For the unsung javelin throw, millions of superfans

Many Olympic events get little notice worldwide but have huge national followings. For Finland, the javelin throw is a national obsession.

By , Staff writer

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    Star athlete: Finland's Tero Pitkamaki, who will compete in the javelin throw finals Saturday, is a sports hero at home.
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Saturday, some 300 Finns will crowd into the Bird’s Nest, outnumbered but in full voice, to celebrate the men with the mighty spear.

Tero Pitkamaki will skip down the runway, and they will know that he has been losing distance on his throws this season because his aim is off. Tero Jarvenpaa will approach the line, and they will expect a barbaric roar, audible even in the Bird’s Nest’s interlaced rafters high above, as his javelin arcs skyward.

There is no place on earth where Saturday’s javelin final will mean more than in Finland and in those scattered sections of the Bird’s Nest where its blue-and-white-clad pilgrims find a seat. For a nation bound by ice and silence, the release of the javelin – and the yawp that always follows – is its own release.

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For almost as long as there has been an Olympics, there have been Finns to throw the javelin in it.

In 1908, the first year javelin was in the Olympics, Finns took fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh place. Twelve years later, they swept the medals, taking fourth, too. At Thursday’s qualification rounds, Finland was the only country to qualify three throwers for the 12-person final.

A national obsession

These things happen at the Olympics. A sport becomes intertwined with a nation’s sense of self, making it more than a matter of gold, silver, and bronze, but of national pride. Yet in Finland, javelin is a unique obsession.

According to Vellu Jussila, who watched the qualifying rounds from Section 133 of the Bird’s Nest, “Pitkamaki is the biggest athlete in Finland.”

Pitkamaki himself notes, with some humility, that 2 million of Finland’s 5 million residents tuned in on television when he threw the javelin at the 2005 world championships. A similar audience is expected Saturday. More than decade earlier, when the world record holder – a Czech – was rumored to be using an illegal javelin, Finnish track officials disassembled the spear on live television.

Yet it is more than just adoration. In a nation with 16 times more forestland per capita than the average European country, the vast emptiness is somehow internalized and made a vital part of people’s character. It was here that J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “Lord of the Rings,” came for inspiration – at least in a literary sense, finding in the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, a palette for his imagination.

The javelin – strong, primal, and solitary – has become the athletic manifestation of that. “We like to be alone,” says fan Jussila, his chin whiskered in pale hairs, a lopsided grin on his face.

Javelin is a sport for “muscular farm boys,” says Chris Turner, a journalist who has traveled though Finland to understand its curious connection to the sport.

He told a fitness website: “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…”

At one Finnish competition, a prize is awarded to the thrower who emits the greatest roar, no matter where the javelin goes.

Passing down the tradition

At another, in the wilderness of central Finland, amid pine forests and lakes dredged by glaciers not far removed, the greatest throwers in Finland gather to teach young throwers what they have learned. Then, as 10-year-olds sit almost at their feet, the men throw for the pure joy of the act.

Over years, the solitary sport has become an almost tribal event. At the javelin carnival of Pihtipudas, one generation is passing its knowledge on to another, “one thrower following another,” says Turner.

Saturday will be a tribal event of another sort.

And Jarvenpaa will roar for them. “I don’t know that I’m roaring. It just comes,” he says. He laughs at himself and his antics.

But in that moment when his body is arched into a bow of bone and sinew to throw a spinning stick as far as a football field, even the farthest reaches of the Bird’s Nest will know, in one man’s bellow, the release of a nation.

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