An extract from this book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.
There is a great tradition of athleticism in Russia particularly in relation to ballet and the circus. Young children are encouraged to take part in gymnastics from a very young age and doing handstands comes naturally to many youngsters. After the nearby Stockholm Olympics of 1912 a man called Dimitri Yashin had the bright idea of organizing a similar athletics event but for people who were standing on their hands.
Yashin’s original events were the 100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres plus the long jump and the high jump. The first 100 metres was won by Alexander Tarimov in 19.2 seconds; he was the only athlete to cross the line without falling over in a heap. Athletes are not allowed to wear gloves during the running events though they can for the jumping. The Standing Judge shouts out an instruction “Stand To” and the runners then have 10 seconds to stand on their hands before the gun begins the race. The runners are in lanes and must not go out of them under any circumstances even in the 400 metres, where the judges follow the runners around the track and ensures no short cuts are taken.
The High Jump is a very interesting event as the jumpers have to propel themselves over the bar without once landing on their feet – the height record is 6 feet 8 inches by Boris Denisov in 1976 although it’s possible he was using steroids. Denisov had very strong triceps and so could lower himself to such an extent that his head was almost touching the ground. He was able to spring upwards from this low position and propel himself over the bar.
The Long Jump requires great precision and balance as the jumper has to stand on their hands and then run towards the take-off point before somersaulting so that their feet land on the board from where they spring into the pit. The record is 17 feet 6 inches by Boris Lusis in 1978. Lusis was a former gymnast and diver who was able to generate great forward power when moving between his hands and feet; during the transfer he was even able on occasions to include a side twist that generated extra power as he slammed into the board.
When the Handstand games resumed after World War I Yashin realized that he should try and include some throwing events. The discus proved impossible to include and the javelin far too dangerous, but there was more success with the shot putt and hammer.
Yashin allowed athletes to wear shoes with semi-circular indentations in the soles so that when the feet were placed together a shot putt would fit neatly in the hollowed out area. The thrower could then bring their knees gently towards their chest before powering the shot away with all their leg strength. After the shot has gone the thrower’s feet can hit the ground as long as they don’t touch down outside the circle. The record for this event is 34 feet 7 inches by Maxim Borisov in 1973.
The hammer throw uses an 8lb ball and is the most dangerous event to watch as timing is the key attribute rather than strength. The athlete stands on their hands and then the Hammer Judge places the hammer over one of their feet. The thrower then gyrates their foot so that the hammer spins around, faster and faster. When the athlete is ready they point their toe towards the open part of the hammer cage and hope that the hammer goes in that direction. Even the most experienced hammer throwers only get one out of every three throws heading in the right direction. Accidents are common and most competitors have been hit by their own hammer many times. Oleg Kirilenko set the record, 146 feet 9 inches, in 1987 although this was wind assisted.
The most balletic event is undoubtedly the 400-metres hurdles introduced in 1965. There are only 9 hurdles, 2 feet 6 inches high and 40 metres apart, in the handstand hurdles. At the start the hurdlers stand on their hands and head towards the first hurdle; when they get a suitable distance away, they spring over the hurdle and land on their feet; they must then do a handstand again before continuing the race – this process is repeated at each of the remaining 8 hurdles and then the athlete sprints to the line. The record is 1 minute 58 seconds by the Bulgarian athlete Maxim Dimitrov in 1983.