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The Finnish pirate who plundered America’s Gold

The Finnish pirate who plundered America’s Gold
Chris Turner

On Friday 22nd September, during the opening evening of the Olympic track & field programme in Sydney, the 26 year old Finnish shot champion Arsi Harju supporting a pink chequered head scarf pulled out two 21-metre throws to snatch the Olympic shot gold medal from under the noses of the more fancied American trio - Adam Nelson this season’s world leader with 22.12m, John Godina the 1995 & 1997 World champion and Adam Bloom third on the season’s world list with 21.61m.

Harju’s distinctive choice of head wear prompted one journalist to describe the bearded Harju as having the appearance of a pirate. However, while aesthetically an understandable description, Harju’s appearance in reality has more in common with the American biker culture as epitomised in the film "Easy Rider", rather than any Errol Flynn style swashbuckler.

Arsi Harju has a passion for most things American, centred on a love of classic cars and bikes. A former American athlete is even directly responsible for Harju’s head scarf. In the autumn of 1995, Harju changed his shot putting technique from the linear to the rotational style. It was at this time that while viewing some old coaching films that he came across shots of a former world record holder, America’s Al Feuerbach - world record of 21.82m in 1973. Feuerbach also wore a head scarf and it was from his example that Harju adopted this style of head wear.

Harju is a farmer’s son and lives in the small Finnish country town of Perho which is situated in western Finland, inland from the coastal city of Vaasa. Harju is a typically stoic Finn, a quiet man, honest with a good sense of humour. However, there is no significant sporting background in Harju’s family and when he was between 13 to 15 years old, it was Harju’s school gym teacher Jorma Tuominiemi who spotted his athletic talent. In his sports classes Harju "always did what was asked and a little bit more too" remembered Tuominiemi.

Tuominiemi has remained Harju’s coach to this day. He first directed Harju to take up the decathlon because "he was fast and could jump well too" - PB’s 100m 12.54m 1989; Long jump 5.81m 1991; 1.75kg Discus 39.06m 1992. However, as Harju grew up Tuominiemi recognised that his pupil was going to become too big and muscular. Harju was also most motivated by the power exercises and so finally the shot put was chosen as his specialist event.

As with all great champions and coaches, a close relationship of mutual respect has developed between Harju and Tuominiemi. Harju describes his trainer as a "good listener who instinctively knows his mood, and when ‘good morning’ is the only thing that needs to be said". Also, Tuominiemi always remains receptive to new training and throwing techniques, while at the same time is patient in the way he applies new ideas into Harju’s athletic regime. Principally, Harju "trusts him in all circumstances".

With the obvious exception of Harju’s performance in Sydney - Harju had entered the Olympics with as the 8th ranked athlete in the world with 20.84m - his athletic development has been very steady. The previous international highlights had been two bronze medals - in the European Junior championships in 1993 and the European Indoor championships in 1998 - and a fifth place finish in the 1999 World indoor championships.

However, until early August Harju’s 2000 season had been abysmal. He was in fantastic physical shape but could not get control of the rotational technique. As such, he was the last of seven Finns to cross the 20 metre line this year and it was over such strong national competition that a more controlled Harju triumphed to take the Finnish championship title in mid-August.

In the qualification round for the Olympic final in Sydney, Harju posted his gold medal credentials with a second effort of 21.39m - which added 35cm to his personal best from 1998 - and so he progressed automatically into the final as the leading qualifier. However, while the Finnish press corps were delighted with Harju’s performance, they were understandably sceptical about his medal prospects, as at the world championships in Seville the previous year, Harju had also qualified strongly - 20.16m - but had then bombed out in twelfth and last place with three fouls in the final.

So the confident manner of Harju’s performance in the Olympic final surprised everyone. Not only did he blast out his first round put to 21.20m but when this mark was equalled by Nelson in the next round, Harju responded immediately with a mighty 21.29m which was to prove unassailable.

Harju’s surprise victory was widely celebrated in athletics mad Finland whose Olympic gold medal hopes prior to the games had been centred on the fortunes of world javelin champion Aki Parviainen - 5th 86.62m. Harju’s home town of Perho was particularly happy, as five years ago their Mayor Pekka Lindholm had agreed to use council funds to back Harju’s training programme. Harju had made the initial approach to Lindholm confidently stating that he was going to be a top athlete and that his future sporting achievements would help to promote the town’s image, in essence he would be good PR for Perho.

However, Perho is a relatively poor rural town of 3200 inhabitants and so Lindholm’s decision to back Harju was a very bold one. As such, the town council were delighted at their successful "investment" and when Harju returned from Sydney, all the town’s leaders drove to the airport to greet the Olympic champion in a bus decorated with giant pictures of him.

On the 15th October, the town also organised large celebrations at which 3,500 people attended, 300 more than the entire population! Naturally, Harju requested a shot competition should be a central feature of the party and not surprisingly he won with 20.82m, which was part of an impressive series - 20.52; 20.08; 20.82; 20.47; 20.77; x.

There is a tradition in Finland that all Olympic champions are given a house or at least a building plot of land as a reward for their international triumphs but for the cash strapped Perho council this was beyond their budget. However, they came up with a more than adequate substitute to give to the motor bike loving Harju.

Firstly, Harju was greeted by a guard of honour composed of 20 motor bike riders sitting on Harley Davidson machines and then after presenting dozens of small presents and after lots of congratulatory speeches the council unveiled Harju’s main gift, the latest edition Harley Davidson! "I knew they would plan something for me but I could never imagine something like this, I was speechless" recounted a totally stunned Harju.

As to the future? "Athens 2004 is the most important thing" confirmed Harju who wants to break Reijo Stahlberg’s Finnish record of 21.69m - which has stood since 1979 - and become only the third man - along with Ralph Rose 1904/08 and Parry O’Brien 1952/56 - to have taken two Olympic shot titles.

Copyright - Chris Turner. 2000.

Arsi Ilmari Harju.
Born 18.03.1974. Kurikka.
183cm; 110kg.
Coach - Jorma Tuominiemi.
Club - Perhon Kiri.
Progression - 7.26kg shot
1989 11.82m
1990 15.65m
1991 16.27m
1992 17.60m
1993 18.40m
1994 18.74m
1995 19.58m
1996 19.84m
1997 20.66m
1998 21.04m
1999 20.60m
2000 21.39m.