Remember when... Jan Zelezny added nearly three metres to the world record

Jan Zelezny
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Jan Zelezny in action at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games 

Jan Zelezny had already thrown over 90 metres in three early-season competitions before he arrived in the German city of Jena but there still little to suggest that he was going to launch the javelin well beyond 98 metres on this day 24 years ago.

The Czech thrower had admittedly topped the annual rankings by the prestigious US magazine Track and Field News for the previous four years, was the reigning Olympic and world champion as well as having thrown over 90 metres every year since 1991 but adding almost three metres to his three-year-old world record of 95.66m seemed fantastic.

However, the circumstances at the historic Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld – which had been built back in 1924 and could still boast of wooden benches from its inauguration – on the night were perfect.

An attentive and enthusiastic crowd which had been used to seeing local stars such as Heike Dreschler and female javelin star Petra Felke had come to see one of the country’s top athletics meeting on warm early summer evening despite it being televised live on German television.

Breezy conditions, with gusting winds that sometimes reached more than three metres-per-second, were not in the sprinters’ favour and the 110m hurdles winning time was kept down to a very modest 13.77 despite a world-class field.

However, the compact six-man field javelin field was throwing from right to left in front of the main stand and the stadium configuration offered a slight wind tunnel effect which Zelezny and his principal German rivals Raymond Hecht and Boris Henry realised quickly would be to their advantage.

Shortly after the event got underway at 18:30 local time, Zelezny took the lead with a first round effort of 87.76m, while Hecht had a foul and Henry reached 86.94m.

With his second throw, Zelezny reached 92.88m, a distance no other man had ever reached since the new specifications for the javelin had been introduced in 1991 but Hecht was also in fine form and threw 90.06m.

As events were to unfold, it was to transpire that both the Germans had produced their best throws although they were far from tossing in the towel as Hecht had another two throws over 87 metres and Henry another pair over 85 metres.

However, with his third throw Zelezny was to rewrite the history books of his event for a fifth and final time.

Still wearing his long tights, he sprinted down the runway - a surface installed by European Athletics Green Inspiration Partner Mondo - and found an almost perfect angle of release, with the javelin arching through the sky and landing well over to the right side of the sector.

His effort was such that he finished prostrate and face down on the track, braking his fall with his hands, not his usual way of finishing a throw.

It was clear to the naked eye that the world record had been broken but by how much was not immediately obvious until the figures 98.48m were posted on the small manually operated infield scoreboard and then the main electronic scoreboard which, when it was installed in 1978, was the first in what was then East Germany.

What made the record extra special is that, unusually, his wife and two young children were in the audience.

“After my training camp in South Africa (where he had two meetings in early April throwing over 90 metres before then travelling to Osaka two weeks before his feat in Jena and throwing 90.60m) I felt in good form. We didn’t actually have a meeting planned but I begged my coach Jan Pospisil to find one,” Zelezny explained in 2006, as his world record celebrated a decade unbeaten.

“He came up with Jena so I drove there with my family,” which was a winding 350-kilometre journey from his home just north of Prague in the town of Mlada Bolelav.

“On my first attempt I made a mess of my runup and also threw too far away but still threw over 87 metres and my second throw over 92 metres told me I could get the world record.

“After the meeting, I said that 100 metres was possible and I targeted Ostrava the following week but it didn’t happen (although he did throw 94.64m which nobody else has ever beaten since and which is still the fifth best throw ever)."

Zelezny had two beers to celebrate that night, picked up his 10,000 Deutsche Marks world record bonus cheque from the organisers and the following morning bundled his family and his javelins back into the car for a six-hour drive back home.

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“100 metres is still possible. A javelin thrower with good coordination and long levers combined with top-class explosive ability can beat it," he added, a decade after winning the second of his three Olympic javelin titles.

“I was also throwing an old aluminium model and it is one of my few regrets of my career that I did not have the chance to throw a carbon-fibre model, which had not been developed at that time. If you hit it perfectly you can get an extra metre, and they can fly out beyond 100 metres.

“The world record throw was not perfect (technically) either. Hands, feet, shoulder, there were small things that could be improved everywhere," he added.

Nevertheless, no one else has been able to improve on the distance Zelezny threw in Jena - dubbed 'the place wheer javelins fly' long before Zelezny's world record - or even get close to it although at the annual JenJavelin, which takes place in the nearby Jenaer Oberaue and is supported by Mondo, the world's best contemporary throwers have often returned to Jena to try in recent years.