That was the night they stopped taking money at the stiles shortly after 7.30 pm. By then, the few desperate souls who had clambered on to the roof of the nearby Sacred Heart Church, and hung from trees down by the riverbank had already caught a glimpse of history. In the space of an incredible hour, the world record in the hammer was shattered six times by a pair of Soviet athletes who arrived in Ireland for the Quinnsworth Cork City Sports essentially broke.
The evening of July 3, 1984 began inauspiciously enough. Shortly before six o’clock, Sergei Litvinov, world record holder and reigning world champion, stepped into the circle. Still wearing his tracksuit bottoms, he fouled off his opening throw. A few minutes later, his compatriot Yuri Sedykh, gold medalist at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics,
picked up his hammer and launched his first effort 86.34 meters. The 29 year old had gone seven feet past the mark of 84.14 established by Litvinov 13 months previously, and set the craziness in motion.
“At first I thought they would be two huge men but they looked fairly average,” said Gary Halpin, the future Irish rugby international who finished fifth in the event with a personal best of 58.08m. “However, their speed and strength were something else altogether.”
Since 1980, the Soviet pair had dominated the event and swapped ownership of the world record four times in that spell. Taking full advantage of the perfect throwing conditions on a glorious summer’s evening, Litvinov’s second throw of 85.14m was a remarkable response to his comrade. A personal best, it would have been a new world record itself half an hour earlier.
This was to be Sedykh’s night however. His second attempt was another monster, lingering in the air for 85.98m. A less impressive third still went through the 85m mark and even his last legal throw was 84.16. In reply, the best of Litvinov’s remaining throws was 84.64m. He’d twice thrown better than ever before in his life yet his traveling partner had four times gone better than the old worldrecord.
A scientist once calculated that Sedykh flinging the hammer over 86 meters required him to build up enough momentum so that at the releasepoint, the 16lb ball effectively weighed 900lbs. For this performance, he was inevitably judged the best athlete at the meet, an accolade for which he was awarded the US Ambassador’s Cup. The irony wasn’t lost on anybody. This was a Cold War summer when the Soviet bloc countries were getting ready to boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. Rather embarrassingly, the Soviet ambassador to Ireland, Mr Alexei Nesterenko, had arrived too late to witness Sedykh’s historic throw.
“I feel very good but it doesn’t compensate for not going to the Olympics,” said Sedykh afterwards. “But now I think there is no limit to man’s ability. It’s good to be back in the land where the hammer event was started and I would like to come back next year. The warmth of the spectators is something I will always remember from my visit to Cork.”
Having submitted to dope testing and, for the first time in Ireland, sex tests, Sedykh and Litvinov ran a joint lap of honor on the track and received a joyous reception. Many of the other events were dotted with world-class competitors too. Eamon Coghlan was surprisingly defeated in the 5000m, Daley Thompson ran the 200m in preparation for Los Angeles, Peter Elliot was second in the 800m and local favorite Marcus O’Sullivan returned from Villanova University to finish fourth in the 1500m. Predictably though, it was the throwers who hogged the following day’s headlines.
“We were delighted,” said Owen O’Callaghan whose company, O’Callaghan Properties, had sponsored the hammer event. “And we brought Sedykh out on the town that night. And he loved his pints but he’d no money. We fed him.”
The next morning, Sedykh paid a courtesy visit to Topps chewing gum factory in Ballincollig, and the hammer he used was taken under Garda escort to the Department of Weights and Measures in White Street. After being weighed and measured, a certificate of verification was issued to Finbarr O’Brien of the Cork City Sports committee.
When reporters asked Sedykh whether his record was likely to be broken at the Olympics, he answered with an emphatic ‘No’. He was correct on that score. It stood for almost two years until he broke it again by going 86.66 meters at an international athletics meeting between the Soviets and East Germany in Tallinn, Estonia. A silver medalist in Seoul in 1988, he moved to Paris following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Still the owner of the world record, he now travels the world giving throwing clinics
Against that memorable background, it’s not the fault of the enthusiastic cabal behind the Cork City Sports that the event’s relevance has faded over time. The whole sport has been thieved of its luster in the two decades since Ben Johnson ran into infamy in South Korea. The throws heard around the world were part of a different era when we believed everything we saw with our own two eyes and everybody was innocent until proven guilty. Looking back now, we can only wonder, despite the testing on the night, whether Sedykh and Litvinov were clean or dirty? That we have to even ask the question underlines why athletics has lost its relevance and a large part of its casual audience. Perhaps forever.