What Is the Discus Throw?
By Kirsten Lalli
, last updated November 28, 2011
The discus throw is an athletic track and field event where a weighted disc-shaped object is thrown for distance. This track and field event dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Discus is mentioned as early on as the 8th century B.C. It was an event in the Ancient Games of 708 B.C. and is referenced in Greek artwork and poetry, namely Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. The modern Olympic competition was revived in Athens in 1896, and at that time discus was included as one of the events. Discus was originally one of the five events that comprised the pentathlon, along with the long jump, wrestling, javelin, and either boxing or the stadion. Interestingly, when the pentathlon was first developed, each of the events was considered important for military service. However, today, the discus throw stands as its own event in track and field.
As with all sports, the discus throw has evolved throughout its history. In the 1896 Olympics, the discus was thrown from an inclined pedestal. In 1897, in the United States, the discus was instead thrown from a ground-level 7-foot diameter circle. In 1912, the circle was enlarged to 2.5 meters, or 8.2 feet in diameter, where it remains today.
The discus itself has also changed throughout history. Originally, the discus ranged from 2 to 6 kg in weight and from 21 to 34 cm in diameter. In 1907, standards were established for the size and weight of the disc. Today, the discus is 22 cm in diameter, 44 mm thick, and no lighter than 2 kg (4.4 lbs). It also used to be made from unwrought bronze and iron, whereas today a discus is typically made from wood layered with brass plates and a smooth metal rim.
In 1928, women’s track and field was added to the Olympic Games, and the discus throw was included as an event. The discus used in women’s events is slightly smaller, weighing in at 1 kg (2.2 lbs), and measuring 18 cm in diameter.
Throwing a discus for a distance with accuracy is a deceptively challenging task. The technique for the throw involves a whirling motion where the thrower drives their body and the discus through the circle before releasing it into the air. The discus is held against the palm with the first knuckle of each finger curved around the rim. During the whirling motion, the palm faces down, and the disc stays in the thrower’s hand due to centripetal force. When the discus is actually released, it should roll off of the index finger at around shoulder height at an approximately 40-degree angle. The discus’ trajectory should be relatively flat.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, American Al Oerter dominated the discus throw and won 4 consecutive gold medals. In 1986, German Jurgen Schult broke the world record with a 74.08 meter throw, for it to be broken by Gabriele Reinsch in 1988 with a 76 meter throw. Today, the event is dominated by eastern Europeans such as Lithuania’s Virgilijus Alekna, who has won over 12 medals in track and field events.