Few athletes in the compelling 34-year history of the IAAF World Championships have created quite the same level of surprise as South African javelin thrower Marius Corbett.
It was at the 1997 edition in Athens when the unheralded Corbett’s mighty hurl of 88.40m caused a seismic shock to inflict defeat on a stellar field, which included the likes of world record-holder and two-time Olympic champion (he would later go to win a hat-trick of Olympic titles) Jan Zelezny, and Great Britain’s world and Olympic medallist Steve Backley.
The field – not least the shy and humble Corbett – was taken aback by the performance.
“It was so far above my expectations that it felt almost unreal,” he recalls.
Unreal it may have been, but Corbett, who was aged just 21 at the time, was not without pedigree. In 1994 he had banked javelin gold at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Lisbon with a 77.98m effort, only for the scourge of injury to completely wipe out his 1995 and 1996 seasons as he wrestled with lower back and shoulder problems and underwent an elbow operation.
Yet under the wily coaching of Terseus Liebenberg and finally injury-free, Corbett's 1997 campaign began promisingly. He secured the South African title for the first time and he hurled the spear out to a PB of 83.90m in Pretoria to book his selection for the World Championships in Athens. He also fondly recalls an impromptu meeting with Zelezny, the Czech javelin icon, early that year.
“Zelezny was training in Stellenbosch (in South Africa) there and invited me to compete in a practice meet,” he says. “I threw over 82m three times that day, but still lost badly as Jan threw over 90m on five out of his six throws.”
Buoyed by an encouraging domestic campaign, Corbett competed several times in Europe, achieving a respectable 83.72m in Linz. But leading into the World Championships, the broad-shouldered South African was realistic.
“I was ranked 14th so I hoped to reach the final,” he explains. “That would have been a good performance.”
However, unused to competing in such a high-profile competition, Corbett was wracked with trepidation for his qualification session.
“I was very nervous,” he recalls. “I remember getting up before sunrise as my qualification group was held very early in the morning,” he says. “I think the guys in the second group had a bit of an advantage throwing later in the morning.”
Corbett was not at his absolute best but was relieved to advance into the final as the 10th qualifier with a best of 80.72m.
Playing solitaire to keep his mind occupied in the morning of the final, the South African unfortunately revealed his huge inexperience in the first round of the final.
“Being nervous, I got totally mixed up on the runway and threw off a shortened run,” he explains. “I felt pretty stupid to throw that way on such a big occasion.
He threw a modest 76.58m in round one but crucially managed to clear his head to summon up the energy for the moment which has best come to define his entire athletics career. Out of almost nowhere, Corbett unleashed a mighty effort of 88.40m to seize unexpected control of the competition. With one swing of the right arm, Corbett had added four-and-a-half metres to his lifetime best on the biggest stage.
“Everything felt perfect,” he says of the throw. “My rhythm was good and I got into a very strong throwing position. After the release, I knew it was my best throw ever but the distance surprised me.”
In the zone and enjoying the competition of his life, he followed it in round three with an 87.40m effort. But for the remainder of a tense competition on a steamy Athens night, he struggled to reproduce his perfectly-aligned rhythm of rounds two and three and had to play the waiting game.
“Deep down (after the third round), I knew I wouldn’t go further on the day,” he says with typical honesty.
Zelezny endured an off-day with a best of 82.04m and placed ninth. Yet Corbett was still far from secure.
“I hoped no one pulled out a monster throw,” he says. “It was such a quality field that almost anyone was capable of throwing that far.”
Yet no one did throw beyond Corbett. In round six, Backley rescued a medal with an 86.80m effort to dislodge the Greek and home favourite Kostas Gatsioudis (86.64m) from silver. Yet no one would come close to surpassing Corbett, who describes winning gold – even 20 years on from his success – as “like a nice dream”.
Naturally shy and humble, Corbett found the interviews, press briefings and congratulations in the wake of his success overwhelming. Yet he recalls celebrating his success with a drink on the rooftop bar of the hotel with his parents, coach, physio and a few teammates.
Winning World Championships gold was a huge moment for the South African.
“It opened up a lot of doors, like instantly getting invited to compete in Zurich the next week,” he says. “It secured me a sponsor. It put me at the forefront of South African athletics for a while, which didn’t necessarily suit me.”
Unfortunately, his World Championships triumph did not usher in a period of prolonged success for Corbett. The next year he banked Commonwealth Games gold with an African record of 88.75m and secured the African title, but riddled by a succession of injuries, he prematurely retired in 2001.
He later fulfilled a childhood dream by playing more than 30 games as a rugby union lock forward for Currie Cup (national competition) side the Leopards.
Today he works as a cattle farmer close to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, where he breeds beefmaster cattle and supplies certified grass-fed meat to butchers. Married to Anel with four children – a boy born in 2013 and triplet girls in 2015 – he has little involvement with athletics today.
However, he does keep a casual eye on the leading javelin throwers of today. He enjoys watching world champion Julius Yego of Kenya and Germany’s Olympic gold medallist Thomas Rohler. “What I find interesting is guys from non-traditional javelin countries like Kenya, Egypt, Trinidad and India doing well on the world scene,” he says.
Reflecting on his all-too-short career at the top, does the 1997 world javelin champion have any regrets?
“I think sometimes I trained too hard and my body didn’t cope with that,” he admits. “It was always a struggle against injuries. I also regret not getting the chance to throw at the Olympics. Like many South Africans, I always enjoyed being the underdog, much more so than being one of the favourites.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF