Olympian Achievements – Miklos Nemeth: In The Name of the Father

Hungarians have long excelled at sports. Their triumphs have been beyond all proportion to their size as a relatively small nation. Most famously the Hungarian national football team, known as the Magic Magyars, was the best in the world for much of the 1950’s. Hungarian football teams managed to finish as runner-up in both the 1938 and 1954 World Cup competitions. At the Summer Olympic games, Hungary has long punched up above its weight. The nation ranks ninth overall in the all-time tables with a total of 491 medals. This includes 175 gold medals. Only Finland has won more medals based on their per capita population. Hungary is the top medal winner among countries that have never hosted an Olympics. Almost one-fifth of the medals won by Hungarians have come in fencing, a sport they have helped dominate in the Olympics along with France and Italy.

Hungary ranks first all-time in medals won in the Modern Pentathlon and water polo events as well. The latter is one of the most popular sports in the nation. The Hungarian national water polo team has won the gold medal in eight of the past twenty-one Olympic Water Polo competitions and placed in second another three times. No other nation comes close to such numbers.  One unique record also held by Hungarians is that the nation spawned the only father and son duo to win gold medals. The two men who achieved this were also world record holders in their respective sports. Yet for all their success, the son found it difficult to live up the standard set by his father until one magic moment in Montreal changed everything.

Imre & Miklos Nemeth - The only father & son to win Olympic Gold Medals

Imre & Miklos Nemeth – The only father & son to win Olympic Gold Medals

Great Expectations – Like Father, Unlike Son
Miklos Nemeth grew up in the shadow of sporting greatness. When he was just a year old, his father Imre won a gold medal at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in the hammer throw. Thus young Miklos could never remember a time when his father was not an Olympic champion. Like father, like son or so it was hoped when Miklos began to excel at sports. There was immense pressure on Miklos to live up to his father’s achievements. His father hoped he would also become a hammer thrower, but the son instead took to the javelin. He was a prodigy right from the start. By the age of twenty he had thrown 87.42 meters in competition, which was only four meters less than the world record at the time. Great things were predicted for Milos, especially in the world’s most important competition, the Summer Olympic Games.

World record breaker - Miklos Nemeth making his gold medal winning javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Olympics

World record breaker – Miklos Nemeth making his gold medal winning javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Olympics

Nemeth first competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Unfortunately his form was badly off as he was dealing with an elbow injury at the time. The best throw he could muster was 75.50 meters, nowhere near good enough to qualify for the final round. He finished a miserable seventeenth in the qualifying round. His performance at those Olympics signaled a worrying trend of poor performances in the biggest events. This would reoccur throughout the early and middle parts of his career. In three different European Championships, Nemeth placed no higher than fifth. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich he did qualify for the final round only to fall short once again, this time placing seventh. Though still relatively young, at twenty-six years old, it seemed that Nemeth would never fulfill his vast potential nor live up to the golden standard set by his father. The pressure of having a gold medal winning father in a small nation was more than Nemeth could handle at times. He grew frustrated by the lofty expectations placed upon him. At one point he remarked, “It is not an easy thing in my country to be the son of an Olympic Champion.” Critics thought he was looking for an excuse to explain away his poor performances. The consensus among the media was that nerves were to blame. Nemeth could not handle the pressure.

Delayed Gratification – The Winner Takes It All
In 1976 Nemeth qualified for his third Olympic Games, this time held in Montreal. Most athletes would have been ecstatic over such an achievement, but Nemeth knew that he was still judged by the fact that he was the son of Olympic star Imre Nemeth. This time though, the pressure was largely off. Miklos Nemeth was not considered one of the favorites. His results had been pretty good leading up to the Olympics, but he had been written off as a choker. He finished second in his qualifying group, but this did little to raise expectations. Surely Nemeth would find a way to finish in the lower echelons of the final.  No one, not even Nemeth himself could have imagined that he would wipe out a decade of failures in just one moment, but that is exactly what happened. On his very first attempt Nemeth let loose with a tremendous throw. As it flew through the air, he turned away, but could not help himself and turned to look back.

