psychologically by the extremes of their climate,’ says Turner. ‘Long dark winters and short glorious summers have produced the archetypal strong but silent national character. The javelin suits the Finns, providing an emotional release for all their pent-up feelings. It’s the dual release of spear and emotion which the Finns so much enjoy.’

Current world rankings for men’s javelin here. The top American is a good 10 meters off the pace.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Maybe it’s just because I was never really involved in high school sports, but I’ve always wondered how people get into semi-obscure sports. Do many people wake up and think “I’m going to learn how to do the hammer toss!”?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Great question, and something I hope to be addressing in my piece. In the U.S. these days, most elite hammer throwers drifted into the sport from football, shotput, or discus. They start doing it on something of a lark, then find that a) they can go a lot farther because there is less competition, and b) they enjoy the technical challenges of the discipline. Tough to overstate just how difficult it is to throw a hammer over 80 meters–maybe one of the hardest things to do in all of sports.

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