Feature18 Sep 2013

Finnish advice is the secret to African javelin throwers’ success


Kenya's Julius Yego in action in the Javelin at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow (© Getty Images)

That a Kenyan and an Egyptian athlete featured prominently in the men’s Javelin Throw at the 2013 IAAF World Championships was a refreshing surprise for a pair of athletes from countries hardly renowned for success in the discipline.

Yet perhaps much less of a surprise is that it is a man from Finland – the country many regard as the ‘home of the Javelin’ – who played a significant coaching role behind the success of the throwers Julius Yego and Ihab Abdelrahman El Sayed from the two aforementioned countries.

Petteri Piironen, who is based at the IAAF-accredited Kuortane Sports Institute in Western Finland, is the man responsible as the principle coach to the Javelin duo who caused quite a stir in the Russian capital.

El Sayed caught the eye by qualifying second best, courtesy of an Egyptian record 83.62m, before finishing eighth in the final with 80.94m.

Yego made an even bigger impact. The powerfully-built 24-year-old shattered his Kenyan record by more than three metres in the final with a mighty fifth-round effort of 85.40m. The throw propelled him into the bronze medal position before he was heartbreakingly (for him and his coach) relegated to fourth after a final-round throw of 86.23m by Russia’s Dmitri Tarabin.

No matter. It was still a ground-breaking Javelin competition for Kenya and Egypt which hints at much more to come. Yet Piironen, unquestionably, played his part.

The Finn, himself a former 76m javelin thrower and coach to Teemu Wirkkala – one of his country’s three World Championship representatives in the men’s Javelin in Moscow – first became involved with El Sayed five years ago after the Egyptian sought help to improve his technique.

Shock to the system

He arrived at the centre in Kuortane for the first time in the winter of 2008 to stay for three months, although Piironen admitted the Egyptian found the experience a little overwhelming.

“It was quite a culture shock and he only ended up staying two to three weeks,” explains Piironen. “At the time he had no knowledge of the English language so he went back to Egypt.”

Despite the abortive initial plan, Piironen kept in contact with El Sayed and via Facebook tried to impart technical advice through his body movements to assist the North African.

“At the time his only real training was lifting weights, he didn’t really have any technical help,” he explains. “He was quite strong, but quite clumsy. I gave him some programmes to improve his physical properties when he went back to Cairo. He had very bad legs for running and jumping.”

El Sayed returned to Kuortane in May-June 2009 for six weeks. Although he has not returned to Finland since, the pair have solidified their long distance coach-athlete relationship.

Committed to staying in Cairo because of his studies, El Sayed, the 2010 African champion, communicates regularly with Piironen via social media. Now the Egyptian can speak good English, the process has become a lot smoother.

El Sayed’s long-distance coach says his protégé has become a ‘little stronger’ and ‘better at running’ under his coaching programme. However, he insists there is a lot more to come, particularly should the pair get to spend more time working together in the future.

“He could be a 90m thrower with the help of better coaching,” explains Piironen. “His throwing arm is one of the best I’ve ever seen. He is big and strong and has a natural gift for throwing. He can run faster, get strong and bigger.”

Talented Yego struggled in Finnish conditions

Piironen first came into contact with Yego (who has a Finnish agent, Jukka Harkonen) after the Kenyan – keen to find out more about Finnish javelin coaching expertise – arrived in Kuortane on an IAAF scholarship, initially for two weeks in the winter of 2011-12. Again, the Finn was more than happy to help out and liked what he saw.

“He had been throwing 78m, so I knew if he could throw that without a coach he must be talented,” adds Piironen. “He was quite explosive, had a good upper body, but he was quite weak in the legs and I had to change some technical things.”

It also proved a culture shock to the young Kenyan who, on arriving in Kuortane for the first time, was greeted with winter temperatures of minus 30°C.

“I remember I had to give him all my winter clothes to wear,” he adds. “Of course, it was a big shock for his body when he walked from say his room to a restaurant.”

Yego returned for around three months training in Finland last year in the countdown to London 2012, where he made history as the first Kenyan thrower to reach an Olympic final (he was 12th).

Since then Piironen insists the pair speak on a more ad-hoc basis, however, the Kenyan, who has no coach back in his homeland, dutifully follows the training programme given by the Finn.

Which brings us to Moscow. There, Yego and El Sayed produced personal bests and performed with pride. So as their coach, what was Piironen’s thoughts on their respective displays?

“Of course, I’m happy if the athletes get good results,” explains Piironen, who also coaches World junior champion Sofi Flinck from Sweden. “I don’t work with them every day but I am one person behind them who has enabled them to get good results.”

And what of Yego, the man who was cruelly denied a bronze medal with Tarabin’s sixth-round throw?

“Actually, it was a big surprise when he threw 85m,” he adds. “I was expecting about 83m. Of course, it was a little disappointing to lose third place with the final throw, but to improve your best by three metres means you can’t be too unhappy.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF