martes, 26 de junio de 2012

Carnival of Pihtipudas: Passing on the Tradition

“Every time I throw and see, after a beautiful arch, the implement hit the ground more than 70 metres away, I feel as if I am united with my forefathers' land. There are no words to describe how proud I am of being a Finn.” (1)

Tero Pitkamaki in company of some of the young members of the 2012 Pihtipudas Javelin School

In the opening years of the 21st Century, technology and communications meteoric development, together with multinational companies’ expansion have brought to a global world with increasingly standardised citizens. However there are still traditions that remain untouched. One of them is the legendary passion for javelin throw in the country of Finland. Javelin is one of the few Olympic sports not originated in the British Isles. Indeed, it had been documented in Antique Greece yet it is particularly strongly deep-rooted in Nordic European countries. Some date back this tradition to Sami hunting ancestral custom while others do it to the supposed connexion between Finns and Old Hun warriors, but it also makes sense to consider the influence of Sweden, former conqueror of Finland, which owns records of javelin competitions already in the 18th Century. (2) Nevertheless it is eventually its deep forests, frozen lakes and harsh climate which mould Finnish personality and its attachment to sports like the javelin. The vast emptiness of this land of magic and mystery, which once inspired the national epic poem “Kalevala” and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, has somehow being internalised and made a vital part of people’s character. (3) “We like to be alone” says a fervent javelin fan. And the practise of a sport which is strong, primal and solitary is the perfect manifestation of this idiosyncrasy. Chris Turner, a mythic journalist which travelled for years all along the country to find the secret of this passion of an entire nation, got to describe it once in very accurate words: “Long dark winters and short glorious summers have produced the archetypal strong but silent national character. The javelin suits the Finns, providing an emotional release for all their pent-up feelings. It is the dual release of spear and emotion…” (1)  Those gigantic roars while throwing the implement are a mechanism of liberation of internal emotions and they are also an innate way of communicate with their ancestors. No wonder in a local competition a prize is awarded to the greatest roar, no matter where the javelin goes. In the view of Sociology emeritus professor Paavo Seepanen “the javelin throw is a model of an individual pursuit which does not need much equipment or facilities. In the countryside, any small boy could make a rudimentary birch or alder javelin and throw it in any open field. Throwing things - along with lifting stones, putting shots, wrestling arms, climbing trees, etc - has always been part of Finnish physical exercise tradition.” (1)          

A female competitor in Pihtipudas throws the javelin with the classic Finnish style, her body arched like a bow
 Indeed since very early Finland made a name in the javelin throw discipline. In 1891 in Stockholm, a young student of pharmacy, Hjalmar Fellman became the first national athlete to beat the rest of the world, which he did in standing position as it was then the rule. Sweden dominated at the Olympic Games in the first two editions the event was held in 1908 and 1912, thanks to the great Erik Lemming, but Finland swept the podium, in the latter date, at the only Olympic appearance of the two-handed javelin, which consisted in throwing alternatively with left and right hands. The champion Juha Saaristo managed an average of 61.00m, superior to the winning throw of Lemming (60.64) in the more orthodox specialty. Jonni Myyrä emulated the Swede ace with two Olympic titles in the event in 1920 and 1924. In the first of those gold medals, in Antwerp, his country accomplished an incredible 1-2-3-4, which stands as one of the defining moments of Finnish sport. Those were the years the likes of Paavo Nurmi would bring national pride and identity to a nation which had only recently proclaimed its independence. Yet unlike the “Flying Finns” which star faded one day not being able anymore to face the formidable African athletes, Finnish success in the javelin has had a stunning continuation until our days. Besides a way of providing national glory and sense of community, sport allowed early on its foremost practitioners, mainly country boys, to climb up the social ladder and obtain a source of revenues. Nurmi’s track career was the firm background for his future success as a business man and building contractor. Also, despite amateurism, Yrjo Nikkanen, whose world record of 78.70m from 1938 stood for 15 years told a journalist, many years after his retirement, he sometimes earned “an equivalent of an army officer's monthly wages in one meet” as an under-the-table payment -and there were many meets like that during the summer. (1)
Often has been said javelin throw is in Finland an affair of “muscular farming boys” so the legendary Matti Järvinen, Olympic champion in 1932 and 11 times world record holder, once wrote a  throw “takes absolutely all the power available in your body, even if for a flash of the moment only”. (1) However, javelin discipline does not only demands physical strength but also an intricate technique, excellent sense of rhythm and coordination, endurance and explosiveness. Järvinen was precisely the man who helped define this difficult combination, a perfect technician and the first athlete who trained in a way which would be recognised by today’s experts. Järvinen influenced largely the new generations of javelin throwers in Finland. For many decades, there has been a quite characteristic Finnish school’s way of casting the implement: the athlete arches its body to resemble a string of a bow, with the throwing motion taking place straight above the bracing leg.
     With well established standards in the sport, excellent coaching and great champions who act as stunning role models for enthusiastic new generations, in a country where half of his five million of inhabitants reportedly watch their heroes’ performances at great championships, Finland has kept itself in the top of the sport for more than a century now. We must also consider its excellent infrastructures, including indoor facilities which are used for competition and training during the long Finnish winter. For example, the recently retired Mikaela Ingberg, a former World and European medallist, stated these kind of halls, like the one in Vaasa, were a key tool in her preparation for great challenges: “The javelin is a very technical event and it is really difficult if you cannot see the flight of the javelin as that tells you a lot about whether you hit it right.” (4) Passing on the tradition, four other men: Tapio Rautavaara (1948), Pauli Nevala (1964), Arto Härkönen (1984) and Tapio Korjus (1988) have succeeded in the top of the Olympic podium to pioneers Myyrä and Järvinen. Overall, Finland has collected 21 medals out of 69 awarded in the history of the Games in the event, almost a third of the total. Not really bad for a small country of scarcely five millions of people. Their female counterparts have not been as successful, yet they count with one Olympic champion, Helli Rantanen in 1990, besides two minor medallists. At world level, Finns have been equally impressive with Seppo Räty (1987), Kimmo Kinnunen (1991), Aki Parviainen (1999) and Tero Pitkämäki (2007), in the men’s field and Tiina Lillak (1983) in the women’s, all of them gold medallists in the brief history of the championships. 

