This is Design Week Portland, when all manner of graphic designers, animators, architects, fashion fans and others gather to celebrate things made in the Northwest. Oregon’s design story is not complete without the athletic gear makers who dominate both global and local markets. This year’s DWP offers a workshop aimed at redesigning one of our oldest forms of sporting equipment: the javelin.
Does the javelin needs innovation? It’s a fair question, for a piece of gear that’s gotten the job done for 400,000 years of human history. But track and field athletes are always pushing the limits of the sport.
Hillsboro native Kaylie Van Loo is one of the stars of the University of Portland’s Track and Field program. Last year, she threw at the NCAA championships.
At practice last week, Van Loo and a teammate chucked a pair of burnished yellow and purple carbon javelins down the field. They’re very lightweight, but land with satisfying heft.
“Everyone has a different approach,” Van Loo explains. “I run four steps, with two bounds in the middle, and I end with what we call a five-step. It’s like a quick 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and the four-five is where you cross the end and throw.”
Van Loo says when she’s mid-throw, optimally, she’s not much aware of the javelin at all. But design aspects do matter.
“I would say I’m more particular about the handle on the javelins,” she said. “On some of them, the threading is different at the top. And I like when it has a little bump on it. Makes it easier to hold.”
The javelin Van Loo throws today traces its origins back to a seminal moment, more than 30 years ago.
Tom Petranoff, a track-and-field Olympian-turned-inventor, and a two-time world record holder in javelin has an interesting history with the javelin.
“In 1983, I threw the javelin 99.72 meters. And most stadiums around the world are 100-to-105 meters. And they didn’t want the javelin to become a spectator participation sport,” Petranoff said.
Later that year, he was throwing at the at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene.
“The Oregon track down the right sector where I normally throw it was 90 meters to the track. And I threw 94 meters,” he said. “And it landed in Lane 3 and missed [track star and future coach] Alberto Salazar by about three or four yards.”
Runners in the 10,000 meter race, going on at the same time, later told him he’d messed up their results, because they were trying to stay out of his range.
Envisioning javelins plummeting like giant skewers into the stands, officials with U.S.A. Track and Field put design to work. Starting in 1984, javelins used for competition had their center of gravity moved up four centimeters, under the handle. Also, the tail was thickened. With these changes, it was harder to throw so far.
Petranoff threw in two more Olympic games, But in the late ‘80s, he got crosswise with U.S.A. Track and Field, for violating an apartheid-era embargo on South Africa (itself a fascinating story - read one account over here). The hiatus left him time to think about an underdeveloped market: consumer-grade javelins.
“My sister-in-law was at a Target,” Petranoff said, “and there was a closeout on this thing called ‘Jav-a-Lins’. It was like a pool noodle with fins! This was before pool noodles were made.”
Petranoff knew he could come up with something better. He found a guy to help with with the small-scale manufacturing, and, in the tradition of all good sports equipment pioneers, set up a garage shop, just as Nike’s founders had.
“We had to glue them together, kind of like Bowerman, a garage crew.”
They made an initial run of 3,500 units for a sporting equipment show and sold every one. From that point, Petranoff’s line of short, balanced javelins, called TurboJavs, were in flight. They can be used for training, but Petronoff says they’re also good for giving kids a taste of the sport.
Since the 1984 javelin redesign, athletes have made slow, gradual improvements in training and performance. The throws are getting longer again.
Given the cost of outfitting every program in the country, Petranoff thinks it’s unlikely the sport will allow another re-design. But Javelin is part of men’s decathlon and women’s heptathlon, and most college track programs.
Kiersten Muenchinger, who directs the product design program at the University of Oregon is bringing Petronoff to Oregon for the Design Week’s Unparalleled JavHack.
“It’s a really good example of how a sport is really affected by the products that go along with that sport,” Muenchinger said. “As our human performance exceeds what we’ve designed, that’s nice to give students an introduction to design.”
The JavHack, with TurboJavs to throw, and designs to workshop, happens Tuesday night at the U of O White Stag building in Portland.