(© Getty Images)
Every once in a while, a competition takes place that redefines an event. 28 years ago, at the World Championships Tokyo 1991, Mike Powell and Carl Lewis were locked in an epic duel in the long jump, which saw the lead change hands several times before the former came out on top with a world record that still stands to this day. This showdown has since reached legendary status and is still talked about as one of the greatest moments in the sport.
On Saturday night at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 the men’s shot put final scaled heights just as lofty, with three men producing a dramatic contest which will be viewed in the future the way Powell versus Lewis is now.
After Tomas Walsh of New Zealand threw 22.90m in the first round, which placed him fourth on the all-time list, you’d be forgiven for thinking he had the gold medal secured. Indeed, for much of the competition it looked that way. Then, in the sixth and final round, the event exploded into life.
Joe Kovacs of the USA, who had been sitting in fourth place with 21.95m, leapfrogged everyone in front of him with a massive personal best of 22.91m, ranking him joint third on the all-time list, edging out Walsh by a single centimetre. His countryman Ryan Crouser then did likewise, launching the shot to 22.90m, falling just shy of the gold medal, and finishing in second place on countback.
“I’m just proud I was able to stay in my own head and not watch Ryan and Tom throw so far,” said Kovacs. “Being a shot putter it’s really easy to get tense but you just want to be intense and loose.”
With all three men now ranked in the all-time top seven, the event is at a level not seen before, with so many competitors now throwing over 22 metres. Despite having gold snatched away from him in the final round, Walsh feels privileged to be part of a competition that will do nothing but good things for the event going forward.
“When Joe threw that I just smiled and thought, ‘This is why I do the sport’. I do it to be challenged and I love that challenge.
“Times have changed. A few years ago if you threw over 22 metres you’d have been high fiving people, shaking hands, kissing babies. Now times have moved on and if you don’t throw 22.50m then nobody cares. That’s a good thing for the event.”
‘An honour to be part of it’
Crouser echoed his sentiments. “I’m just honoured to be a part of it. To have three guys over 22.90m is a level of depth never seen before. In a competition like that you really can’t be upset with second place. I think all of us medallists are just wowed by it, regardless of where we finished.”
Having claimed world gold in Beijing four years ago and having followed it up with Olympic silver in 2016 and world silver in 2017, Kovacs moved to Ohio and began being coached by his wife Ashley Kovacs. 2018 was a transitionary season, and after recording a season’s best of just 21.02m, he started to doubt whether he had much future left in the sport.
“I wasn’t throwing far and I was hearing everyone tell me that I was washed up and that I was done,” said Kovacs. “I honestly thought that maybe I should hang it up and that I’d had a good ride. My wife and I just talked and we said, ‘lets go full speed ahead to the Olympics in Tokyo’. We put together this plan and I’m so excited that we executed it at this level. It’s so satisfying to not only be back on top but to be better than I was before. I owe it all to her and I’m so thankful.”
Despite the previous success achieved under his former coach and close friend Art Venegas, Kovacs was not afraid to accept that he was struggling with his technique when he started working with his wife.
“At first I think she was scared to say some things as she thought I knew what I was doing. She very quickly found out that I didn’t. All of us go through that; it’s an up and down cycle.
“It’s a huge advantage for me to be working with her. She sees me 24/7. She knows when I’m tired, she knows when I’m down and she knows in a workout what to expect, more so than any other coach.”
World record ‘a matter of time’
With three men all throwing longer than anything seen since 1990, Kovacs believes it’s only a matter of time before one of them breaks Randy Barnes’ 29-year-old world record of 23.12m.
“I have seen the ball go past the world record in practice before,” Kovacs said. “I know Crouser has too and I can only imagine Tom has seen the same thing. I know we are all capable of it. It’s just a case of putting it together when it counts. It’s actually really hard to throw a PB in a big meet like this. Those really crazy records tend to come from smaller meets with no pressure, so I think it’s actually more impressive that we all did what we did tonight, than have one of us throw a world record at a small meet.”
With the gold medal secured, the 30-year-old is now happy to admit that, much to his wife’s dismay, his diet leading into Saturday’s competition was not one that would be expected of an elite athlete.
“I’ve had three feet of Subway sandwiches over the past three days,” he laughed. “I just love sandwiches and I was going back and forth between steak and tuna. The tuna stays in the room easier, the steak is better at the time.
“Sandwiches are probably the secret for me. I eat way too many of them and my wife will yell at me for that.”
James Sullivan for World Athletics