An Illustrated History of the Hammer Throw

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The early days of the hammer throw

John Flanagan. IOC Olympic Museum/Allsport/Getty Images
Like the other throwing sports, hammer throwing has a long history. Competitive hammer throwing dates back to at least the ancient Irish Tailteann Games (circa 1800 B.C.), where competitors threw a weight attached to a rope. Other Tailteann Games descriptions speak of competitors throwing a chariot wheel gripped by its axle, or a large rock attached to the end of a wooden handle. Eventually, British contests included genuine hammer throws. A 16th Century drawing shows King Henry VIII throwing a blacksmith’s sledgehammer. Over the next few centuries the hammer returned to its roots and became a metal ball attached to a wire with a handle grip on one end. It became an Olympic event in 1900.

The drawing, above, from the 1908 Olympics depicts American hammer throw champion John Flanagan, who won the first three modern Olympic hammer events in 1900-08. Irish-Americans, including Flanagan, Matt McGrath, Patrick Ryan and Fred Tootell, won every Olympic hammer throw event through 1924.

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More power

Yuriy Sedykh. Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images
Hammer throwing distances increased steadily from the '50s through the '80s. The first Olympic 60-meter throw occurred in 1952, the first 70-meter toss in 1968 and the first 80-meter throw in 1980. Yuriy Sedykh, shown here during the 1978 European Championships, was the first Olympic champion to top 80 meters with an 81.80-meter winning throw in 1980. Reasons for the increase in distances include equipment changes – such as more precisely-manufactured hammers and smooth-soled shoes that permit faster spinning – as well as improved training methods.
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Women's hammer time

Kamila Skolimowska. Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Women finally entered Olympic hammer throwing competition in 2000. Poland's Kamila Skolimowska - shown here in action at the Sydney Games - was the first Olympic women's hammer throw gold medalist.
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Where the hammer throw is now

Koji Murofushi. Michael Steele/Getty Images
The major hammer throw rule changes in the Olympic era involved the gradual reduction of the field area in which valid throws may land, from a 90-degree angle (i.e., similar to a baseball field's foul lines) down to today's 34.92 degrees, measured from the throwing circle.

In Olympic competition, Irish-Americans dominated hammer throwing in the early 20th Century, then East Europeans won almost all the Olympic gold medals after World War II. But Asia entered the hammer throwing picture when Japan's Koji Murofushi captured the gold in 2004.