A group of boys having fun during their stretching exercices in Pihtipudas
The 2008 Olympic year marked the sensational come of age of arguably one of the best Finnish generations ever in the javelin, formed by the three athletes who had swept the medals at the 2003 European Junior Championships: Teemu Wirkkala, Antti Ruuskanen and Tero Järvenpää. Along with the man who had brought gold for Finland in Osaka, Tero Pitkämäki, they accomplished a remarkable collective performance in Beijing, being Pitkämäki third, Järvenpää fourth and Wirkkala fifth. With the addition of Ari Mannio, the world junior silver medallist in 2006 and also European junior champion in 2009, Finland was expected to dominate in subsequent major championships. Yet it did not. With some of its foremost athletes (Pitkämäki, Järvenpää, Wirkkala) plagued by injuries and Ruuskanen and Mannio not quite consistent when it matters, no Finnish athlete made Daegu’s top-8. Tero Pitkämäki, the most beloved sportsman in the country of the moment had played too often second fiddle to archrival and friend Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway but this time around it was more than that: in huge crisis of form and confidence and also with health issues, the Finnish number one decided to go to the Czech Republic looking for the assistance of Jan Zelezny, the coach who is responsible of the solid careers of Barbora Spotakova, Vitezlav Vesely and Petr Frydrych. However, while Vesely has shown impressive form this year, Tero had not reached yet the 80m barrier prior to the test of Pihtipudas, the last qualifying meet for the upcoming European Championship, which happen to be at home. Another disappointment could mean the inevitable decay, the end of the career of the Finnish national hero. Nonetheless, in spite of its inability to shine in the last major championships, Finland still keeps its amazing usual depth in the javelin event. Which country can boast of entering in a local meet as Pihtipudas no less than 10 national athletes who have thrown beyond 83m in the last couple of years? Although two of them withdrew in the last moment, still the field was mighty enough.  
The Javelin Carnival of Pihtipudas, which this year was exceptionally held between the 14th and 17th June, has become the most important meeting in the charged Finnish javelin calendar and an unavoidable date for every national athlete of world level. The meeting often serves also as the decisive outing to decide the national team for major championships. Yet the Carnival of Pihtipudas is much more than that. It is the biggest festival of the javelin in the world, in which annually present and former stars of the discipline and youngsters from all over Finland and from some guest countries meet to learn, compete and fraternize in an almost tribal celebration. Pihtipudas, a small village of 4500 inhabitants in centre Finland, 140km North of Jyväskylä, among pine forests and surrounded by 140 lakes, it is the ideal place where the javelin centennial tradition is passed on to the new generations. Home country of the famous professor Lauri Tahko Pihkala, the inventor of Pesäpallo, the Finnish variant of Baseball, Pihtipudas also host a Javelin Museum, the only of its kind in the world. (5)            

