Gerd Kanter of Estonia (AFP/Getty Images) © Copyright
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Kanter – threatening Alekna’s throne

given talent allied to some inspired parental pushing has produced one of the world’s foremost discus throwing talents, Gerd Kanter.

It was at the age of 17 that Kanter’s father, Jaan, with his intense passion for the throwing events took his son out onto a field in his native village of Tiduvere in western Estonia and put a discus in his hand. It was to be the beginning of the road that led to an August night in Helsinki this summer where the 24-year-old Estonian was to lead the incomparable Virgilius Alekna until the nail-biting final round when the Lithuanian finally managed to shake off the upstart.

An Icelandic polish to this rough diamond

Despite his enthusiasm, the callow youth still needed some luck to proceed from the village field to international athletics and the break came when former Estonian Television journalist Raul Rebane decided he would like to see 2000 Olympic Decathlon champion Erki Nool in action in a minor meet. But instead of Nool, Rebane’s attention was drawn to Kanter: “His technique was a nightmare, but he was very fast in the circle. It was clear he could be something very special.”

Still nothing happened until Rebane met Kanter by chance in the street in Tallinn and asked him who was coaching him. “Myself” came the reply and that was when Rebane contacted former Icelandic discus thrower, Vesteinn Hafsteinnsson, and asked him if he would hone the rough diamond. So in December 2000 at the age of 21, Kanter embarked on a plane for the first time in his life to visit Hafsteinnsson at his training centre in Helsingborg, Sweden, for a test. Almost immediately a call came through to Rebane: “This is a damn serious thing,” said Hafsteinnsson. “I’ll take him.”

Only a matter of time

So began the rise and rise of Kanter. A late starter no one expected much and his record until this year was unspectacular.  In his first big competition, the 2002 European Championships, he made the final, but looking every inch the overawed novice, finished 12th. One year later he failed to make the final of the World Championships and finished a dispiriting 25th. He did not fare much better in the Athens Olympics, but made a slight advance on Paris to finish 19th.

But all the time he was improving. It was just a matter of when it would all click and he made his name. The first time he threw a discus the implement landed at 31.95m. Hafsteinnsson took over in December 2000 and on exactly the 100th competition under his command, Kanter threw 70.10m for a new Estonian record. This season he has had 24 competitions averaging 66.70m, his ten best of the year working out at 68.29m compared to his ten best all-time 68.52m. Alekna’s lifetime 10-best stands at 70.99m.

This summer Kanter was to push Alekna close in Lausanne, but it was to prove even closer in the Finnish capital when in the fourth round to general amazement, the Estonian took the lead. The long road from his lowly home village to the athletic summit appeared at an end. “Normally Alekna comes back in the fifth round,” said Rebane. “But this time it was to be the sixth.” The nail biting finish had been closer than any of Kanter’s team could have imagined. Or Alekna’s.

75+ club

Sponsored by seven small Estonian companies, Kanter has a nutritionist, Professor Mihkel Zilmer from Tartu University, and biomechanics expert Aadu Krevald taking care of him. In addition to Hafsteinsson, he has a local coach, Uno Ojand. Rebane oversees the whole operation.

Kanter graduated from Tallinn University Business School and is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Business Marketing at the Estonian Business University. He lives in a rented flat in Tallinn but hopes to move into his own place shortly. He also wants a new car instead of the beat-up jalopy he currently drives around in, chock full of discus equipment. He forms part of Hafsteinnsson’s 75+ Club because that is the ultimate target for him in metres and another of the Icelander’s pupils, shot putter Joachim Olsen, wants to put the equivalent in feet.

Pushing Alekna all the time

Kanter’s season came to a close last weekend when there were two quick competitions in succession, both against Alekna. In both, the Lithuanian was once again victorious but, as in Helsinki, he was forced over 70m in order to beat Kanter. Saturday in Tallin, on a day with snow flurries, Kanter led with 69.35m only for Alekna to surge past on his final throw of 70.61m. The following day in the small town of Poltsamaa the World champion won again.

“Alekna was so dominant,” said Rebane. “There was no real threat around, but now he knows Gerd is behind him. Next season will be interesting. It could push Alekna to a World record, but Gerd is not sleeping either. He does not plan to be second forever. We shall see.”

Michael Butcher for the IAAF