Miklos Nemeth - 1976 Olympic Champion

Miklos Nemeth – 1976 Olympic Champion

The javelin landed 94.58 meters (310 feet & 4 inches). No javelin had ever been thrown that far. To do it on the first throw, in the most important and pressure packed competition was incredible. Nemeth had suddenly and abruptly silenced all of the critics who had doubted him. His competitors were demoralized. No one came close to matching Nemeth’s throw. The second place throw was a full six and a half meters behind Nemeth’s. His winning margin was the largest in the history of the Olympic javelin throw. It was an amazing feat that not only won Nemeth a coveted gold medal, but would have been good enough to win the next two Olympic javelin throw competitions as well. The record breaking throw also meant he was now part of the only father-son duo to win gold medals at the Olympic Games. In many ways Miklos Nemeth’s achievement was much greater than that of his father’s. He had lived up to the highest of expectations, overcoming unrelenting pressure that had mounted over many years. After winning the gold medal he was now the favored son, of not only his father, but also Hungary.

 

Throwing It All Away – Uwe Hohn: East Germany’s Star-Crossed Javelin Giant

In the annals of Olympic and World Champion Track and Field competitions, the name of Uwe Hohn is missing. Hohn, an East German national, was one of the greatest javelin throwers in history, but he never won a gold, silver or bronze medal at either of the sports premier competitions. It might be said that Hohn came of age in the wrong age. In 1984 when Hohn reached his peak he was not allowed to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, since East Germany joined the Soviet Union and several other Eastern Bloc nations in boycotting the games that year in Los Angeles. As a substitute, East Germany and other nations of the same ideological bent held other competitions, one of these yielded Hohn’s most amazing achievements, a feat unsurpassed to this day.

Uwe Hohn - Ready to Launch

Uwe Hohn – Ready to Launch (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1984-0513-018)

Going The Distance – A Broken Record
On July 20, 1984 at the Olympic Day of Athletics, a track and field meet held in East Berlin, Uwe Hohn launched a javelin throw the likes of which has never been seen before or since. He flung his silver-grey spear so far that it landed on the edge of the field not far from the oval track. A few seconds after releasing the throw, Hohn raised his arms in triumph. He knew well before the javelin had landed that his throw was special. Alarmingly, the throw landed not far from a high jump mat that had been supposedly placed at a safe distance. When it finally landed, the judges rushed over to make the measurement. The distance was 104.80 meters (343 9 ¾ inches), a world record. Hohn had surpassed the existing world record by an incredible five meters. He had become the first and still only person to toss the javelin further than the one hundred meter mark.

Commentators began to worry that Hohn might one day toss the javelin onto the track or into the stands. Just how far Hohn might throw one of his wing tipped spears was open to conjecture. What was not in doubt was that Hohn, like so many of his fellow Eastern Bloc athletes, was capable of record breaking performances that were almost unimaginable. At that time and ever since then, whispers about doping were prevalent. Documentation that has been discovered since the Berlin Wall fell confirms that East Germany administered one of the largest state sponsored programs to provide their athletes with performance enhancing drugs. Some of Hohn’s record breaking achievements were aided by such a doping program. One document that came to light from the East German archives showed Hohn was given 1,135 milligrams of Oral Turinabol, an anabolic steroid, in 1985. The drug was also used to assist weightlifters. There may have been other instances of doping that have yet to surface. How much steroids led to Hohn’s sucess will likely never be known for sure. One thing is for certain though, the track and field record books were never the same after the likes of Uwe Hohn and his compatriots took to the field.

