21 August, 2016

Are shot-putters becoming spinners?

I am going to write a long, detailed, account on the Olympic Athletics competition, just as I did last year for the World Championships and last month for the Europeans. However as I am following the unfolding of the Games I could not resist the temptation to present my thoughts on something that could be establishing a trend.

Watching the men's shot put final I was impressed by the number of athletes using the rotational technique: 9 out of the 12 finalists. Only T. Majewski, D. Storl and F. Elemba were throwing in the "classic" O'Brien-glide style. (I did not, out of laziness, do the same analysis for the women's shot put but spinners are present there also: in fact one out of the three medalists, A. Marton, uses the rotational technique). Having a good 75 % of the top shot putters spinning is to me eyes significant. 

Franck Elemba, winner of the 2015 African Games

For years athletics technicians have argued about the respective merits of each technique. There is a consensus that the rotational technique allows for more momentum and force to be put into the implement. Also, it creates more horizontal velocity and this usually results in longer throws. However, the rotational technique is more complicated than the glide one and may thus lead to a loss of balance; shorter throws as well as fouls then ensue. 

I have written about the spin technique is two posts of mine. In the first I attributed (wrongly) its invention to the soviet thrower A Baryshnikov and his coach V. Alekseyev. This was remedied in a subsequent post where I talked about J. McGrath. 

John McGrath, throwing here with the glide technique

He was USA champion in 1965 and his personal record, from 1966, with the O’Brien style, was a solid 19.59 m. In 1968 he started throwing with the rotational technique and managed to throw over 18 m. Still, Baryshnikov should be credited for bringing the rotational technique to the attention of the public at large, already in 1972, with a throw of 20.45 m. He improved the world record with a 22.00 m throw in 1976 and obtained a bronze medal at the MontrĂ©al, 1976, Olympics with 21.00 m. The other renowned athlete to promote the rotational technique was B. Oldfield, who did not hesitate to dub it the "Oldfield spin". (Most probably he copied it from Baryshnikov, when they both participated at the 1972, Munich, Olympics, where Baryshnikov did not qualify for the final, in which Oldfield, then a glider, finished 6th). His world record throw of 21.60 m in 1973 was never homologated for crazy amateur-ship reasons and the same holds true for his best throw of 22.86 m in 1975.  In 1984, after the amateur-ship furore had died down, and when he was already 38, he finally set an official US record with a throw of 22.19 m.

Brian Oldfield, throwing in Munich

The actual world record of 23.12 m is held by a spinner, R. Barnes, the best glider being his predecessor U. Timmermann with 23.06 m.

To tell the truth the rotational technique is not as new as one could surmise from the previous paragraph. As early as 1957 the Czech shot putter J. Malek, coached by K. Kerssenbrock, used the rotational technique. Baryshnikov's coach, V. Alekseyev, had experimented with the rotational technique already in the fifties. K. Bartonietz mentions also O. Chandler's, 1951, performance of 17.08 m but it is next to impossible to find a confirmation of the use of rotational technique for Chandler's throw. Moreover the only photo of O. Chandler I could find shows a more classical, pre-O'Brien, style of throw.

Otis Chandler, clearly non-rotational style

Till now, the spin style did not manage to displace the more classical glide. Oldfield had summarised the situation as follows: “In very general terms, stronger athletes could be gliders. More dynamic athletes, those better at jumping and sprinting, could be spinners”. However the results of the 2016 Olympics point at a certain direction: spin is probably becoming the predominant technique. We'll need more statistics before concluding one way or another and in any case we should not expect a Fosburry-style tsunami, with all shot-putters becoming spinners in the next few years. Still, the trend is there and I am going to keep an eye open for a possible confirmation.

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