Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Most Invincible Record in Sports

June 21st, 2011 · 8 Comments

For those loyal Microkhan readers who’ve been wondering why I’ve been posting so much about the hammer throw, consider the mystery solved: my long-gestating ESPN the Magazine piece about Yuriy Sedykh’s 1986 world record is finally out. I’m particularly excited about the story because it grew out of a Microkhan post—back in this ongoing project’s earliest days, I expressed my admiration for Sedykh’s achievement, along with my puzzlement over why it hasn’t been bested in well over two decades. So glad I got the chance to delve deep into the brawny Ukrainian’s backstory, as well as the science of elite athletic achievement. A snippet to whet you appetite:

At 6’1″ and a fleshy 240 pounds, Sedykh was neither the biggest nor the strongest thrower in the Soviet system. But he possessed an attribute that is far more critical to hammer success than mere muscle. “I understand my body,” he says. “I give orders to my body and make everything coordinate.” That skill was key because the hammer throw heavily penalizes the most microscopic of errors. When the ball and wire are whipping around at maximum velocity, every tic is amplified until it threatens to become ruinous. The difference between a gold medal and 28th place is often a matter of a foot pulled a few degrees off-center, or a shoulder dipped an inch too low. Bondarchuk had Sedykh practice with 10- and 12-pound hammers until he understood every nuance of “the dance.”

As he struggled to develop the most seamless throwing motion possible, Sedykh came to view the hammer as having more in common with ballet than the discus. “When you see a ballerina jump, she’s like a bird, how she flies so easy,” he says. “People are always excited when they see this. They cannot imagine how hard it is to come to this easy, the hundreds of hours of practice, practice, practice. This is also true for hammer.”

With so many thousands of throws required to hone technique, the sport’s best competitors are typically in their early 30s. But at 21, Sedykh won gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with a throw of 77.52 meters. Four years later, in the Black Sea resort town of Leselidze, he broke the world record twice at a single meet, raising the top mark to 80.64 meters.

His first reign as world-record holder lasted a mere eight days. On May 24, 1980, a 22-year-old Soviet thrower named Sergey Litvinov stunned the track-and-field world by besting Sedykh’s mark by more than one meter.

The nemesis had arrived.

At some point, I should probably post video of my own attempt to throw the hammer. As I note in the story, it was a pretty disastrous affair, which makes it an awful lot of fun to watch. I just consider myself lucky that I didn’t pull an arm free from a socket.

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