Uwe Hohn - threw the javelin a world record 104.80m in 1984

Uwe Hohn – threw the javelin a world record 104.80m in 1984

Getting Physical – A Barrel Chested Brute
Just two weeks after Hohn’s record throw in East Berlin, the 1984 Olympic Men’s javelin throw competition was held. Hohn was upset that East Germany had decided to boycott the Olympics, so much so that he made it publicly known. He ended up being reprimanded for speaking out. The gold medal was won by Arto Harkonen whose winning throw was covered only 86 meters. That was 18 meters less than Hohn’s, an almost unfathomable distance when it comes to the difference between world class javelin competitors. What accounted for Hohn’s otherworldly throws? The usual answer is performance enhancing drugs. Yet a case can also be made for Hohn’s physique, training and technique. The guy was a broad shouldered, barrel chested brute. He was 1.98 meters (6’5”) tall and weighed 112 kilograms (over 250 pounds). By comparison, his closest competitors looked slight. Hohn matured much faster than the mere mortals he competed against. At the age of 19 he was the European Junior Champion, a years later he was the European Champion.

At the time of his world record Hohn was only 22 years old. A year after setting the record Hohn was champion at the 1985 World Cup meet in Canberra with a throw of 96.96 meters, which turned out to be the best throw that year. It also turned out to be the last great performance of Hohn’s career. In 1986 he was irreparably injured in a weight lifting accident. The weights he was trying to lift fell on him, badly injuring his back. The sciatic nerve damage which resulted led to surgeries, but Hohn was never the same again. This robbed the sport of seeing how Hohn would have fared with the newly designed javelin instituted by the International Association of Athletic Federations around this time. The new javelin’s center of gravity was moved forward, which helped limit the distance it could be thrown by around 10 meters on average. It also led to less flat landings which made the distance of throws much easier to measure.

Uwe Hohn in 1984 at his peak

Uwe Hohn in 1984 at his peak (Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1984-0603-003)

The Eternal World Record – Going The Distance
There has never been a 100 meter throw with the newer version of the javelin. It is doubtful no matter how chemically enhanced Hohn’s performance, that he would have been able to throw that far. The closest anyone has come to a 100 meter toss with the newer javelin was the Czech Jan Zelezny with a throw of 98.48 meters at a meet in 1996. The mark Hohn set so long ago on a summer evening in East Berlin is often referred to as the “eternal world record”. Very few believe it will ever be broken. Whether it will be expunged from the record books is another matter. There are recurrent calls for anyone whose name was discovered in East German archival documents in connection with doping to have their records deleted from the books. Even if this is done, Hohn may end up with luck on his side since the type of javelin he set the record with is no longer in use. No matter what happens, Hohn is likely to remain the only man to ever toss a javelin 100 meters. An incredible athletic achievement, that much like the man who did it is now all but forgotten.

You Can’t Run Away From Your Problems – Waldemar Cierpinski: East Germany’s Mediocre Marathon Man

Goalie Jurgen Croy and his teammates on the 1976 East German Olympic Football Team were looking for motivation before they took the field against Poland in the Gold Medal match in Montreal. They needed just the right inspiration to get fired up before they took the field to play in torrential rain. They found it in an unlikely source, fellow countryman Waldemar Cierpinski, who they had just watched improbably run to victory in the marathon. Croy said the team “just sat there staring at each other, thinking that if this living example of mediocrity can lift himself up and win the marathon, and we don’t beat Poland, we are never going to hear the end of it.” Croy and his teammates had found the proper motivation. The East Germans scored two goals in the first 15 minutes of the game and went on to win the gold medal by defeating Poland 3-1. They had been inspired by “a living example of mediocrity”. Little did they know that this mediocrity was not through winning Olympic marathons.

Waldemar Cierpinski - The dubious two-time Olympic marathon champion

Waldemar Cierpinski – The questionable two-time Olympic marathon champion (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-W0801-0126)

The Unexpected Champion – Waldemar Who?
“Who in the world is Waldemar Cierpinski?” That thought must have run through the mind of American marathoner Frank Shorter. Shorter was the defending Olympic marathon champion and looked well on his way to becoming only the second man to ever win two Olympic marathons in a row. The only problem was that Shorter, who had taken the lead long the streets of Montreal, was suddenly confronted by the presence of Cierpinski at the twenty-five kilometer mark. Shorter was shocked that the East German had caught up with him. He became even more rattled as Cierpinski moved in closer to him, a strategy the East German was using to unnerve the American. It seemed to work as Shorter was forced to shove his surprise opponent out of his running space. Cierpinski was eventually able to take the lead and made it to the finish line a minute ahead of Shorter. The finish though turned out to be premature, at least in the mind of Cierpinski who ran another lap after he had officially finished. It turned out that he was confused.

