After this evening’s astonishing javelin final, gold medallist, Maria Abakumova of Russia was as mystified as anyone else as to why the distances were so huge.
Before she arrived in Daegu she said she had heard that the rarefied air in Daegu would produce long throws. Well, not even she could have expected what transpired on a cool evening with thunder clouds gathering over the mountains that surround this stadium.
Three of the top eight throws ever recorded were witnessed by an enthusiastic crowd, but no one was more mystified than the Russian. “It’s a mystery to me why the javelin went so far and floated so high,” she explained. “The air seemed to catch it and it went on and on. I wasn’t expecting my best result.”
“Best result” does not quite do it justice. In the most spectacular women’s competition in the history of the sport, the 25-year-old, now resident in Krasnodar, first saw her spear hit the turf at 71.25m in the second round to take the lead, then had to watch as arch rival, Barbora Spotakova of the Czech Republic, went even further with 71.58m in the fifth round.
Picking her spear up for her reply, Abakumova then did the completely unexpected by capping even that sensational throw by going out even further to 71.99m for a championship best performance and the second furthest throw of all time.
“Sometimes you throw long in qualifying and then fail in the final, other times it’s the other way round,” she explained, obviously delighted that it was the latter in her case.
But if the effervescent Russian was surprised by the distance, she was equally mystified by other portents. “For the first time in a competition I forgot to take off my watch,” she said, sporting a chunky white wristwatch. “Then my MP3 player would not work, so I told my coach he was going to have to sing for me!”
To cap this competition of surprises, Abakumova apparently takes a computer with her out onto the javelin apron, “but that did not work either because the battery was flat.” All in all a disaster, apart from the gold medal.
One thing that did work was her lucky track suit bottoms. She had worn them in Beijing and decided to keep them on in Daegu for good luck.
But there was more mystery, apart from the flying javelin, and it was not particularly favourable. A little more than a month ago, she picked up an injury to her right heel. But she and her coach, Alexander Sinitzin, decided not to have an X-ray “because we did not want to know if it was something serious because it might damage our preparation.”
The problem was so serious, however, that they doubted whether she would come to Daegu, but eventually decided to make the trip. “We were trying all sorts of alternative medicine, gels, acupuncture, Asian medicine, anything that we thought might help."
“After the qualifiers (she threw 62.49m on her second effort after a foul), I could barely walk. I thought 70 metres was possible, but I was not sure because of my health. I was very afraid before the final. We put so much tape on my foot that it was like a plaster cast.”
That would probably explain why, with the crowd rhythmically clapping as she prepared for her final glory throw, her dance more resembled treading grapes than something worthy of the a disco.
Then she embarked on a victory lap “because my mother told me to, so I thought I had better do it. She watches all my competitions.”
Most athletes would have cracked when Spotakova took over the lead in round five, as the Czech Olympic champion herself confessed. “I thought at that stage I had the gold in my pocket. It just shows you.”
So how was Abakumova feeling at the stage? “I just thought I had to reply,” she said flatly.
Was she surprised that she managed to reverse the medal positions from Beijing where the Russian also led until the fifth round only to be upstaged? “Well, no, because I have beaten Spotakova in meetings this year, so it was no surprise to beat her here.”
What was a surprise was the number of television stations that wanted to interview her after her victory. “I have never been so popular,” she said. “Nations you would never think would be interested in the javelin.”
Abakumova does not speak much English, but she is clearly interested in learning it. When she was asked whether she would win the Olympics she asked for the translation from Russian of the word “unpredictable” and then repeated it to herself so that she could remember it.
It is a moot point how popular she will now be in Russia. “Sadly athletics is not very popular there,” she said. “If you organise a meeting there, no one will come to the stadium.” Maybe in two years time when the World championships are held in Moscow, her gold medal here may have helped to change matters.
Born in Stavropol, Abakumova now lives in Krasnodar where she also trains as well as in Sochi and occasionally Portugal. She has a boyfriend, Alekesy, who is Ukrainian, but there is no record of what he thinks of a girlfriend who can bench press 140kg.
“Our relationship is very simple,” says Abakumova. “We are boyfriend and girlfriend, not super star and fan.”
Michael Butcher for the IAAF