links about us archives search home
SustainabiliTankSustainabilitank menu graphic

Follow us on Twitter


Posted on on August 8th, 2012
by Pincas Jawetz (


For One Kenyan Olympian, Throwing Beats Running

Doug Mills/The New York Times

For part of this year, Julius Yego trained in Finland, where the javelin means perhaps as much as distance running does in Kenya.

Published by The New York Times: August 7, 2012

LONDON — Kenya has sent 44 track and field athletes to the London Games. Forty-three are runners who aspire to win gold medals from 800 meters to the marathon. The other is Julius Yego, javelin thrower.

On Wednesday night, Yego, 23, will try to qualify for the championship round of throws. It will be a historic moment. Kenya had never before entered the Olympic javelin competition. Yego is the African champion. Surely he is one of the few competitors who began throwing with a stick and learned the nuances of his craft by watching fellow athletes on YouTube.

A distance of 82 meters, or 269 feet, would automatically put Yego into the Olympic finals on Saturday. A shorter distance may also put him into the championship round if he finishes among the top dozen qualifiers. He is considered a long shot. There have been 100 throws in the world farther this year than Yego’s career best, set last month, of 266 feet 2 inches. He is the smallest Olympic javelin competitor at 5-foot-9, 189 ½ pounds. But he is here and he is Kenya’s first in the Summer Games.

“Making the final would be my main dream,” Yego said in a recent interview in the athletes’ village. “It is important for my country. Just being here is a glorious thing.”

He has surpassed the distance — 80 meters, or 262-5 — that confers legitimacy on an athlete in his event. For part of this year, Yego trained in Finland, where the javelin means perhaps as much as distance running does in Kenya.

“In Finland, if you throw 80 meters, you are a javelin thrower,” Yego said. “Below that you are just another guy.”

In Kenya, everyone but Yego is just another guy. There are only a few elite javelin throwers. And only a few elite javelins, Yego and officials said. Three, maybe four. They are available for use only at two stadiums in Nairobi, the capital. For one thing, a top-flight javelin can cost $450 to $1,000. Kenya also lacks the gyms needed for weight training and the coaches who can provide technical expertise.

Running is a natural movement that can be done barefoot. But a javelin requires proper equipment and the rehearsed precision of a proper hold, run-up and launch. Technique is more important than simple strength.

“If we could bring the javelin to the rural areas, we could have very many good throwers,” said Peter Angwenyi, a spokesman for the Kenyan Olympic team. “But the equipment is costly. You need gyms and specialty training and coaches. We don’t have them.”

Yego is a Nandi, a subset of the Kalenjin ethnic group, sometimes called Kenya’s running tribe. When he arrives at competitions, people occasionally assume that because he is from Kenya, he must be a runner. He has tried the 100 meters and cross country but said he much preferred the javelin. Everyone runs in Kenya, he said, “but not everyone can win, not everyone can go to the Olympics.”

His brother threw for a time, Yego said, and he followed in elementary school, using sticks instead of actual javelins. In high school in the village of Kapsabet, he began to get more serious in 2003, drawing regional, then national, promise. In 2004, Yego was intrigued by the javelin at the Athens Olympics. In 2005, he said, his school’s only javelin broke and a geography teacher bought a replacement for him. A year later, he set a Kenyan national junior record with a throw of 71 meters, or 232-11.

He was eventually recruited and sponsored by the Kenyan national police, which provided a job and time to train. At the 2011 All-Africa Games, Yego won a gold medal, Kenya’s first in a continental meet, with a national record of 78.34 meters, or 257 feet. Lacking elite-level coaching, Yego sometimes turned to YouTube to watch the technique of such stars as Jan Zelezny of the Czech Republic, the three-time Olympic champion and world-record holder at 98.48 meters, or 323-1; Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway, the two-time and reigning Olympic champion; and Tero Pitkamaki, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist from Finland.

“I had to watch videos to see what these people are doing,” Yego said. “They are my role models.”

This year, he was invited to spend about two months training at an indoor/outdoor facility in Kuortane, Finland, which is sponsored by the I.A.A.F., track and field’s world governing body, and is considered a spiritual home of the sport. Launching the javelin has been described by Chris Turner, a writer and expert on the event, as a reflection of the quietude in Finnish culture and a metaphor of escape from the country’s interminable winters.

Describing his fascination with the event, Yego said: “It’s how the javelin flies. When you release it and it flies high, you know it is going far. You say to yourself, ‘Please don’t let it come down.’ I can feel it in my hand that I have hit it right.”

In April, he won the Kenyan championship and broke his national record with a throw of 79.95 meters, or 262-3, reaching the Olympic B qualifying standard. Last month, at a competition in Finland, he smashed the Kenyan record again with his career best of 81.12 meters, or 266-2.

On Wednesday, Yego will carry his javelin into the Olympic Stadium, hoping that adrenaline and technique and the swell of the crowd will carry his best throw beyond 269 feet, putting him in the final. But the experience will be as important as the result.

“It is something you will never forget in your life,” Yego said. “I went for the Olympics.”

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a comment for this article