A coach shows a young participant in Pihtipudas school of javelin the right way to grip the spear
The festival started spontaneously when local athletes Leo Pusa and Jorma Kinnunen in 1971 came with the idea of holding a competition in Pihtipudas so they invited some friend athletes to join them. Because there were no other meetings during that weekend, most of the finest javelin throwers in Finland showed up. (6) 1000 spectators assisted to the contest, where Tapio Rautavaara, Olympic gold medallist in London 1948 was the commentator. It was a brilliant success and the organisers decided to continue hosting the competition in the years to come. Three years later women entered for the first time the outing. Then in 1975 was held for the first time the javelin school, with 28 youngsters taking part. The idea was to show the teens how to throw and how to train for the discipline. Over the years more and more people have participated in the javelin school. Currently about 200 teens from the age of 9 come to learn the basis of the specialty, divided in groups depending on their age and sex. There are an increasing number of foreign guests coming from Latvia, Sweden, USA and the United Kingdom. Some of them compete with notable success as British Olympic hopeful Laura Whittingham, winner at the 22-year age category and last year in the senior contest. Competition, including a Paralympics event, coaching and lectures alternate in the four days of the Carnival of Javelin which is closed Sunday with the TV broadcasted senior competition.
Lodgement and food are provided and included in the entry fee. The accommodation is on exercise mats on classroom floors with communal showers in the changing rooms. Dining is refectory-style four times a day. Additional accommodation is possible in nearby hotels and holiday chalets. (7) There is a great atmosphere with attendance of the whole family and even younger siblings can become involved whenever a spear is spotted unattended. Yet many experts are around so very few accidents occur. To the success of the Carnival contributes that many Finnish top names in the javelin like Jorma Kinnunen, Hannu Siitonen, Tapio Korjus, Tiina Lillak, Tuula Laaksalo or Latvian legend Janis Lusis volunteer to guide the young generations. In the last editions the director of the meeting has been Hannu Kangas, national javelin responsible and also lifelong coach of Pitkämäki. Since the school was created many of the future stars of the javelin have had the experience of participating in it at a younger age as are the cases of Kimmo Kinnunen, Heli Rantanen, Aki Parviainen, Mikaela Inberg, Harri Haatainen, Tero Pitkämäki and Lassi Etelätalo. Succession is thus guaranteed for many years.   

This year the Javelin Carnival of Pihtipudas ended with the happy return to winning days of celebrated local star Tero Pitkämäki. The world champion in Osaka produced a best attempt of 83.87, thus assuring his selection for the European Champs team. Ari Mannio, Lassi Etelätalo, Teemu Wirkkala and Antti Ruuskanen finished after the winner in this order, all of them beyond the 80m barrier. Mannio and Wirkkala were given the other two spots for Helsinki. In the female field, after some lacklustre years without valid relay for the likes of Mikaela Ingberg and Paula Tarvainen, some talented teenagers seem to be in the way for future international stardom. Sanni Utriainen the world junior champion in Moncton, who this season has broken the national junior record with a sensational 59.31m, grabbed the victory in Pihtipudas. Other youngster standouts as 2011 European U-23 bronze medallist Oona Sormunen and Jenni Kangas, daughter of the national coach and Pihtipudas director, were absent. Good luck for all of them at the European Championships and the Olympics.     

domingo, 17 de junio de 2012

Chemos Vs Zaripova: an exciting Rematch for London

Milkah Chemos and Yuliya Zaripova's duel at the steeplechase  at  the 2011 World Championships in Daegu
Photo: Mark Dadswell/ Getty Images AsiaPac
               Following a highly impressive clean sweep of the podium at the two inaugural finals, the women’s marathon and 10.000m, Kenya completed last year in Daegu its best ever performance in the history of the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, winning almost everything… Almost!  It is well known for the East African track and field powerhouse the male 3000m steeplechase is nearly a state matter. Kenya has not been beaten in the distance at the Olympic Games, ever since Amos Biwott got the first gold medal for his country back in Mexico-68 and this stunning winning streak is expected to be kept for many more years. On the other hand, Kenyan female steeplechasers are trying to emulate their decorated men counterparts in the path of victory. In the youngest of the events in the athletic calendar, the tiny champion from Bugaa village, Milcah Chemos Cheywa, was unanimously favoured to become the first Kenyan woman to clinch gold: the first one of another glorious dynasty. Chemos came to Daegu unbeaten in her pet event throughout the whole summer season, including five emphatic victories in the Diamond League and her gold medal was almost taken for granted. Her companions Lydia Rotich and Mercy Njoroge also reflected her optimism about a possible sweep of the medals for Kenya in the event. However, when it mattered most, European champion Yuliya Zaripova took command of the final from gun to tape, imposing a devastating pace which destroyed the whole field, including an unusually struggling one Milcah Chemos, who scarcely could grab the bronze medal, also beaten by Tunisian Habiba Ghribi. Kenyans finished 3rd, 4th and 5th in a disappointing evening. It was just another big upset in a full of surprise Championships. What happened? 

