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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | TRACK & FIELD

A Long Shot Takes Best in the U.S. to Finnishing School

Track and field: Finland's Harju wins gold at 69-10 3/4. Nelson and Godina get silver and bronze.

September 23, 2000|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — An Arsi won the Olympic gold medal in the men's shotput Friday, although from the perspective of the 102,485 onlookers inside Olympic Stadium, the color scheme was all wrong.

The uniform was light blue and white, not green and gold.

The bandanna wrapped around the winner's forehead was a lovely shade of fuchsia, of all things.

And the flag that waved in triumph after he was finished was Finnish, something of a shocking sight, considering it has been 80 years since someone from Finland won the Olympic shotput competition.

Arsi Harju didn't quite come out of nowhere to win the gold medal. He actually comes from a small Finnish farming town called Perho, although, it is said, nowhere can be seen from there.

Shortly after Harju uncorked his winning throw of 69 feet 10 1/4 inches, the also-ran Americans conceded they had scarcely heard of him before.

Silver medalist Adam Nelson couldn't remember ever throwing against Harju in competition--"maybe at the World University Games, I'm not sure." Bronze medalist John Godina considered him just another guy carrying around a heavy iron ball. "If you'd told me today he would've been a major player," Godina said, raising an eyebrow, "I would've said, 'Ohhh-kay."

Until Sydney, the highlight of Harju's international career had been a bronze medal at the 1998 European indoor championships. He reached the final of the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain, where he fouled three times and promptly retreated into obscurity.

But Harju created a buzz here during the morning prelims, leading all qualifiers with a personal-best 70-2 1/4. He returned for the evening final with an initial throw of 69-6 3/4, improved to 69-10 3/4 with his second--and didn't clear 69 feet again.

That left an opening for three Americans--Nelson, the world leader with a mark of 72-7; Godina, the 1995 and 1997 world champion, and Andy Bloom, who threw 70-10 3/4 at the U.S. Olympic trials in July.

But pre-Sydney hype of a U.S. shotput sweep ended with a whimper of a sixth round. Nelson, holding second place at 69-7, fouled on his last attempt. So did Godina, leaving him a quarter-inch back at 69-6 3/4. Bloom's sixth throw was legal but not lethal, plopping into the sod for a mark of 66-1 1/2--leaving him in fourth place with the best effort of 68-5 3/4.

Surprisingly, Harju's mark of 69-10 3/4 stood, the shortest winning distance at the Olympics since 1984, when Italy's Alessandro Andrei finished first at 69-9. Finns were more taken by another stat: Harju's gold medal was the first in the shotput for Finland since Frans Porhola's victory in 1920.

Harju, who speaks little English, gamely played along with a post-event interview session that should have carried the subtitle: "Just who is Harju?"

Question: "How will winning the gold medal change your life?"

Answer: "It is only the second gold for Finland. So hopefully not too much."

Q: "Why were your best throws all in the first three?"

A: "I always think my first throw should be the best. Two times doing 21 meters is very good for me. These guys [Nelson and Godina], all the time they do 21 meters."

Q: "A lot of people would say you winning tonight was a long shot."

A: "That's true," after much pausing, grinning and staring off into space.

Harju, 26, lives with his parents in Perho, works out in his personally designed weight room and rides a Harley-Davidson from town to town. He recently spent a month training in San Diego, where, he mused, "Everybody asks me, 'Are you a football player?' "

The fuchsia bandanna had to be a giveaway, no?

According to Finnish journalists, the bandanna is something of a good-luck charm for Harju.

"In competition, he always wears that thing," one writer said. "I don't know why. It is not very typical for a Finn. Definitely, he is the only Finnish athlete to wear one.

"Well, no, one other. A woman javelin thrower."

Harju might have been the longest shot on the medal stand, but he wasn't the only one. Nelson is a first-time Olympian, having spent the 1996 Atlanta Games as a volunteer serving coffee in the athletes' village. Godina wasn't even supposed to be here after placing fourth at the U.S. trials. But when 1999 world champion C.J. Hunter withdrew because of a knee injury, Godina replaced him, going on to win the bronze as a very lucky loser.

"I think I'm very lucky to be here, with a sort of a wild card," Godina said, smiling. "That seems to be my ticket to getting a medal. C.J. got hurt in '99 and I went in his place to the world indoors [championships] and won the silver. I got a wild card to the World Championships in '97 and ended up winning the gold that year."

Godina also won the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics.

"I have two of the three now," he said. "Now I need the other one. I figure I've got three more Olympics in me. I've got to get a gold medal sometime, right?"

Nelson too was already thinking about his next chance.

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