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Field Events Get No Love - The Discus Throw

The Discus Throw Olympic & World Record (And Why the Event Deserves More Love)

Discus Throw Infographic

Trust as far as you can Throw - The event

I could go on about how the discus throw is really old and was part of the pentathlon 2,732 years ago…but this article is supposed to get you excited about the event so that’s the end of that. 

However, since we’re talking about the world’s first Frisbee, let’s consider the difference. A Frisbee weighs 175 grams. The men’s discuss weighs 4.4lbs (2kg) – more than 10 times the weight of the Frisbee. Big deal, right? 4.4 pounds is nothing. Unless you have to throw 4.4 pounds farther than the longest single in-game NFL Hail Marry pass in recorded history. For reference, a football weighs just less than 1lb (430 grams). Not so easy.

On the surface, it seems like the discus throw is basically a “chuck it as hard as you can” strongman type of feat. In reality, it’s more of a methodical command of trajectory, speed, rotational force, flight angle, and lift type of feat. The discus gets most of its distance from the angle of trajectory and its speed upon release. Rotation also plays a role. Similar to how a bike wheel stays upright so long as it spins, the discus must spin an average of 400 revolutions per minute to keep it stable in flight. 

The Angle of Flight

The release speed is all about technique and power. But the flight angle is what makes records. Limiting drag is important but the more intriguing force is lift – the same force that keeps planes in the air. A discus flying with its front edge higher than the back will stay aloft longer and fly farther. So a discus thrower must be an expert of aeronautics and a guru of control.

Again, each competitor gets three initial throws and the top 12 get another three in the final round. The farthest throw within bounds earns the gold. 

Distance Comes With Age

The average Olympic sprinter reaches peak performance at age 26. It’s 24 for high jumpers and 23 for swimmers.

For discus, it’s 29-30. When you understand the level and complexity of technique, it’s clear why the discus takes decades to master. Throwing the discus far is about rhythm, knowing when and where to apply force. You can’t be too aggressive or your throw will be off. You can’t be too relaxed or your throw will be short. Winners find the sweet spot in between. 

Virgilijus Alekna by Augustas Didzgalvis is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Men’s Discus Throw Olympic Record

229 feet, 3 inches - 69.89 meters

Virgilijus Alekna, Lithuania, 2004

At the 2004 games, Virgilijus Alekna didn’t get to stand at the top of the podium or immediately celebrate his Olympic record throw. It was Robert Fazekas who stole the moment.

But Fazekas later failed a drug test and his performance was erased from the history books. Alekna’s 229’3” (69.89m) throw took its place.

But have no pity on Virgilijus for missing the glory in the moment. During his glittering career he was able to celebrate often. Winning Olympic gold in 2000, two World Championships and a going on a 37-meet win streak, Alekna earned his place amongst the greatest throwers of all time.

Women's Discus Throw Olympic Record

237 feet, 2.5 inches - 72.3 meters

Martina Hellmann, East Germany, 1988

Going into the 1988 games, Martina Hellman was not the favorite. Instead, it was predicted that the world record holder, Gabriele Reinsch would win. But Hellman had won the 1983 and 1987 World Championships and she was not going to let her international competition status go to waste. 

Taking the lead early, Hellman threw 235’8½ ” (71.84m) in the first round and was never overtaken. Adding icing to the cake and solidifying her win, she reached 237’2½ ” (72.3m) and the Olympic record with her fourth throw.

Men’s Discus Throw World Record

243.0 Feet - 74.08 meters

Jürgen Schult, East Germany, 1986

Is a record that has stood for more than 35 years unbeatable? Maybe. No other record made by a male athlete in all of sport has held as long. This is the mark all elite discus throwers have been fighting against since 1986 when Jurgen Schult threw his 243’½“ (74.08 meter) throw.

On June 6th, 1986 a handful of spectators at a small track meet in Neubrandenburg Germany witnessed what was previously though impossible – a discus throw over 240 feet (73 meters).

Many would like to credit Jurgen’s development in the West German doping era for his seemingly insurmountable mark in history. But it’s not at all that simple. Jurgen was remarkably consistent and executed his throw with extreme physical grace. He chased the perfect throw for over a decade and under the perfect conditions, he found it.

Jurgen himself never came close to meeting this mark again. But no one else has either, and it’s not like nobody else has enhanced their performance over the last 35 years.

Maybe it’s not beyond suspicion, but Jürgen Schult made his mark. And that mark has firmly stood since. Still, great records are made to be broken.

Women's Discus Throw World Record

251 Feet, 11 inches - 76.8 meters

Gabriele Reinsch, East Germany, 1988

Just like Schult, Reinsch didn’t compete in the 1984 games. However, unlike Schult who went on to win gold in the 1988 Olympics, Gabriele finished off the podium. Her 7th place finish with a mark 30 feet less than her record setting throw that year (220’, 8” or 67.26m) was a surprise and a disappointment.

For now her world record looks secure for the foreseeable future. Although after watching Valarie Allman’s performance at the Tokyo games… who knows what will happen if she continues her progression and gets some favorable wind. 

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  1. I am 84 and in 1957 was voted best discus thrower I won best athlete in high school threw on a dirt circle with cleats and parallel to center line, distance 156 ft.

    1. Thats fantastic Tom! A very impressive distance throwing with cleats and a dirt circle. I would guess that you would have at least thrown 20-30 feet farther if you were using modern shoes on a a cement ring. Thanks for sharing!