Hammer throwers play the heavys

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - The trouble with throwing the hammer is there is always a chance someone will get nailed.

The hammer is track and field's unguided missile - a 16-pound ball tethered to a four-foot wire - and it has been flung nearly the length of a football field. The emphasis is on distance rather than accuracy. Unless, of course, you happen to wander in its way.

''I was getting ready to jump,'' Carl Lewis recalled Monday. ''And everyone said, 'Watch your heads.' I wish I could tell you exactly where I was. But I don't have eyes in the back of my head.''

Lewis has not been quite up to speed during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials, but he may have set an unofficial world record in distancing himself from Ken Norlen's stray heave Monday afternoon. Lewis has won eight Olympic gold medals, but he has never had more motivation to move.

America's leading long jumpers were scattered twice Monday by stray hammers. Before Norlen's first attempt shattered Lewis' concentration, Brian Murer had made the jumpers jumpy with a wayward practice throw.

''I just hooked it a little bit,'' Murer said. ''I looked like Tiger Woods on 16 . . . But I'd like to be known more for making the Olympics than potentially killing Carl Lewis.''

Giggling notwithstanding, this was no laughing matter. Norlen has twice seen bystanders struck by flying hammers, and one of them died on the spot. Tennessee decathlete Scott Hartman was hit in the head by a flying hammer nine years ago at the Kentucky Relays, and has never fully recovered. The event is deemed so dangerous that only a few states allow it at the high school level.

Even among world-class athletes, the hammer remains a safety concern. Particularly when meet organizers fail to take adequate precautions.

Scheduling Monday's hammer and long jump qualifying simultaneously was a stroke of utter stupidity by USA Track & Field. The long jump layout at Centennial Olympic Stadium requires the jumpers to compete with their backs to the hammer throw cage. They might as well run through a missile range.

''I can't blame the hammer throwers,'' Lewis said. ''I think the fair question is that we have an exciting, eight-day track meet and yet they found a way to have both the long jump and hammer at the same time. They (the hammer throwers) were nervous, too, and they came over and apologized to us. Still, I don't think they were afraid of us jumping in front of their hammers.''

Dennis Kline, Miami University's hammer throw record-holder, made his final qualifying throw Monday while Lewis stood at the end of the long jump runway, preparing for his last attempt. Kline failed to advance to the finals - he finished 23rd among 24 competitors - but he succeeded in keeping his throws within the appropriate area.

This is not as simple as it might sound. Much like the discus, hammer-throwing technique calls for generating speed within a tight circle. In making tight turns while swinging the 16-pound weight, a competitor can sometimes lose sight of his preferred release point.

Training on campus in Oxford, Kline has found he must be especially careful in the fall, as freshmen are inclined to seek shortcuts across his practice field. Most of them have never seen a hammer thrown before. Kline had never hurled one himself until he enrolled at Miami.

''Nobody does it in high school in Ohio,'' he said. ''I have to explain it to someone every day. It's never on TV unless it's on ESPN2 at 4 a.m. for five seconds.''

This is no worse than a mixed blessing. When the hammer throw is conducted in obscurity, it usually means no one has been hit. Certainly no one of the stature of Carl Lewis.

''I'd like to meet him so I could say I didn't mean to throw it at you,'' Ken Norlen said Monday. ''(But) maybe I can help him run faster.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 18, 1996.