Anita Wlodarczyk in the hammer at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© AFP / Getty Images)
In the fourth part of our 2016 year-end review series, statisticians A. Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best throws performances of the year.
Men's shot put
World champion Joe Kovacs was first out of the proverbial blocks in the men’s shot put. The US athlete beat the 22-metre line early, with a world-leading 22.13m effort at the IAAF Diamond League fixture in Eugene in May. The 27-year-old continued well with another 22-metre throw (22.01m) for the win in Oslo before a 21.95m toss for second at the US Trials punched his ticket to the Rio Olympic Games. Another big effort followed, a 22.04m throw to win in London in his last meeting before the Olympics.
Kovacs also had a great start in the Olympic final with a 21.78m toss in the opening round, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough to stop an inspired Ryan Crouser.
Crouser landed at the Olympic Games with just one 22-metre competition to his name, and left with three more. The 23-year-old, who won the US Trials with 22.11m, opened in Rio with a rather ordinary 21.15m, but followed up with back-to-back efforts of 22.22m and 22.26m personal bests which would have sufficed for gold.
He outdid himself in the fifth round, unleashing a 22.52m bomb which elevated him to equal 10th on the world all-time list. It was his first major senior championship appearance of his career, and he debuted with Olympic gold. Crouser had competed internationally only once before, winning the shot put at the 2009 IAAF World Youth Championships and placing second in the discus at the same meet.
Crouser, who won the NCAA indoor title to raise his collegiate victory total to four (two indoors and two outdoors), continued with an impressive season after Rio, placing second in Paris and Zurich with 21.99m and 22.00m respectively, before taking a 22.28m victoy in Zagreb.
Tom Walsh of New Zealand, the world indoor champion, took bronze in Rio with 21.36m, but found his best form at the next five meetings. The 24-year-old hit his first career 22-metre competition in Paris, winning with a 22.00m Oceanian record before improving it to 22.20m in Zürich. He lost to Crouser in Zagreb, but posted another area record of 22.21m for second.
According to many keen observers, Rio was meant to be the place where reigning champion Robert Harting would return to the top. The 32-year-old won the German Championships with a 68.04m season’s best, suggesting a clear signal of his return.
In Rio, the top podium step was occupied by a Harting, but it wasn’t Robert.
Harting, who won world titles in 2009, 2011 and 2013, didn’t even reach the final after placing just 15th in qualifying. Instead it was his 26-year-old younger brother, Christoph, who shocked the stadium with his performance. Although he had a 68.06m from May to his credit, a fourth-place finish at the European Championships with 65.13m hardly made him a favourite for Olympic gold.
The win didn’t come easy, though. World champion Piotr Malachowski led the competition until the final round. The Pole threw beyond 67 metres with each of his first three throws, with his 67.55m best coming in round three. The 33-year-old had already won his second European gold in Amsterdam with a convincing 67.06m result, but Christoph Harting had one more ace up his sleeve. A massive 68.37m world lead and personal best on his last attempt secured the title at his first Olympic Games.
Fellow German Daniel Jasinski took the bronze with a 67.05m final throw, just 11 centimetres from his personal best, while Estonian Martin Kupper reached 66.58m, also in round six, to finish fourth.
There was only one athlete in the spotlight in the men’s hammer during the 2016 season: Pawel Fajdek, the winner at the past two IAAF World Championships, was simply on a level of his own. The 27-year-old produced the 12 farthest competitions of the season, with just one of those at less than 80 metres. Having won the European title in style, the Pole arrived in Rio as the only favourite.
But something went wrong in qualification. Fajdek, the world leader at 81.87m, was well off his best, reaching just 72.00m to finish 17th in qualification. It was another Olympic disappointment for Fajdek, who four years earlier didn’t record a fair throw in qualification.
He bounced back quickly post-Rio, winning the Kamila Skolimowska Memorial in Warsaw with a world-leading 82.47m.
With Fajdek out of the picture, the Olympic final was suddenly wide open. The strongest in the final was Tajikistan's Dilshod Nazarov, who won gold with a 78.68m throw, just shy of his 78.87m season’s best from Turku in June. The 34-year-old’s win wasn’t a surprise; one of the most consistent competitors in recent years, his triumph came on the heels of his world silver medal in Beijing in 2015 behind Fajdek. Ivan Tikhon of Belarus threw 77.79m for silver with world bronze medallist Wojciech Nowicki taking another bronze with 77.73m.
A new king emerged in the men’s javelin in 2016: German Thomas Röhler, who finished outside of the medals in Beijing last year, rose to a new level.
Röhler was in top form from the start, with the first real big result coming in Oslo in early June, an 89.30m personal best and world lead. The 25-year-old then enjoyed and took full advantage of a full stadium in Turku at the Paavo Nurmi Games to produce an incredible series where all six throws were measured and the sixth best, also his opening throw, was 85.81m. The German threw 89.34m, another world lead and PB, in round two before launching his first career 90-metre throw with his next try, reaching 91.28m. Röhler threw another screamer in the fifth round, reaching 91.04m.
As Rio approached, Röhler emerged as the clear favourite. It wasn’t easy, though. He struggled with his technique at the European Championships where he threw a surprisingly modest 80.78m to finish fifth. Latvian Zigismunds Sirmais won the title in Amsterdam with an 86.66m personal best, but he didn’t play a role in Rio.
Röhler managed to find his form and won Olympic gold with yet another 90-metre effort, a 90.30m throw that relegated Kenya’s Julius Yego, the world champion, to second. The 27-year-old was unable to fight for the gold, suffering an injury during the competition which forced him to pass on his last two attempts. He reached 88.24m to out-distance himself from 2012 Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago, who threw 85.38m. Walcott was best in qualifying with 88.68m, suggesting a better finish in the medal hunt.
