Jan Zelezny in action (© Getty Images)
Jan Zelezny, the World record holder in the men’s Javelin is unquestionably the greatest spearman of all-time. The 38 year-old Czech will begin his bid for a fourth Olympic Javelin title on Thursday 26 August.
Not surprisingly it will Zelezny's last Olympics, and with three World gold medals also in his trophy cabinet, and 34 career competitions over 90m, his place in history is already secure.
With a fourth Olympic field event gold, the Czech hero would rank alongside Ray Ewry (Standing High and Long Jumps - 1900, 04, 06, 08), Al Oerter (Discus - 1956, 60, 64, 68), and Carl Lewis (Long Jump - 1984, 88, 92, 96).
Yet, but for one throw Zelezny would already have achieved that distinction, and now be vying for the title of the most successful ever field event competitor in Olympic history.
”This is all or nothing”
On the 25 September 1988, with World record holder Zelezny leading the Olympic final in Seoul, a silver-blonde Finn Tapio Korjus with heavy strapping to one of his thighs, stepped up to take the last throw of the competition.
Tradition, with respect to Finland’s then six previous Olympic Javelin titles, was on Korjus’ side that day but little else, as moments before Korjus, who was lying in the bronze medal position, had been at the side of the arena receiving treatment to his injured body.
With one last mighty heave Korjus propelled his spear into the distance, and when the score-board recounted the effort, it had out distanced Zelezny’s lead by 16cm. “This was all or nothing”, confirmed the Finn.
Zelezny, who had also entered the previous year’s World Championships in Rome as World record holder and had been headed for gold (finished with bronze) by another Finn Seppo Räty (who was to take the Olympic bronze in 1988) soon came up with the expression, “the Finnish Mafia problem” after Seoul.
It was meant slightly tongue in cheek but was also born from his frustration that major championships, Finnish throwers seem to control the scene like a family business, and more often than not had the last throwing position in the competition.
Zelezny’s expression also recognized the reality that at the start of his career he was competing in the second golden age of Finnish Javelin throwing.
After his loss to Britain’s Steve Backley in the 1990 Europeans, this era of dominance would also see him lose (he actually did not qualify for the final) to yet another Finnish pairing in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo – Kimmo Kinnunen, gold, and Seppo Räty, silver.
Today, with three Olympic titles and three World golds to his name, we tend to forget that Zelezny - who is now rightly seen as the ultimate competitor - had the reputation of being a bit fragile when put under pressure in a major championship scenario.
The Zelezny legend was born
The Barcelona Olympics of the following summer ended Zelezny's Finnish jinx as his Olympic record of 89.66 taken with his first throw demoralized all three Finnish competitors and Backley. Räty took silver, and the Briton the bronze.
If there were any lingering doubts of his nerve, Zelezny’s defeat of defending World champion Kinnunen in the Worlds of 1993 sealed his new found reputation.
With the exception of his European Championship defeats, the Czech has since remained without equal. Sure there have been the hiccups in the World Championships, losing (did not reach the final) in 1997 to Marius Corbett, and when injured, taking the bronze behind yet another Finnish hero, Aki Parviainen, in 1999 but in the Olympic arena Zelezny has been without equal.
In 1996, the Olympic title was retained by Zelezny with 88.16 ahead of the Backley and Räty but this time the minor medallists exchanged the podium steps they had occupied in 1992.
Sydney seals peerless reputation
Four years on and the Sydney title confirmed Zelezny’s stature as the greatest ever Olympic Javelin thrower, as he surpassed the previous best gold medal tally in the event, the two titles each won by Sweden’s Eric Lemming (1908/1912) and Finland’s Jonni Myyrä (1920/1924).
The manner of his victory was impressive. Responding to Backley’s Olympic record of 89.85m (second round), Zelezny’s third round effort was 90.17, the first ever 90m plus throw in Olympic competition with the new spear (1988 was the first Olympics it was used). This was the highest quality competition in history.
Zelezny’s response in the following year’s World championships was even more outstanding, as he topped Parviainen’s 91.31 first round championship record effort - which in any other competition would have been good enough for gold – with a 92.80m event stopper.
A fourth place in Paris last summer was disappointing but it is a little premature to say the king has abdicated his throne, as we said the same in 1997 and 1999, and that didn’t seem to concern Zelezny too much in either Sydney or Edmonton.
Now in Athens, beginning his third successive title defence, there have been rumours of a recent injury.
”My present state of fitness is not the best possible, but also not very bad,“ confirmed Zelezny yesterday. “I will try my best, it is of course very important to overcome the qualification round. I had some running sessions here in Athens and it looks good. The last throwing session I had was back at home."
”I think the Olympic village here is one of the best, I can compare from my experience. I do not care too much about the statistics, I do not count medals or statistics. I’m doing it for my supporters and for myself. The win of Roman Sebrle (Decathlon) is a great boost for all athletes in our Czech team."
"I think the younger generation of throwers is coming up, I feel that. I do not want to say that the older throwers will not be able to make good competitions anymore, but next year will see the final transition, that is my opinion."
And about that ‘lost’ gold in 1988?
"I do not think too much about 1988, that is over."
The 38 year-old Czech is to the field events, what Haile Gebrselassie is to distance running. The latter bowed out gracefully last Friday in the 10,000m and remains the greatest distance runner of modern-times, and whatever happens in Athens this week, Zelezny’s reputation will remain as peerless with respect to the men’s Javelin.
IAAF Editorial Manager