                   Leaving behind the obvious different backgrounds of a Kenyan girl coming from a farming community (1) and a Russian kid grown-up in a small town of the region of Volvograd from a father coach and a bookkeeper mother (2), the two standout steeplechasers of the moment, Milcah Chemos Cheywa and Yuliya Zaripova, have followed almost parallel sportive careers with striking coincidences. Both women were born the same year of 1986, Milcah in February, Yuliya in April. Both entered initially the 800m event, having moderate success. In 2005 Zaripova clocked 2:05.44 to grab the bronze medal at the national junior championships and was selected for the Europeans not getting through her heat. She quickly understood she had not the level to shine in the full of stars sky of Russian middle distances and disappointed almost quit sport. On the other hand, Chemos was convinced by friends she had future in running and decided to have it a go that same 2005, enrolled in the Kenyan Police. However she wed workmate Alex Sang and soon got pregnant, having to stop her incipient athletic career. She was blessed with a daughter, which was precisely what happened to Yuliya as well, fruit of her first marriage. Milcah reappeared just in time to run the trials for Beijing Olympics. She ended up seventh in the 800m final, nearly 12 seconds after Pamela Jelimo. Chemos realised too she was not talented enough for an international career at the 800m but then training mate Olympian Richard Mateelong suggested her to try the steeplechase which she did with immediate success. (1) She was already 23 when she ran her first race in the event in Kakamega in April 2009. Forced by circumstances, Yuliya Zaripova also abandoned her favourite event, after the sudden death of her coaches: first Gennadiy Naumov, then his successor Yelena Romanova. (2) Besides she needed to keep the national federation’s financial support to make a living of athletics and it was not possible anymore for her running the 800m. Mikhail Kuznetsov discovered Zaripova for the steeplechase and took her under his wing since 2008 for another belated and dazzling career over barriers and water jumps.        

Zaripova leads Milcah Chemos, Birtukan Adamu and Gesa-Felicitas Krause over the water jump in Daegu
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Asia Pac
              In spite of their lack of experience at the steeplechase, both Yuliya Zaripova and Milcah Chemos fared amazingly well on occasion of Berlin World Championships, getting to surprisingly climb to the podium, along with elated winner Marta Domínguez. Zaripova had had a successful winter, grabbing the bronze medal at the European Cross U-23 and reaching the final at the continental championship indoors at the 3000m flat. During the summer, she focused in the steeplechase, becoming the national revelation of the year in the event, when she won the Team Championships in Sochi and especially the National Champs in a world class 9:13.18. (3) However she was not the leading Russian in Berlin, in a team which included no less than defending world champion Yekaterina Volkova and the woman who had broken the 9min barrier in Beijing Olympic Games, Gulnara Samitova-Galkina. Nor was Milcah Chemos the number one Kenyan. That responsibility was borne by more fancied runners Ruth Bosibori and Gladys Kipkemboi, who had won the national trials. Out-of-shape Volkova failed to make the final. There, Galkina tried to repeat her demonstration of Beijing, yet unlike in the Olympic Games, the pack of challengers was able to hold her demanding pace. In the final rush, the Olympic champion was overcome and left out of the medals. Marta Domínguez proved to be the strongest of the field but rising athletes Yuliya Zaripova, then called Zarudneva, and Milcah Chemos Cheywa, also raised the eyebrows with her sensational second and third places, and respective times of 9:08.39 and 9:08.57.
The Russian argues she lost the mental battle to Domínguez, not believing in her victory over the tough Spaniard and even being afraid of her power. This mistake would not be repeated again the following year, when an increasingly self-confident Yuliya contributed with maximum points to the Russian triumph at the European Team Championships, then claimed the continental individual title over the reigning world champion, in Barcelona. On the other hand, Milcah Chemos rose to international stardom with her astounding 2010 summer season, in which she triumphed in 7 out of her 11 outings, including the African championships in Nairobi and the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. (4) Her solid campaign earned her the Diamond League title and to be shortlisted for the mention of IAAF athlete of the year. Talking about her rivalry with Zaripova there was a draw that season: the Kenyan got the better of the Russian at the Prefontaine and Aviva London Diamond League meetings, while Yuliya prevailed in Stockholm and at the Continental Cup. (5) Milcah’s momentum continued in 2011, where she raced to and fro, leaving an aureole of invincibility. Meanwhile, Zaripova kept a low profile, only competing twice during that season (once at the 1500m distance and once at the 3000m steeplechase), prior to Daegu.   

