Latvia’s Janis Lusis, the greatest javelin thrower in athletics history | Sunday Observer

Latvia’s Janis Lusis, the greatest javelin thrower in athletics history

30 July, 2022
Janis Lusis, in his early days
Janis Lusis, in his early days

Janis Lusis of Latvia is one of the most incredible and exceptional javelin throwers of all time. He represented Russia in four Summer Olympic Games in the javelin throw, winning a complete set of Summer Olympic Games medals - gold, silver and bronze. Janis Lusis is also a four-time European champion, twelve-time Russian champion, ten-time Latvian champion and a two-time world record holder in the javelin throw.

Undoubtedly, Janis Lusis was the top javelin thrower of the world in the 1960s and early 1970s. Janis Lusis won an Olympic gold at the Mexico City 1968 Games, a silver at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games and a bronze in Tokyo 1964 Olympics. He also competed at the Montreal 1976 Olympics, where he finished eighth.

In 1987, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which is now World Athletics, dubbed Janis Lusis, “the greatest javelin thrower in history,” on his 75th birthday. In 2014, he was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame for his special contributions to sports.

His first Olympic medal was achieved in Tokyo 1964, and his first world record came four years later in 1968, perhaps his best-ever season. The top 11 javelin throws across the world that year were all Janis Lusis’s. In Finland, he added 26 centimeters (10 inches) to Pedersen’s four-year-old world record. However, the Olympic Games that year were no walkover. Janis Lusis made the winning throw only in the sixth and final round.

Four years later, he achieved his second world record in javelin throw in Sweden. He went on to the Munich 1972 Olympic Games as a favorite. In the final, he led until local hero, Klaus Wolfermann threw 90.48 meters on his fifth throw. Janis Lusis couldn’t quite match it and his last throw fell short of the same by a mere two centimeters.

The javelin competition at the Munich 1972 Games was the closest in the Summer Olympic history. Germany’s Klaus Wolfermann had taken the lead from Janis Lusis in the fifth round with an Olympic Record throw of 90.48 meters. Then, in the sixth and final round, Janis Lusis let fly with a very long effort that measured at 90.46 meters - Wolfermann’s two-centimeter margin was, at the time, the smallest unit of measurement used in javelin competitions.

Birth and Career

Janis Lusis was born on May 19, 1939 in Jelgava, Latvia. As a Latvian track and field athlete he competed in javelin throw. Janis Lusis initially trained at Daugava Voluntary Sports Society and later at Armed Forces sports society. His height of 180 cm (5 ft 11 in) and the weight of 90 kg (198 lb) ideally suited the event.

He remains the only Latvian to have won all three classes of Olympic medals (gold, silver and bronze) over the span of his career. Lusis set two world records in javelin throw, of 91.68 metres in 1968 and of 93.80 metres in 1972.

According to athletics statistician Andris Stagis, Lusis competed in the javelin throw at 274 competitions, and failed to win only 75 times. Thus, he emerged victorious at 199 competitions. He demonstrated great consistency by breaking the 90-meter barrier in 15 competitions and the 80-meter barrier in 147 competitions. The great athlete had also competed in the decathlon, even raking 5th in the world in 1962.

Janis Lusis was a four-time European champion winning the javelin throw at Belgrade 1962, Budapest 1966, Athens 1969 and Helsinki 1971. He won the World University Games of Porto Alegre 1963. He was also a twelve-time Soviet champion (1962 - 1966, 1968 - 1973, 1976) and ten-time Latvian champion.

After finishing his athletic career, Janis Lusis worked as a coach and a track and field official in Latvia. He was also active in politics, as a member of Latvian Social Democratic Party.

Janis Lusis competed in four successive Summer Olympics for the USSR team, winning bronze in 1964 Olympics, gold in 1968 Olympics and silver in 1972 Olympics. He could not win a medal in 1976.

Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games

The men’s javelin throw was one of four men’s throwing events on the athletics at the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympic Games. It was held on October 14, 1964. Twenty-seven athletes from 17 nations entered, with two not starting in the qualification round.

The qualification standard was 77 metres. Each thrower had three attempts to achieve that standard. Interestingly as only one thrower made the mark, the next eleven farthest-throwing athletes also advanced to meet the minimum 12 in the final.

The scores from the qualification round were ignored in the final. Each thrower received three more attempts. The six best threw an additional three times, keeping the scores from all six throws.

Pauli Nevala of Finland won the gold for his best throw of 82.66 metres in his fourth attempt. Gergely Kulcsar of Hungary secured the silver medal for his 82.32 metres in his fourth throw. Janis Lusis of the Soviet Union won the bronze medal for his best throw of 80.57 metres achieved in the second attempt.

Mexico 1968 Olympic Games

The men’s javelin throw event at the Mexico 1968 Summer Olympic Games took place on October 15 (qualifications) and 16 (final) at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario. The qualifying standard was 80 metres. Twenty-nine competitors from 20 nations vied for honours.

