The discus throw is an ancient track and field event in which competitors throw a heavy metal disc for distance. Discus history can be traced back to at least the 8th Century BC and is attested to in Greek art work and Homeric poetry. The iconic sport has been part of the modern Olympiad since its inception in 1896 and a female competition was added in 1928.
Along with long jump, wrestling, javelin and either boxing or a short foot race called the stadion, discus was one of the competitions of the original pentathlon. Like those other sports, it was based on skills considered essential to military service. The original discus was made of unwrought bronze and iron and is thought to have been heavier than today’s disc. Unlike modern athletics, the discus was never an individual completion in the ancient Olympics but only seen in the pentathlon.
When the modern Olympics was born in 1896, it naturally included a discus competition. The event was won by American Robert Garrett, the captain of the Princeton track and field team. Garrett’s victory was a comedy of errors. Garrett was primarily a shot-putter but when he decided to enter the Olympics he was encouraged by one of his professors to try discus. He designed a discus from classical artwork and hired a blacksmith to make it. It was a 30 pound monstrosity that couldn’t be thrown very far so Garrett gave up on the idea of competing in the event.
However, when Garrett and his teammates arrived in Athens, Garrett learned that an actual discus weighs less than 5 pounds and he decided to enter the competition after all. The other competitors performed in the style depicted in classical Greek artwork and made beautiful, stylish throws. Garrett, on the other hand, flung the discus in the style of a hammer toss and nearly hit nearby spectators with his first clumsy throws. Garrett joined with the audience in laughing at his clumsiness and then made what would be a gold medal winning throw of 29.15 meters.
When women were permitted to enter the Olympics in 1928, the only weight throwing competition on the program was discus. The first woman to win a gold medal in Olympic discus was Polish track and field star and world record holder Halina Konopacka. She broke her own record with a distance of 39.62 meters. American Lillian Copeland who came in second would win gold in 1932.
The Olympic discus was dominated throughout the late 1950s and 60s by American Al Oerter who won four consecutive gold medals during those years and set several world records. Records are meant to be broken, however, and distances for discus throws steadily increased from Oerter’s 62.94 meters set in 1964 to over 74 meters set by Jurgen Schult in 1986 and 76.80 meters set by Gabriele Reinsch in 1988.
Currently Olympic discus is dominated by east Europeans such as Lithuania’s Virgilijus Alekna. Alekna has won more than 12 medals at various track and field events including two gold medals and one bronze medal at the Olympics.