Things did not go though according to plan at last year World Championships for Milcah Chemos. First of all, her long campaign was excellent in order to win the Diamond for the second time but far from ideal to perform at her best in Daegu. In a season the most important date of the athletic calendar came later than usual, that is the last day of August, Chemos already peaked in May, when she achieved her best timings of the year: 9:16 in Doha and 9:12 in Rome. After such startling opening of the season, everybody expected the Kenyan to smash the national record and even try the universal best. However, Milcah was even unable to improve on her PB from 2009. Instead of progressing she went up in the two following months to the 9:20s, yet still kept winning meetings, due to her superiority over the challengers she had to contend against. It was a clear symptom Chemos was overcharged of competition but she did not take any break to recharge her batteries until August, keeping the same strenuous rhythm all over the summer in an especially gruelling event as the steeplechase is. When her rival Zaripova eventually entered the track for a race in the distance in late July, Chemos was already tired after her long campaign. On the other hand, the Russian did not care about Diamond League rewards but instead had only one target: the World Championships. She prepared herself meticulously for it without making much noise and only went out of her training place to compete in a 1500m race in order to sharpen her speed. Zaripova’s form in the day of the decisive contest was the best possible as it proves her excellent performance in the final.
Another problem for Milcah Chemos was of very different kind. The Kenyan’s poor technique over barriers and water jumps was evident went she had to face a rival of her same level. Besides the handicap of her small height for the standards in the event (1.63m), Chemos do not normally have a driving leg when negotiating an obstacle so she attacks it almost with both legs at the same time and bent-knees, losing her timing when she lands for a moment. In front of a woman with excellent jumping technique as Zaripova is, it was pitiful to see the Kenyan standout losing ground in every barrier and then struggling to recover that distance. That technical gap between the two steeplechase stars was still more obvious while facing the water jump. Like most men athletes do Zaripova steps on top of the barrier with one of her feet to propel herself further and out, while Chemos, jumping with both legs at the same time, just sinks into the middle of the water each time.    

After her shocking failure, Milcah Chemos had much to work in, especially psychologically speaking, but now she seems to be in the right way to face her black beast at the Olympic Games as we witnessed at the Diamond League meetings of Shanghai, New York and Oslo, especially in the latter, where she achieved the much expected African record, stopping the clock in 9:07.14 and eventually erasing Beijing silver medallist Eunice Jepkorir from the record books. Chemos seems hyper motivated and determined to avenge her defeat at the upcoming Olympic Games, making up for her bad technique with her powerful core. On the other hand, Yuliya Zaripova is still to make her debut on the track this year. Her only international appearance was a 10km road race last month. Nevertheless, when she will no one doubts she is going to be ready for the best again. Her exceptional combination of speed (4:04 PB at the 1500m), endurance, strength and excellent technique will make her again the favourite for London and we must also think about her willingness and confidence, on a high after her groundbreaking demonstration in Daegu. In the rest of the field, we have to consider what old veterans Gulnara Galkina and Marta Domínguez can still give to athletics. In only seven years since the event is being held in major championships, we have assist to a complete generational renewal in the 3000m steeplechase field. Athletes like Inzikuru, Volkova, Turava, Cassandra or Janowska have disappeared from the elite or are not anymore a factor. Kenya which has kept the unbeatable Ezekiel Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto, Richard Mateelong and Paul Koech for a decade in the male side, has however lost in a couple of years great female specialists like Cheruto Kiptum, Salome Chepchumba, Eunice Jepkorir, Ruth Bosibori or Gladys Kipkemboi, which proves the event is more fearsome than we believe. Rather talking about athletes able to upset the prohibitive favourites we must look at fresh faces as Ethiopians Sofia Assefa and Hiwot Ayalew, who escorted Chemos in her way to a new area record, also accomplishing huge personal best, Tunisian Habiba Ghribi, who achieved in Daegu the first medal ever for her country at the IAAF World championships or Binnaz Uslu and Gulcan Mingir from a country quickly making its way to the top as it is Turkey. Do not miss another thrilling final in just one month and a half time.