Women's shot put
This event was for many years dominated by Valerie Adams but a series of injuries that required surgery made her look vulnerable coming into 2016. When Adams won Monaco’s stop of the IAAF Diamond League in mid-July at 20.05m, it was her first effort beyond the 20-metre line in almost two years.
However, in the Olympic final Adams showed her competitive experience by hitting 20.42m in the second round, a throw which seemed to dampen the spirits of her opponents. With just two attempts left in competition, Adams held a comfortable 55-centimetre lead over US champion Michelle Carter.
Then lightning struck: Carter, after a series topped by three marks in the 19.80s, hit it perfectly with the iron ball touching down at 20.63m. It was a national record, a 39-centimetre improvement on her lifetime best and a world-leading mark. Adams still had a chance to respond and she didn’t waste it. Her effort was her second-best mark in two years, but at 20.39m it was not enough to reclaim that coveted gold position.
Anyone remembering the IAAF World Indoor Championships in March should not, however, have been so surprised that Carter snatched the gold in the last round. The very same thing happened in Portland where Carter improved by 90 centimetres on her last attempt to win by 88 centimetres.
It was also fitting that the US won those gold medals as they in recent years have established themselves as the 'market leaders' in the women’s shot put: in 2016 they claimed six of the top 11 positions on the world List.
Sandra Perkovic doesn’t triumph in every discus competition she enters, but she comes close.
Over the past five years she has won 54 of 60 meetings, with her IAAF Diamond League record at 32 out of 35. (She has participated in all seven IAAF Diamond League meetings every year between 2012 and 2016.) 2016, however, turned out to be a perfect year for the Croatian who won all 11 of her competitions, including the Olympic and European titles and the complete Diamond Race.
Her supremacy was also illustrated by the fact that her shortest distance all summer was 67.10m. Of her key opponents, only Dani Samuels managed to surpass 67.10m in any international championship or IAAF Diamond League event.
With Perkovic still just 26, it is hard to envision that she will be seriously challenged in the next few years if she manages to maintain her current standard. Especially as her toughest opponent in 2016, France's Mélina Robert-Michon, who won Olympic silver and finished 3-3-2-2 in IAAF Diamond League competition, is 11 years older.
But of course both Cuba, with Denia Caballero and Yaimi Pérez, and Germany, with Julia Fischer, Shanice Craft and Anna Rüh, have athletes born in the 1990s who are as young or younger than Perkovic, with potential for further development. However, 2016 didn’t bring any significant improvement for any of them. The most positive trend in 2016 belonged rather to China’s Feng Bin who at 22 was eighth in her championship debut as a senior in Rio.
If Sandra Perkovic reigned supreme in the discus, the only way to describe Anita Wlodarczyk’s position in the hammer is that she reigned even “more supreme”. Her current domination must rank among the most outstanding of any event leader in the history of athletics.
Some numbers illustrating Wlodarczyk’s brilliant 2016: 12 victories in 12 meetings; an average winning margin of 6.69 metres; winning the Olympic title by 5.54 metres with a world record of 82.29m; improving her own world record by a total of almost two meters; and producing performances No.1, 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9 on the world all-time list.
However, the pole’s dominance was amplified by a concurrent drop-off of the general standard. In the three most recent global championships (2012-2015) it took 72m-plus to reach the top eight, but in Rio only 70.20m was needed to get all six throws in the final. So, like Perkovic in the discus, Wlodarczyk looks destined to maintain her No.1 position for the foreseeable future.
Of course there are upcoming talents but it will take time to bridge the gap to Wlodarczyk’s 80-metre form. Even for Hanna Malyshik (age 22, seventh in Rio), DeAnna Price (age 23, eighth in Rio) and Hanna Skydan (age 24, third at the European Championships), an improvent of about 10 metres would be required.
The best candidate for the position of Wlodarczyk's main opponent in the next few years is probably Olympic bronze medallist Sophie Hitchon. The Briton, 25, has proven herself to be a true competitor, setting PBs both for fourth at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 and third at the Olympics. That Rio effort also secured Hitchon the runner-up spot in the IAAF Hammer Throw Challenge.
The javelin has for more than a decade been dominated by a group of throwers born in the early or mid 1980s, including the likes of Czech Barbora Spotakova, Germany’s Christina Obergföll and Mariya Abakumova of Russia. But now it seems that their rule at the top is coming to an end and that a generation some 10 years younger looks poised to take over.
But still, the 'old guard' were still putting up a strong fight in 2016. The Olympics ended in something of a draw between the generations as the order at the top was surprise gold medallist Sara Kolak, 21; Sunette Viljoen of South Africa, 32; bronze medallist Spotakova, 35; and fourth place finisher Maria Andrejczyk, 20.
Both the youngsters had big breakthrough seasons. Kolak improved her PB by more than eight metres from 57.79m to 66.18m while Andrejczyk added five metres, from 62.11m to 67.11m. Both had their longest throws in Rio, Kolak in the final and Andrejczyk in the qualification. Kolak seemed to really thrive in the championship environment as she produced a lifetime best in the final of the European Championships to take bronze as well as in both the qualification and final rounds at the Olympics.
Also raising her game considerably was Tatsiana Kaladovich who at 25 won the European title with 66.34m and the Monaco leg of the IAAF Diamond League with 65.62m. She was fifth at the Olympics with 64.60m, just 32 centimetres shy of the silver medal.
Not so lucky in championship competition was Madara Palameika – 10th in Rio, seventh in Amsterdam – but she compensated at least partially by placing 7-1-2-1-4-1-1 in the IAAF Diamond League series. In each of her four wins, Palameika threw between 64.76m and 66.18m.
Mirko Jalava (men’s events) and A. Lennart Julin (women’s events) for the IAAF