It was the 17th and final session of the 11th IAAF World Championships in Athletics on Sunday (2 Sep) and Finland was still waiting for its first medal, still waiting for even a top-eight finisher. Then along came the men’s Javelin Throw and Tero Pitkämäki. Suddenly it was as if night had turned into day. Or winter into summer.
Pitkämäki gave his country the best celebration it could have, taking the biggest medal of his career so far – World Championships gold. Traditionally, up to 50 per cent of the country’s 5 million population watches the men’s Javelin Throw on television during major championships and Pitkämäki will have sent them into delirium.
After a steadily improving record, but no gold medal, Pitkämäki finally found the measure of his opponents. European Under-23 bronze medallist in 2003, 8th in the Olympics in 2004, 4th in the World Championships in 2005, and silver medallist in the European Championships last year, now a top place on the podium is his at last.
Rome accident a turning point
It was a triumph of mind over torment. In Rome eight weeks ago Pitkamaki launched a wayward javelin towards the Long Jump where it struck Salim Sdiri, a French competitor. Penetrating Sdiri’s upper body, he suffered an horrific injury as Pitkämäki buried his head in his hands over what had happened.
Recalling how it had affected him, Pitkämäki said: “I had an up and down moment. That accident was a terrible thing and we both were very lucky. Now it feels even better after those bad days.”
Hannu Kangas, Pitkämäki's coach, underlined how traumatic a time it had been for his athlete. “Of course it was really difficult,” Kangas said. “The first week after Rome was awful. But we went little by little and had some very good training sessions.”
“Then, in his first competition afterwards, in Lapinlahti, he threw over 91 metres. So then I said that it would take a very strong guy to beat Tero in Osaka. We turned a sad thing into a victory for mental power.” Pitkämäki's 91.23 in Lapinlahti, was the second longest throw of the year, only six centimetres short of the leading mark of Breaux Greer, of the USA, in Indianapolis in June.
Coming only nine days after the Rome incident, Pitkämäki's comeback in Lapinlahti set him back on the winning trail. Unbeaten before Rome, where his mind was hardly worrying about his second-place finish behind Norwegian rival Andreas Thorkildsen, he is undefeated since.
With the gold medal in the bag from his 89.16 second round throw, Pitkämäki's last effort cleared the 90 metres line, his 90.33 going into the record books as the third longest at a World Championships. He is the fourth Finnish World champion in the men's Javelin Throw after Seppo Räty (1987), Kimmo Kinnunen (1991) and Aki Parviainen (1999).
Having watched him in warm-up, Kangas sensed that his man was about to produce a good performance. “He made a few very good throws and that gave him self-confidence,” the coach said. “I have always said that our road is from eighth place, to fourth place to second place, to first.”
The youngest thrower in the 2004 Olympic final – Thorkildsen, the gold medallist, is eight months older – Pitkämäki rescued Finnish athletics on that occasion as he did here. He secured the only top-eight place for Finland although, on this occasion, Tero Jarvenpaa finished eighth in the javelin for two top-8 finishers.
“The party at home in Finland will be pretty big,” Pitkämäki said. “That was my dream – to win the gold medal. I was a little bit nervous because, in the qualification, I was unable to achieve the standard and my technique was something I was thinking about before the competition. It worked well finally.”
A former engineering student, Pitkämäki has been a full-time thrower only since last winter. Although his winning distance will be recorded as the one with his final throw, he had the competition won by then. “It was fantastic throw but the most important thing was that he won,” Kangas observed. “If he had won with 89 metres I would still have been as happy as I am now.”
The evening ended on a light note at the press conference when Pitkämäki said that he wanted to thank his family and coach. “He wants to thank his coach, I want to fire mine,” Thorkildsen said.
Then Greer chipped in: “I want to hire your coach, you can get mine. We’ll swap it around.”
And the final quip came from Thorkildsen. On seeing Asmund Martinsen in the room, he said: “Asmund, you’re not getting fired. I’ll try you for one more year. If I don’t win the Olympics you’re fired.”
In which case Martinsen had better hope that Pitkämäki doesn’t find the form and desire he showed last night.
David Powell for the IAAF