World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that Latvia’s 1968 Olympic javelin champion Janis Lusis died of cancer on Wednesday (29) at the age of 80.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest javelin throwers of all time, Lusis earned a full set of Olympic medals, won four European titles and set two world records during an international career that spanned 15 years.
Born in May 1939 in the Latvian city of Jelgava, which was then part of the Soviet Union, Lusis was a great all-round athlete. He competed in the decathlon during his early years in the sport, and even ranked as high as fifth in the world in 1962 with a best of 7764, but the javelin was always his strongest discipline.
He won the Soviet Union title in 1962, his first of 12 national titles, and went on to win the European Championships later that year with a championship record of 82.04m. He ended the season by throwing a world-leading 86.04m. Although there were no major championships in 1963, he went undefeated for the entire season.
Lusis made his Olympic debut in 1964 and led for the first three rounds of the final but was overtaken in the latter stages and had to settle for the bronze medal. He successfully defended his European title in 1966, breaking his own championship record with 84.48m.
He returned to the Olympic stage in 1968 as the overwhelming favourite for the title. He had broken the world record earlier in the season with 91.98m and had thrown beyond 90 metres on six occasions.
But Lusis faced a strong challenge from Jorma Kinnunen in the Olympic final as the Finn opened with 86.30m. Lusis gained a slight lead in round two with 86.34m, but Hungary’s Gergely Kulcsar then moved into first place with 87.06m in round four. Lusis saved his best for last, though, opening the final round with an Olympic record of 90.10m. Kinnunen improved to 88.58m later that round, but it wasn’t enough to catch Lusis.
In 1969, the year in which he married 1960 Olympic champion Elvira Ozolina, Lusis enjoyed another undefeated season. He won his third European title with 91.52m, once again breaking the championship record.
He successfully defended his European title two years later in Helsinki, becoming the first athlete to win four times in the same event. His winning throw of 90.68m was more than five metres farther than his nearest opponent.
Having set a world record of 93.80m in July 1972, he was heavily favoured to retain his title at the Munich Olympics later that year. He opened the final with a leading 88.88m and extended that to 89.54m in the third round. But West Germany’s Klaus Wolfermann, backed by the home crowd, unleashed an Olympic record of 90.48m in the penultimate round to take the lead. Lusis, as he had done four years earlier, produced his best throw in the sixth and final round, but his mark of 90.46m was two centimetres shy of Wolfermann’s throw, meaning he had to settle for the silver medal.
In 1976, at the age of 37, Lusis competed in his fourth Olympic Games and finished eighth. After retiring from competitive athletics, he worked as a coach and official in Latvia.
Lusis received the ‘Lifetime Contribution to Sport’ award at the 2009 Latvian Sports Personality of the Year ceremony.
His son, Voldermars, was also an international javelin thrower and competed at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.