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12 August 2009Berlin, GermanyAt the 2007 Osaka World Championships, Germany won seven medals with all but one being obtained in a throwing event. Two years on and the host country is still the force to be reckoned with in these events with the two defending champions Betty Heidler and Franka Dietzsch top of the list.
[Note: A version of this story originally appeared in The IAAF Magazine, Vol 24, No. 2, August 2009.]
If sprints belong to Americans and more recently obviously to Jamaicans, long distance running to Kenyans and Ethiopians then surely one country stands for the throwing events: Germany. The host nation of this year’s IAAF World Championships in Athletics, which will take place in Berlin from 15th to 23rd August, has amassed an incredible number of medals in the history of the global championships. German athletes – from West and East until 1987 and from the reunited nation since 1991 – have taken 56 (!) podium places in the Shot Put, Discus, Hammer and Javelin since Helsinki 1983. No other country comes even close to that amazing figure. 24 were won by the men and 32 by the women for Germany.
It is the men’s discus which is the most successful event. Germans have won 13 medals here, among them six golds. It is the five-time World champion Lars Riedel who is the nation’s most successful individual athlete at these championships. The Shot Put is the best German throwing event on the women’s side. Here of course Astrid Kumbernuss stands out with three gold medals.
While there is still one throwing gold the Germans have never won – the women’s javelin, but there is a chance that could change in Berlin with Christina Obergföll in fine form – they took their first women’s Hammer Throw gold in Osaka two years ago. It was Betty Heidler who won this event in Japan. Originally coming from Berlin this year’s World Championships will be something extra special for the 25-year-old. Heidler had produced a big surprise when taking the global title in Osaka. And it had come just one day after Franka Dietzsch had taken the Discus. The two throwers remained the only two German World Champions in Japan.
Now they turn to Berlin eager to repeat their double triumph on home soil. It could not be more of a home game for the two heroes from Osaka. Dietzsch lives in Neubrandenburg, which is north of the German capital. Getting to the Olympic Stadium would be an easy car ride for her. Heidler grew up in the city where her family still lives and where she intends to move back to one day.
Heidler’s family has an amazing athletics background. Her great grandfather Martin Riefstahl had been a high jumper. He had no national or international success but he was included in the Olympic torch relay in 1936, carrying the Olympic flame. “I still have that torch at home,” said Heidler. Additionally her great cousin is a famous name in international athletics: Cornelia Oschkenat. 22 years ago she clocked 12.45 seconds in the 100m Hurdles which is still the third fastest time ever by a German and just three hundredths of a second off the national record. Under her maiden name Cornelia Riefstahl finished 7th in the 100m Hurdles final in Helsinki’s World Championships in 1983, four years later she won a World bronze medal in Rome.
Despite the family connection to Oschkenat it was not the family that connected Betty Heidler with athletics. “At the age of 14 I did not really know what to do with my spare time. Then a friend took me along and brought me to her athletics club.” Ronald Brauer was her first coach at the local Berlin club. It was then a coincidence that another local coach, Bernd Mädler, spotted her talent for the Hammer Throw. “I first had no intention to make a career as a hammer thrower. But then it simply developed.” As a 15-year-old she started with this event and in her first year she threw 42.07m. But she quickly improved to 56.02m a year later in 2000 and then 60.54m (2001).
When she was just 18 years old she moved from Berlin to Frankfurt because it was in the financial capital of Germany where she saw the best possibilities of developing from national top class to international level. She joined the training group of national coach, Michael Deyhle. Today’s top three German hammer throwers all come from the same group of athletes at Eintracht Frankfurt, the club which is well-known for football. Betty Heidler, Kathrin Klaas and Andrea Bunjes have all achieved the qualifying standard for the Berlin World Championships.
Within two years after moving to Frankfurt Heidler threw beyond the 70 metres mark for the first time (2003). And she entered the top ten all-time list in her event when improving to 76.55m in 2006. However she had to be content with fifth place at the European Championships that year, but then in Osaka 2007 Heidler celebrated the biggest triumph of her career.
In the summer of the Olympic year Heidler never reached her full potential. She took ninth place in the Beijing final while she had been fourth four years earlier in Athens. “Last year I was somehow always thinking of some technical aspects when I entered the ring. That never worked. Now I returned to simply throwing the hammer again,” she answered when asked about her return to better form by journalist Uwe Martin. The 25-year-old seems to be back on the right path in time for what could be the biggest final in her lifetime. “I am really looking forward to this since I have lived in Berlin until I was 18 years old. I get goose pimples when I start thinking about all the people who have already bought tickets to support me in the stadium. It gives me huge motivation just to imagine that I could win this.”
While Betty Heidler is still young and eager to further improve in the future for Dietzsch the Berlin World Championships could be the perfect end of an amazing career. Few athletes have as strong a connection to the IAAF World Championships in Athletics as the German discus thrower. Starting in 1991 she has competed at every edition of the global championships until today. With nine appearances she already leads the list together with 800m runner Maria Mutola (Mozambique) who retired in 2008. So should Dietzsch start in Berlin’s Olympic stadium it will be a record tenth appearance for her. So far she has collected three medals – all of them gold – in 1999, 2005 and 2007.
Dietzsch will write more World Championships’ history if she adds another gold medal in Berlin. In addition to achieving the first hat trick in women’s Discus Throw history the German would become the oldest World champion ever. Dietzsch turned 41 in January; Ellina Zvereva (Belarus) was 40 when she won the discus gold in Edmonton in 2001.
“Those who fight may still loose, but those who don’t fight have already lost.” It is this motto on her web page which she will have to stick to in the weeks before the World Championships. Because Dietzsch once again is in a battle to get fit in time. A year ago various health problems caused her to withdraw from the German Olympic team. The European champion from 1998 missed her final chance of winning an Olympic medal. Four times she had competed in the Games, but she could not do better than fourth place in 1996. After doing well in winter training the start of this season was disappointing for Dietzsch. She threw 61.98m back in February and then opened her season with 61.49m in May. On the next occasions she could not reach the 60m mark. Feeling tired and too slow in the ring Dietzsch and her coach Dieter Kollark decided to cancel further scheduled competitions until her return on 17 June in in Schönebeck where her confidence was boosted by a 62.50m season’s best effort.
Dietzsch has gained experience in reaching gold medal form at the very last moment. Two years ago she had almost cancelled her participation in Osaka because of Achilles tendon problems. It was so bad that she was not able to walk to training and had to take the bike to get there. Her coach convinced her to carry on and go to Japan. The story ended with a gold medal around her neck. “Dieter Kollark is the best discus coach in the world. The World Championships have always been my event.” Can she prove that once more in Berlin?
The schedule for the World Championships makes another German two day-triumph à la Osaka possible: while the Discus final will take place on Friday the Hammer will be on Saturday. It is all set up for Dietzsch and Heidler to repeat history.