Off Piste - Hammer-time blues

Chris Hackley on his moment of sporting triumph

June 20, 2013

Source: Getty

I was 13. I’d grown from a small boy to a large man in barely a year, and my hammer-throwing skills had been honed by Derek of the spaghetti western moustache, who later coached the national team. The setting was Aldersley Stadium in Wolverhampton, and the day smelled of fresh grass in the summer sun. I spun in the circle, watched the hammer fly away in a lazy parabola, and heard a strange sound. It began as a low growl and rose in a polyphonic arc into an astonished cry. It was the crowd, far away in the stand. An announcer shouted through the tinny PA and was met with loud applause. I’d doubled the previous record. In my eidetic memory of that moment lies the ruination of my early life.

The rest of the 1970s tasted of bitter and cigarettes. I seldom missed training, but I was no longer troubled by other quotidian rituals such as doing my homework, getting a haircut, going to lessons regularly, staying in for a quiet evening, going to bed at a reasonable hour, reading books, staying out of pubs. I was a Titan among my puny pubescent peers, for I was a Hero. A Sporting Hero. Even the local newspaper, the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel, joined in the laudations and marked my elevation into the tiny world of hammer heroes with the clunkily alliterative headline “Hackley Hammers Record”.

Apologies to those readers for whom an autoethnographic paean to my sporting life does not immediately appeal. For many loftier thinkers, sport is the vacuously clichéd antithesis of civilised life. Even as an aficionado I’d hesitate to make a claim about its Spartan virtue in developing body and mind, even if I do tend towards that view. For me, the physicality of sport was fun, but not nearly as captivating as the myth.

The hammer throw is, on the face of it, an unlikely source of sporting mythology. In spite of the lyrical efforts of Pete Seeger and, much later, MC Hammer himself, minority sport’s lowest-profile field event has never earned a place in the popular cultural lexicon. The discus throw, for example, was made famous in antiquity by Hercules, while Dick Fosbury’s high jump became an idiom for dire impending consequences. Even the notoriously ogre-friendly shot-put is more glamorous (at least when Jessica Ennis is doing it). Within track and field athletics, the hammer is known as a “Cinderella” event, possibly because of some throwers’ obsessive-compulsive habit of sweeping the circle with a long handled brush so its surface is pristine for their pirouettes. British women’s hammer throwing has its own poster girl now in current champion Sophie Hitchon, but still, most people simply don’t get the hammer throw with its weird, twirly-whirly thing and its hideously screaming throwers. It is not even a real hammer: the name evokes Thor-like figures flinging oversized tent peg mallets, but it actually involves a cannonball on a wire. If they had branded it the Cannonball Throw it might have caught the public’s imagination. As it is, the event is usually held in early morning in front of an empty grandstand so as not to embarrass the crowd who turn up at a more civilised hour to watch the proper athletes.

Another reason why the hammer tends to be held discreetly away from public view is because it is, to put it mildly, a health and safety nightmare. When it goes wrong the effect is similar to throwing a housebrick in a spin dryer (please don’t try that at home). Because of the real and present danger of horrible death, the hammer throwers’ concrete circle is housed within a “cage” of metal-reinforced netting of up to 30ft in height. This makes us hammer throwers feel a bit like zoo exhibits, which, added to our admittedly simian demeanour and need to eat every 23 minutes, further heightens our sense of being somehow outside normal society.

However, being a member of a marginal group does have its benefits. “I throw the hammer” is a conversational gambit guaranteed to instantly terminate any unwanted party conversation, and hammer throwers do enjoy a kind of sullen camaraderie.

The hammer throw enjoyed a strong following among Eastern Europeans and Irish Americans for many years, but to my knowledge has achieved only one significant reference in literature, in Roald Dahl’s book Matilda. Miss Trunchbull, the savant Matilda’s sadistic headmistress, wallows in the memories of her own triumphs as a champion hammer thrower, and in the stage play she sometimes throws children for practice. Dahl’s historical verisimilitude was slightly askew – Matilda was published in 1988, but the event was strictly men only for a century and female hammer throwers were disbarred from the Olympics until Sydney in 2000. Perhaps the hateful figure of Miss Trunchbull simply fitted Dahl’s stereotype of a hammer thrower as a grumpy hippopotamus in gym pumps.

