Legend's last throw
Hubert Lawrence, Contributor
The 2005 World Championships men's discus came down to the last throw. With his back against the wall, Lithuanian giant Virgilijus Alekna strode into the circle. Estonia's Gerd Kanter had the lead and if Alekna failed, Kanter would take the gold medal. Alekna didn't fail.
In fact - in a glittering career that ended last Sunday in Berlin - he seldom failed. Now 42, this six-foot-seven, 290-pound man won Olympic gold medals in 2000 and 2004 and two World Championships, with a 37-meet win streak, running from 2005 to 2007. His personal best of 73.88 metres is the second longest throw in history.
Four-time Olympic victor, Al Oerter of the United States, and Germany's five-time World Champion, Lars Riedel, command respect. They are probably the best discus throwers of all-time, but Alekna is right up there with them.
He showed why in that 2005 final. With the disc clasped at the right hand extreme of his seven-foot, three-inch wingspan, he strode into the circle and gracefully uncorked the longest throw ever in a major championship, 70.17 metres.
For most, that would be a lifetime best. For Alekna, it was just one of the 27 70-metre throws he produced during his career. No one else, not Riedel or current discus king Robert Harting, has ever exceeded 70 metres in the Olympics or at a World Championship.
The second longest throw in those settings is Alekna's 69.89 winner at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The top end of that very special performance list is dominated by Alekna and Riedel, who rifled a 69.72 to win the 2001 World Championships.
Five of his 70-plus throws were beyond 71 metres.
Joy to watch
Time gradually overtook him. Kanter beat him in the 2007 Worlds with Harting second and Dutchman Rutger Smith third. Though he was third in the 2008 Olympics, he was no longer in pole position. Last year in the Worlds, he missed the final for the first time since he became an elite thrower.
Beyond the numbers, he was a joy to watch. With his free-flowing, active reverse technique, he was poetry in motion. While Riedel and Harting planted their left feet at the front of the circle to catapult their throwing arms forward, he would keep spinning like a ballet dancer.
With that last throw in 2005, Alekna reaffirmed his claim to be the best ever big-meet discus thrower. Last Sunday in Berlin, it was simply time for a legend to say goodbye.
Hubert Lawrence has scrutinised athletics since 1980.