His confusion turned to celebration as Shorter was at the finish line waiting to congratulate him. The American was a gracious runner-up, even though Cierpinski had thwarted his bid for a second consecutive Olympic marathon gold medal. Four years later, at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Cierpinski was the one attempting to win a second consecutive gold medal in the marathon. Once again he would have to come from behind. This time Cierpinski made his move around the thirty-sixth kilometer mark as he blew by the leaders. He kept up a blistering pace right up to the finish, sprinting the last 200 meters in just 33 seconds. With the victory Cierpinski joined the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila as the only men to win consecutive Olympic marathons.

Running to victory - Waldemar Cierpinski making the final lap at Montreal at the 1976 Olympics

Running to victory – Waldemar Cierpinski making the final lap at Montreal at the 1976 Olympics (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R0731-0135)

The Recordbreaker – A Shadow Comes To Light
It is said that you cannot run away from your problems, that wherever you go they are likely to follow. In the case of Cierpinski, a two time Olympic champion marathoner, that old saying turned out to be true. Cierpinski’s legacy seemed secure, but then the Berlin Wall came crashing down. That event meant records of the East German Stasi (secret police) came to light. These records were unlike the record books Cierpinski’s name had previously been part of. Rather than recording his athletic achievements, the records turned out to cast a shadow over them. After his two Olympic victories there were a few eyebrows raised about how a formerly mediocre steeplechase runner suddenly became a world beater, but there was no hard evidence against Cierpinski. In addition, the 1976 Montreal Olympics were the first ones to have drug testing, but these tests were for anabolic steroids, not blood doping. This fact would turn out to be more than a mere footnote.

In 1998 Dr. Werner Fricke, a German scientist, gained access to Stasi archives in the eastern German city of Leipzig. From these documents he unearthed State Plan 14:25. This plan for state sponsored drug use by athletes turned out to be on an almost unfathomable scope and scale. It named over 10,000 East German athletes who had been given banned substances.  On page 105 of State Plan 14:25 was the name of Waldemar Cierpinski who had been given drugs in order to boost his performance. Cierpinski’s sudden ascent from mediocrity to Olympic greatness in 1976 took on a whole new meaning.  Now he looked like, at worst just another drug cheat and at best the victim of a state sponsored plan to create Olympic medal winners for propaganda purposes.

Cierpinski may have been incriminated, but in many respects he had been quite fortunate. After his competitive career ended Cierpinsi did not seem to suffer any side effects from the drugs that were given to him. Other East German athletes ended up with diseases, had children with birth defects or were forced to abort pregnancies due to the deleterious effects of steroids and blood doping. Cierpinski became a member of the German Olympic Committee. Though there has been talk of stripping him and other East German athletes of their Olympic medals nothing has been done so far. For his part, Cierpinski has remained almost totally silent on the topic. In a rare interview he said, “As long distance athletes, we had to prove that we had not taken anything before we left the country.” That statement did not lend itself to credibility since Cierpinski would have been proving that he was drug free to the same state that had administered drugs to him in the first place. In this case, the cheaters were doing the checking.

For the record - Waldemar Cierpinski in 2014

For the record – Waldemar Cierpinski in 2014 (Credit: Udo Rupkalwis)

No One Other Than Himself – The Height Of Mediocrity
It is unlikely that Waldemar Cierpinski’s Olympic medals will be taken away from him. If it did not happen in the years after he was first exposed than it is highly unlikely that anything will be done in the future. Just how much these drugs helped Cierpinski will always be open to question. The truth is that the answer can never really be known. Without the drugs though, it can be stated with some certainty that Cierpinski would have remained “a living example of mediocrity.” and an inspiration for no one other than himself.