Finnish javelin thrower Antti Ruuskanen (© Getty Images)
At the age of four, Antti Ruuskanen gazed at the television in his parents’ home entranced by the sight of Tapio Korjus launching his javelin to win the men’s gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. To complete the small boy’s day, another Finn, Seppo Raty, picked up the bronze medal behind the great Czech Jan Zelezny.
“That was the first time I had seen the javelin throw,” the new European champion recalled on the eve of last Thursday’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Stockholm. “So I was, like, ‘wow’. I ran out into the forest, found a stick and I started to throw.”
Countless young Finns before and since Ruuskanen have nurtured a passion for the javelin in Finland’s expansive forests and the results have been spectacular. The small Nordic country with a current population of about 5.4 million has accounted for seven Olympic men’s titles, including a clean sweep of the medals in 1920 and 1932.
Memories of those triumphs were revived at the recent European Championships in Zurich when Finns held the first three places for a brief moment during the fifth round before world champion Vitezslav Vesely released his best throw of the competition to take second place.
Tero Pitkamaki, the 2007 world champion and a close friend of Ruuskanen, was relegated to the bronze and the third Finn, Lassi Etalatalo, finished fourth.
Finland have won five European titles since 1934 but this year’s victory was the first for 40 years and ensured Ruuskanen will represent Europe at next month’s IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakech.
Only one Finn has ever represented Europe in the men’s javelin at the IAAF World Cup, the precursor to the Continental Cup. Pentti Sinersaari finished third in 1981 in Rome.
“It’s new, a new competition for me,” said Ruuskanen. “I would like to go there because I am now in good shape and I will represent Europe. It’s a very nice competition.”
Ruuskanen, 30, threw a personal best of 88.01m in Zurich after working hard on his technique prior to the championships.
“I had good speed and I knew if I had a good position I had every chance of throwing my personal best. It happened in Zurich,” he said. “It was all about my timing. I had a problem with it and my left leg was slow, but in Zurich it was faster and my timing was perfect and it took the javelin to a new level. There was a little bit of a headwind, I had good power and it was flying fast.”
In Stockholm, Ruuskanen confirmed he was in the form of his life with a winning throw of 87.24m in cold, wet and windy conditions. It was the fourth-best mark of his career and his first victory at an IAAF Diamond League meeting. A win in Zurich later this week would land him with the overall Diamond Race trophy.
He opted out of his final three throws and on the following morning said the decision had been purely a precaution after some shoulder problems. “I thought I could have thrown a personal best but it flew a little low,” he said.
Ruuskanen had his first coach at the age of nine after attending Finland’s famous javelin carnival in Pihtipudas.
“That’s why I think I won the European Championships, because I had a very good early technique. Also I did a lot of other sports – cross-country skiing, ski jumping, the shot put, high jump, long jump. It’s good to do many sports when you’re younger and you get strength all over your body not doing just one sport.”
Ruuskanen got a taste of the adulation Finns accord their javelin heroes after winning the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics. He said the Zurich television audience for the javelin was 1.6 million and in his home town of 5000 people, 3000 attended a ceremony when he returned after winning the gold.
Finland have not won the Olympic title since Korjus’s heroics in Seoul, but Ruuskanen will devote the next couple of years to training for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
In the meantime he will enjoy his other outdoor pursuits and when he does retire he plans to remain in sports.
“In summer I fish and I like to hunt in winter time. Almost everything I can eat: moose, rabbits, ducks, forest chickens – but not bears,” he said. “I like to teach the youngsters, I like to be in sports. When I end my career I would like to be a coach or an adviser or something like that, to keep the tradition going.”
John Mehaffey for the IAAF