Lance Deal (Hammer)

Hammer Throw Becomes a Mystery

Kitra Cahana for The New York Times

Lance Deal, 49, is the last American to win an Olympic medal in the hammer throw. And that was in 1996.

Published: June 22, 2011

U.S. Spins Its Wheels

EUGENE, Ore. — Lance Deal, the last American to win an Olympic medal in the hammer throw, swept the hammer cage he built free of rain the other day at Hayward Field.

The United States has won seven gold medals in hammer throw at the Olympics, but the last was in 1956. Since then, it has won only one medal, Lance Deal’s silver in 1996. Since Deal’s silver, here is how the United States has performed in hammer at the Olympics:

Best American finish (men followed by women):

2000 Sydney
Lance Deal16th
Dawn Ellerbe7th

2004 Athens
James Parker20th
Erin Gilreath20th

2008 Beijing
A.G. Kruger27th
Amber Campbell21th

By contrast, in those three Olympics, the U.S. has won a gold medal in discus and four medals in shot put.

Kitra Cahana for The New York Times

Lance Deal dragging a pair of hammers across a field. The hammer used by men is 16 pounds, and the women's is just under 9.

Issei Kato/Reuters

Koji Murofushi a gold medalist for Japan in 2004, said Harold Connolly gave him a chance at the hammer when he was 9.

Associated Press

Connolly became the last American to win Olympic gold, in 1956.

Deal, who won silver in the 1996 Atlanta Games, had designed and welded the cage for symmetry and easy viewing. He bought the protective black nylon netting from a business in Bellingham, Wash. The smallest gauge net the company had made was for a Playboy centerfold, and the largest was for a fishing boat that could swallow two football fields of fish.

He had not thrown in months. And when he did — gracefully spinning four times and lancing the hammer three stories high and nearly a football field long — he yelped from the effort. Then he grew philosophical.

“The secret of the hammer,” he said mysteriously, “is the pendulum.”

In the United States, the hammer may be the least heralded sport in track and field. Throwers are often banished to fields away from the main arena because officials fear lawsuits and worry the weights will pock their carefully manicured fields. In Eugene, the site of theUnited States outdoor track and field championshipsThursday through Sunday, the hammer throw field is closer, adjacent to the track where the fans pack the stands.

Decades ago, in the glory days of track and field, the hammer was more popular in the United States, with more than 20 states fielding high school teams in the discipline. Now only Rhode Island carries the hammer as a high school sport. The last American to win Olympic gold in the event was in 1956.

In Eastern Europe, which has dominated the hammer since the 1960s, promising throwers are identified in elementary school, sent to training schools and later supported financially. Not so in the United States, where many young hammer throwers learn by reading coaching manuals and eke out a living while squeezing in practices.

Rather than being bitter, American hammer throwers seem introspective. They wax poetic about physics, rhythm and kamiwaza — the Japanese word for divine work or superhuman feat.

“It’s been described as a cosmic, interplanetary experience,” said Kevin McMahon, who threw the hammer for the United States at the 1996 and the 2000 Olympics. “You’re spinning, the earth is spinning and you have this transcendent, Zen-like moment like the planets. It’s ineffable. You want to keep doing it.”

There is another, contested explanation why the United States has not been able to close in on the 86.74-meter world record, set by a former Soviet thrower, Yuriy Sedykh, in 1986. It has to do with what hammer throwers call the system.

The system is the centrifugal force created when the thrower begins spinning, speeding up to 60 miles per hour while gripping a 4-foot wire attached to the 16-pound hammer. (The women’s hammer weighs just under nine pounds.) The thrower spins four times — the rare hammer prodigy gets away with three — leans back and sits in space. Ideally, the thrower’s arms are stretched straight because, to borrow from physics, the longer the lever, the farther the throw.

But American throwers, many of whom came to the hammer in their early 20s from the shot put and the discus, have been known for their brute strength and for trying to muscle the hammer forward. That does not work, seasoned throwers say, because another secret of the hammer is to let it guide you.

“For me, the hammer is almost like a dance,” said Amber Campbell, 30, who will throw in Eugene. “When throwers get together, we speak about the hammer as though it’s this living, breathing thing. We spend so much time with it. It becomes this other person.”

Harold Connolly, the American who won gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, may deserve some credit for the celestial and dance metaphors — and for what some believe could be a slow return to United States hammer power. Connolly was born to a poor Irish family in Somerville, Mass. His mother and aunt were vaudeville dancers who outfitted him with ballet shoes. His left arm was badly injured at birth and remained withered as he began to throw the hammer in college.

Unable to rely on strength alone — hammer throwers have described themselves as Tyrannosaurus rexes, owing to their huge trapezoids, thighs and rears — Connolly focused on technique. In his first competition in the seven-foot-wide concrete throwers’ circle, he wore ballet slippers.

Connolly died in August. For the last decade of his life, he toured the country holding youth hammer clinics. He believed that involving teenagers early would boost the sport’s prominence in the United States.

Koji Murofushi, who won the gold for Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said Connolly gave him a chance at the hammer when he was 9. Martin Bingisser, of Bellevue, Wash., whom Connolly coached by phone, is now on the Swiss Olympic team.

“He said to me, ‘You’re never going to be a world-class shot putter, but the hammer throw is more about the speed and technique that you have,’ ” Bingisser said.

Back at Hayward Field, Deal, the son of a Wyoming rodeo star, talked about the need to be in the saddle, or centered, as Mr. Miyagi said in the movie “Karate Kid.”

He was alone in the field, save for a maintenance crew setting up for the weekend and a few runners from the University of Oregon team gliding past like gazelles.

As Deal picked up two hammers he had thrown into the field, he expanded on his hammer philosophy.

“The way it was put to me by my psychologist was, ‘Is there a force in the world greater than gravity?’ ” That force, his psychologist said, is subatomic force.

His next question: “Is there a force greater than subatomic force?” Human intention, the psychologist said, may be more powerful.

It may not have been an accurate statement, but that was not the point. It meant, Deal said with a sly grin, that if he could believe it, his hammer would never touch the ground