Feature19 May 2014

El Sayed's spear stunner in Shanghai perhaps not such a shock after all


Ihab Abdelrahman El Sayed at the 2014 IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai (© Errol Anderson)

By any measure, Ihab Abdelrahman El Sayed’s performance in winning the javelin at the IAAF Diamond League in Shanghai was a stunning performance on Sunday (18).

However, as often happens, closer investigation suggests some of us should have seen it coming from the 25-year-old Egyptian.

Petteri Piironen certainly did.

The Finnish javelin coach and guru told the IAAF last year: “(El Sayed) could be a 90m thrower with the help of better coaching. His throwing arm is one of the best I’ve ever seen. He is big and strong and has a natural gift for throwing. He can run faster, get stronger and fitter.”

Spot on, Mr Piironen.

On Sunday evening in Shanghai, El Sayed threw a massive 89.21m to defeat one of the strongest fields at the second leg of the Diamond League.

All three medallists from Moscow 2013 – Vitezslav Vesely, Tero Pitkamaki and Dmitry Tarabin – were there, along with Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott.

When you really get the memory banks whirling, you may recall that El Sayed looked mighty impressive in javelin qualifying at the IAAF World Championships last year. He threw 83.62m to qualify second in the Russian capital, before dropping back to a more modest 80.94m for seventh in the final.

El Sayed improved marginally to 83.93m at the start of this month for what was then his fourth improvement on the Egyptian record he claimed as his own since he first threw over 80 metres in 2010. But 89.21m, that is really something.

Even Piironen didn’t expect such a result this soon.

“I expected good results this year,” he said on Monday. “Around 87 to 88 metres, but it was a big surprise that he threw that far already and in a stadium where the circumstances were that there is no wind to help you.”

The legendary Jan Zelezny remains the world record-holder at 98.48m, but only 12 men have ever exceeded 90 metres since the centre of gravity of the spear was changed in 1986 because throwers such as East Germany’s Uwe Hohn (the world record-holder at 104.80m with the former model) were threatening life and limb at the other end of the world’s stadia.

El Sayed is now ranked 13th all-time in his specialist event.

Back, though, to Piironen, who is based at the IAAF-accredited Kuortane Sports Institute in Western Finland, and is the principal coach to both El Sayed and Kenyan thrower Julius Yego, who caused a mild sensation coming from a country famed for its distance runners and who went so close to taking the bronze medal at the World Championships last year.

Piironen first met El Sayed when the latter came to Kuortane on an IAAF scholarship in 2008. He could see the potential, but financial support and the recent social upheavals in Egypt meant that continuous training and support was not possible at that time, despite El Sayed claiming the African title in 2010 and competing for his continent later that year at the IAAF Continental Cup in Split.

Moscow meant money

However, last summer’s World Championships result finally prompted further backing.

“Finally, after the World Championships, he got some support and he was able to come back to Kuortane under my coaching,” added Piironen.

“Last winter Ihab was in Kuortane for two months and we also had a training camp in South Africa."

We saw the result in Shanghai on Sunday night. Few were paying close attention to the early throws in the competition, but when El Sayed’s first effort soared out near the 90-metre mark, minds were immediately concentrated.

No-one else could approach that distance, not even El Sayed. He threw 86.01m in the second round, which would have still been a substantial personal best but for his first throw, had a foul in the third and passed his last three attempts.

It was, perhaps, a timely reminder that you are only as good as your second-best performance and that the test for El Sayed now could be to remain in the high 80-metre range.

Whether that is to be the case could be seen as early as the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Beijing on Wednesday (21), where both El Sayed and Yego are on the entry list. Of course, the famous Birds Nest Stadium will also be the venue for the 2015 IAAF World Championships. Before Sunday night, few would have rated El Sayed a gold medal contender for that meeting, and Egypt has never won a World Championships medal of any hue.

Now, suddenly, he is a candidate, at least, for the podium next summer.

How he copes with that will be another test of his mettle. However, that is for the future; a future that for El Sayed now holds broader possibilities than it did just a few days ago.

Len Johnson for the IAAF