Athletics: Emphasis shifting to throwing events

Think of New Zealand's great athletics heroes and you think of Snell, Lovelock, Halberg and Walker, heroes of middle-distance running. But, as Alistair McMurran explains, the likes of Beatrice Faumuina and Valerie Adams have paved the way for throwing events to grab the spotlight and inspire the next generation.

This week's High Performance Sport New Zealand funding plan has underlined an important shift in New Zealand athletics.

The throwing events have now joined middle-distance running in the sport's elite section.

Athletics is a tier 2 targeted sport and has been allocated $7.6 million for the next four years.

A small note in the press release from High Performance Sport New Zealand was significant. It said athletics was ''targeting throwing and middle-distance running''.

Since the days of Jack Lovelock, middle and long-distance running were always the elite part of athletics.

The Lydiard era enhanced that perception with gold medals by Murray Halberg and Peter Snell at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games.

It was enriched by the gold medal by John Walker in the 1500m at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

At that time, every budding athlete wanted to be a middle and long-distance runner. They all felt they could beat the world.

When people thought of New Zealand athletics, they were pointed to the middle and long-distance events.

But the throwing events were lurking in the background through the deeds of Les Mills and Val Young.

Mills competed at three Olympic Games, his best performance coming in 1964 when he finished seventh in the shot put. He won a gold medal in the discus and silver in the shot put at the 1966 Commonwealth Games.

Young was one of New Zealand's outstanding female athletes and won five gold medals - three in the shot put and two in the discus - at Commonwealth Games from 1958 until 1966.

The throwing events shared the honours with their running friends at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974.

Dick Tayler won the 10,000m and Robin Tait the discus. They were New Zealand's only athletics gold medals. Both men had Otago connections and competed for the Ariki club.

The throwing events started to take the mantle from the running events after Beatrice Faumuina won the gold medal in the discus at the world athletics championships in 1997. She also won gold medals in the event at the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Valerie Adams has enhanced the throwing mantle over the last six years by winning Olympic shot put gold medals in 2008 and 2012, world titles in 2007, 2009 and 2011, and Commonwealth Games gold medals in 2006 and 2010.

The success of Faumuina and Adams has raised the public profile of the throwing events and has encouraged more athletes to compete.

The most noted of the younger throwers is 17-year-old Jacko Gill (Auckland), who has won three world shot put titles: youth championships in 2011 and juniors in 2010 and 2012.

The hammer throw is one of the most difficult technical events in athletics. It used to be the Cinderella event on the track and field programme with only a few competitors. This has changed and it is normal to have up to 24 athletes competing in the event at the weekly Athletics Otago meeting at the Caledonian Ground.

It was also one of the feature events at this month's New Zealand secondary schools athletics championships in Dunedin.

Matthew Bloxham (Orewa College) won the senior boys title with a New Zealand secondary schools record throw of 73.47m. It beat a 25-year-old record.

What was remarkable was that it also beat the laser beam that is used by officials to record distances. The laser limit was set at 70m and the old measuring tape had to be called back into action.

The other noted throwing performance at the New Zealand secondary schools championships was in the senior girls discus.

Siositina Hakeai (Auckland Girls' Grammar) won the title with 56.27m to beat the discus qualifying standard of 56m set for the last three Commonwealth Games. She is supported by the John Walker Field of Dreams Foundation that backs athletes from South Auckland.

''John Walker believes we should concentrate on the throwing events in South Auckland and he has backed the coaches to go out and find the next Olympic champion,'' Hakeai's coach, Nigel Edwards, said.