01 June, 2017

Λιθοβολία (stone throw), a forgotten discipline

The list of track and field disciplines that came and went over the years is long. Even limiting oneself to those disciplines that have been part of the olympic program one finds a long list of different events. Some of them, like 200 m hurdles (contested in 1900 and 1904) or both hands (aggregated) Shot Put (part of the 1912 program) are easy to understand. Others like ancient greek style Discus Throw (1906-1908) need some explanation. But none is as puzzling as the Stone Throw which figured in the 1906, intercalatory Olympics, program.

Stone throw is a discipline with ancient roots. While absent from the ancient olympics it has been practiced in Greece all along its history. Unfortunately no movie of competitive stone throwing (greek style) can be found (if one excepts a village contest during a festival where people are throwing in an unorthodox underhand style) and thus I must rely upon my memory.

I have had the occasion, when I started interesting myself in athletics, to attend some regional competition where stone throw was part of the program. So, I’ll describe the style from memory. The style is close to that of javelin throw but given the stone's weight major differences do exist. The athlete starts his run-up holding the stone with two hands in front of him. Preparing for the throw he brings the throwing hand over his head without braking his run-up and launches the stone in an overhand throw. The only constraint is that the stone must be launched before crossing the foul line. After that the athlete can cross the line without penalty.

Stone throwing has also been part of the scottish tradition and has been figuring in the Highland Games. The scottish stone being heavier than the greek one requires a different throwing technique.

I have been unable to find a photo of the throwing stone and in the ones where the stone is thrown in the greek style the stone is too blurred. Fortunately in the snapshot above we have a nice photo of the stone which corresponds exactly with the one I have seen in the past. Unfortunately recent revivals of stone throw like the one where the photo just below was taken use a stone of non-standard shape.

This is a pity because the throwing technique depends crucially on the proper handling of the stone during all the phases of the throw and giving the possibility to the athlete to wrap his fingers around it somehow spoils the discipline.

While researching for this article I came upon a wikipedia article in greek, which was probably off-handedly written, giving an incorrect weight and mentioning a wrong throwing style. (As you can imagine, I immediately corrected it). In order to understand the stone's weight, 6.4 kg, one must go back to the times of the Ottoman Empire. Greek being under the ottoman rule had adopted the ottoman units and despite becoming an independent country in 1821 kept the ottoman units till 1959! (By the way wikipedia's article on metrication is interesting. When one clicks on the link "old greek" units one is taken to a page where units from ancient Greece are presented. This is one more manifestation of the fact that, were it not for the current financial crisis, nobody would be really aware of the existence of modern Greece). So, when the weight of the stone was fixed in the late 19th century a round number in the then currently used unit, the oka, was chosen. The stone weights exactly 5 okas, and since an oka is equivalent to 1280 gr the weight of the stone in metric units is 6.400 kg.

Λιθοβολία, stone throw, has been part of the olympic program only once, at the intercalatory Games of 1906. The winner of the event was, expectedly, a greek, N. Georgantas. 

Having written this sentence I feel that some explanation as to the "expectedly" is mandatory. While greek athletes were familiar with the stone-throwing style, foreigners were not. This bestowed some advantage to the local competitors who obtained the gold and bronze medals with Georgantas and Dorizas. The silver medal went to M. Sheridan who left Athens with two gold and three silver medals. (On the other hand this "advantage" of the greek competitors should have also materialised in the ancient-style discus throw, where Järvinen managed to beat Georgantas. But this is a story that is worth telling in detail and some day I may just do this). The photo of Georgantas above is clearly a static pose. Moreover the angle is such that one may think that the stone is round shaped (which it isn't).

A much better representation is the drawing of R. Edgren, a hammer ex-world record holder and a famous journalist, who participated at the 1906 Games, unfortunately for him past his prime at 32 years of age. (In my ancient-style discus throw article, I will come back to Edgren's drawings).

Before concluding I would like to add a short analysis of the importance of the over-hand throw. Georgantas record in stone throw was roughly 20 m while in shot put he had a record of slightly above 13 m. Throwing a lighter, 6.4 kg instead of 7.25 kg, shot would boost his shot put record to just over 14 m. So the explanation for the 20 m record should be sought in two factors. One is the smaller arm inertia due to the style. Although not as small as in javelin throw it is definitely smaller than the typical value of 6-7 kg one uses in shot put, perhaps closer to a 3 kg value. Second, the fact that the athlete does not have to brake, definitely improves the performance. It is not clear what is the contribution of this last style detail but let us assume that in the case of Georgantas two-thirds of the performance gain in stone throw came from the throwing style (from 14 m to 18 m), the remaining one third (from 18 m to 20 m) being obtained by the non-braking. We can now apply this analysis to modern shot putters, who can throw over 22 m in either of the modern, glide or spin, styles. Were an overhand throw to be allowed with a javelin style run-up (even with a constraint of non-crossing the fowl line) throws close to 30 m could have been possible. Of course, that would necessitate a specific and quite delicate preparation incompatible with the current shot putters' one. But throwing the shot at 30 m would have been really revolutionary.

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