As an adolescent, it troubled me not that the hammer throw’s contribution to gender equality had lacked a sense of urgency. My rite of passage to the aspirational social stratum of macho, macho men had been negotiated with stunning success and my all-male, sport-obsessed school did little to deflate my Trunchbullian hubris. Quite the opposite, in fact: I have displayed a regrettable tendency to play to the gallery since birth and I became an appalling ham, self-consciously playing the part of boy-man to my needy classmates. Like Paul Newman’s doomed character in Cool Hand Luke, I got lost in the role and was, I regret, a bit of a hammer horror for a while.

Green sports hammer

My relationship with the hammer began as a forced marriage rather than a first love. I was a solitary sporting nerd living on the short rations media coverage served up in those black and white, analogue days. My head was full of Stoke City and the British Lions, and leather balls, not steel ones, filled my dissociative dreams of sporting heroism. The hammer wasn’t even on the radar of my reveries until my games teacher, a keen ex-thrower, conscripted me, I think because my utter lack of either physical presence or personal confidence amused him. I was hopeless but willing and a year or two later, nature took pity on me. I started to grow like a sunflower on stanozolol. I was packed off to Stoke Athletic Club to learn the mystical discipline of the three turns, under the guidance of Derek.

Derek was 10st and looked up to me even then, but I could never throw as far as he. Like a Potteries Mr Miyagi, he just seemed to have a mental grasp of what was needed that overcame his lack of heft. At times he also showed an Eastern forbearance with his ungracious prodigy.

My freakish early success, though, was a fluke of body rather than mind. I practised like a dervish at first and found a way to flip my left foot over to accelerate fiercely on my second turn. Whatever I was doing, it worked for me because at 13st or so in weight I only had to throw an 8lb hammer. After turning 18, men have to throw one weighing 16lb, which is, as they say, a whole new ball game. Adult women get away with throwing the 8lb one, a gentlemanly concession to their daintiness.

The next year I finished a disappointing fourth in the National Schools Championships, with the remains of a gallon and more of Guinness swishing around in my insides from a heroic binge with my fellow baby elephants the night before. Pubs never asked me for ID in those freewheeling days before alcopops and anti-drinking advertising campaigns. Predictably, given my habit of less-than-optimum competition preparation, my future as a hammer thrower was already behind me. The trajectory of my career in the sport was much like that of my epic throw, but its inertia took another few years to finally whump into the turf.

As I progressed through the age groups the implement got heavier, I couldn’t find my centre of gravity any more, and the hammer started to throw me. I could still turn at a stately pace, but any attempt at serious acceleration left me flat on my face and everyone else diving for cover. My growth hormones were maxed out at 15 and before long I was competing with boys who had 75lb more muscle. I couldn’t touch this and my hammer time was as good as over.

Since then, the rest of the world has caught on that the hammer is not just about pure grunt but is, in fact, a veritable Newtonian enigma. Many of the best throwers these days are surprisingly streamlined but can whip up a rotational storm of centripetal force by turning four times in the 7ft circle before letting go just a moment before the velocity of the thing rips off their arms. Now that would make a corker of a YouTube video.

After a retirement of some three decades I had a go at the British veterans’ competition (veterans are called “masters” these days) a couple of years ago and saw some familiar faces from my salad (dodging) days. My arthritic efforts on that occasion, though, were less than Herculean. There will be no Indian summer for my hammer-throwing career.

My record throw (of 40.68m since you ask) stood in the under-14 category for 30 years. The Evening Sentinel claimed it stood for only 20. I emailed their athletics correspondent to point out his error, but my fact-checking alacrity wasn’t appreciated: there was no reply. The world stands indifferent to my defining moment of sporting liminality. All I have is the kinaesthetic memory in an eternal action replay.

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