Used as a mode of hunting and warfare since prehistoric times, throwing a javelin or a spear is almost as old as human civilization itself. The activity slowly evolved into the track and field sport of javelin throw we know today.
The Ancient Olympic Games in 708 BC, perhaps, is the earliest recorded appearance of javelin throw as a sport at any major event. At the time, javelin throw was not a standalone sport but part of the multi-sport pentathlon event.
Javelin throw became a part of the modern-day Olympics from 1908 after the men’s javelin throw event was introduced in London. Incidentally, it was the last of the throw events, after shot put, hammer and discus, to be included.
The women’s javelin throw competition debuted at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Since then, both men’s and women’s javelin events have been two of the most popular athletics events today.
The rules of javelin throw have been modified several times over the years. Here’s a brief overview of the current javelin throw rulebook.
Javelin specifications: weights and lengths
Under the current World Athletics rules, javelins used in competitions need to meet certain specifications.
The javelin or spear is cylindrical in shape and tapers down at both ends.
Javelins used in senior men’s competitions need to weigh a minimum of 800gm and measure between 2.6m and 2.7m. For women, the minimum weight needs to be 600gm while the length of the javelin can be between 2.2m and 2.3m.
A javelin has three parts - a head, a shaft, and a cord grip.
The shaft or main body of the javelin is made of metal or other suitable materials. It may be solid or hollow but must have a smooth finish without any grooves, ridges, holes or any roughness.
The front end of the shaft tapers into a sharp end fitted with a metal tip, which is called the head or tip.
The area marking the centre of gravity of javelins (0.9m to 1.06m from the tip for men and 0.8m to 0.92 m for women) is fixed with a cord grip, which cannot exceed 0.8mm in thickness. The grip needs to be uniform in thickness and can have a regular non-slip pattern to assist in gripping the javelin. However, no indentations, grooves or notches are allowed.
Javelin throw field
The field where javelin throw competitions are held can be divided into two parts - the runway and the landing sector.
The runway or take-off area is a stretch of running track which allows javelin throwers to make a running start before their throw and gather momentum before releasing the javelin. The runway should at least be 30 metres in length and can extend to 36.50 metres, if conditions permit. The minimum width of a runway must be 4 metres.
The end of the runway is marked by the throwing arc, which has a 8 metres radius. The throwing arc is also called the foul line or scratch line.
Athletes cannot step beyond the runway markings once their attempt starts.
In front of the runway, there’s a funnel-shaped landing sector, usually covered in grass or artificial turf. The lines of the funnel make an angle of 28.96 degrees when they meet after intersecting the two ends of the throwing arc at the end of the runway.
Javelin throw rules
The objective of javelin throw is to hurl a narrow cylindrical hollow spear the furthest distance possible. Throwers must abide by a set of rules for their throws to count as valid.
For the throw to be counted, the javelin must land tip first inside the bounds of the landing sector. The javelin, however, needs to only make a mark on the ground and doesn't necessarily need to stick in the ground or 'break turf'.
The athlete must hold the javelin at the grip with one hand. Wearing gloves on the throwing hand is not allowed. Athletes may tape their fingers as long as it doesn’t provide any additional assistance during the throw. Judges check tapings before competitions. Taping two or more fingers together is also not allowed.
Throughout the entire process of the throw, the javelin must be kept at an overhand position, i.e. over the shoulder or upper part of the throwing arm.
Unlike other throwing events, non-orthodox styles are not permitted in javelin throw, which means athletes need to conform their techniques to a set of fixed rules. Athletes also cannot turn their backs to the landing sector until the throw is completed.
While releasing the javelin and before it lands, athletes must stay behind the throwing arc or foul line.
Once their turn is announced, athletes also need to complete their throw in under a minute.
Failure to meet any of the above rules results in a foul throw and the attempt is not counted.
Javelin throw scoring system
Scoring in javelin throw is essentially calculating the distance covered by the javelin.
Once the javelin lands head-first inside the landing sector, the point of initial impact is marked by judges with a marker, usually a spike.
Then the distance, in a straight line, of the marker to the inside edge of the centre point of the throwing arc is measured. The measurement is rounded down to the nearest centimetre.
In the past, steel or fibreglass metre tapes were used for all measurements but it is now done digitally through lasers after the introduction of the electronic distance measurement system (EDM). At venues not equipped with EDM, metre tapes are still used.
Javelin throw competition format
Formats of javelin throw events may vary from competition to competition. Most major javelin throw competitions, including the Olympics, have six rounds. Each round constitutes all the competing athletes throwing the javelin once or getting one attempt or trial.
If there are fewer than eight competitors, usually all athletes compete in all six rounds. However, if there are more than eight athletes at an event, only the top eight after the first three rounds compete in the remaining three.
At the end of the event, the athlete with the longest valid throw wins first place. If there’s a tie between two or more athletes after all the rounds are done, the athlete with a better second-best throw is ranked higher than the others.
Sometimes, javelin throw competitions, particularly qualifying for finals of major events, have three rounds. All competing athletes get three throws under this format.