Prior to the Olympic Games, the world record that existed belonged to Janis Lusis for his throw of 91.98 in Saarijarvi, Finland on June 23, 1968 and the Olympic record was to the credit of Egil Danielsen of Norway who cleared 85.71 metres in Melbourne, Australia on November 26, 1956.

The eight highest-ranked competitors after three rounds qualified for the final three throws to decide the medals. In the finals, Janis Lusis of the Soviet Union had throws of 81.74 metres, 86.34 metres, 82.66 metres, 84.40 metres in his first four attempts.

The fifth was a foul and in the final round, he cleared 90.10 metres to surpass all the contenders and win the gold medal with a new Olympic record. The silver medal was secured by Jorma Kinnunen of Finland with a best throw of 88.58 metres whilst the bronze medal was won by Gergely Kulcsar of Hungary for his best achievement of 87.06 metres on his fourth attempt.

Marriage and Family

The javelin legend Janis Lusis married a fellow Olympic javelin thrower in 1969. His wife Elvira Ozoliņa was the Olympic champion of 1960, world record holder and European champion. Elvira born on October 8, 1939, set an Olympic record of 55.98 metres. She was the top female javelin thrower in the early 1960s, when she set three world records - 57.92 metres and 59.55 metres in 1960, and 59.78 metres in 1963. She was also the first woman to throw the javelin over 60 metres.

At the 1964 Soviet Championships, she threw 61.38 metres, becoming the first woman to throw over 200 feet, but this mark was not ratified as a world record by the IAAF. Ozoliŋa won Olympic gold in 1960 and was heavily favored at the 1964 Olympics, but in the 1964 Olympic final she fouled her last four attempts and finished in a disappointing fifth place. She was so disheartened and she had all her hair shaved off by a Japanese hairdresser.

Elvira Ozoliņa was the 1962 European Champion. She also competed at the 1966 European Championships securing fifth and 1971 European Championships, finishing twelfth. She won the Summer Universiade gold in 1959 and silver in 1963 and was the Soviet Champion in 1959, 1961-62, 1964, 1966, and 1973. Her Personal Best in javelin throw was 63.96, an achievement she reached in 1973. She was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour.

They were blessed with a son, Voldermars Lusis, born on December 7, 1974 in Riga. At the 2001 World Championships, he finished eleventh. He also made it to the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympic Games in the javelin throw but couldn’t reach finals at both Olympics. He carried the Latvian flag during the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Munich 1972 Olympic Games

The men’s javelin throw event at the Munich 1972 Summer Olympics took place on September 2 (qualification) and 3 (final) at the Olympic Stadium, Munich. There were 23 competitors from 15 nations. The qualifying standard was 80 metres.

Prior to the Olympic Games, both the existing world and Olympic records belonged to Janis Lusis. The world record of 93.80 metres established in Stockholm, Sweden on July 6, 1972, and the Olympic record of 90.10 metres established in Mexico City, Mexico on October 16, 1968.

The eight highest-ranked competitors after three rounds qualified for the final three throws to decide on the medals. Klaus Wolfermann of West Germany with a throw of 90.48 metres in his fifth throw won the gold medal with a new Olympic record. Janis Lusis of the Soviet Union had to contend with the silver medal for his best of 90.46 metres in his last throw. William Schmidt of the United States with a throw of 84.42 metres in his second attempt secured the bronze medal.

Montreal 1976 Olympic Games

The men’s javelin throw event at the Montreal 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Quebec, Canada, had an entry list of 23 competitors from 15 nations. The qualification round was held on July 25, 1976, with two qualifying groups before the final took place on July 26, 1976. The top twelve and ties, and all those reaching 79 metres advanced to the final.

Janis Lusis of the Soviet Union had throws of 79.74 metres, 77.58 metres, 73.76 metres, 74.00 metres in the first four rounds, the fifth was a foul, and he cleared 80.26 metres in his last throw. He could not match the performances of the three meddalists: gold - Miklos Nemeth of Hungary, clearing 94.58 metres in his first throw, which was a new world record; silver - Hannu Siitonen of Finland, hurling a distance of 87.92 metres, also on his first throw; bronze - Gheorghe Megelea of Romania with a throw of 87.16 metres, interestingly on his first throw as well.

World Record Progression

The first world record in the men’s javelin throw was recognised by the IAAF in 1912. Since then, 46 world records have been ratified by the IAAF in the event. The world record of 91.72 metres by Terje Pedersen of Norway established in Oslo, Norway on September 2, 1964, existed when Janis Lusis of the Russian Federation entered the international arena.

Janis Lusis cleared 91.98 metres in Saarijarvi, Finland on June 23, 1968, to establish his first world record. Lusis achieved the feat in his first throw at a competition in Finland, besting Norwegian Pedersen’s record by a whole 26 centimeters.

It was bettered by Jorma Kinnunen of Finland in Tampere, Finland on June 18, 1969 by hurling the javelin 92.70 metres. Then, Janis Lusis of the Soviet Union bounced back setting his second world record in Stockholm, Sweden on July 6, 1972, clearing 93.80 metres, before the olympic games, besting the record set by Finnish Kinnunen. By coincidence Kinnunen’s son later coached Latvian javelin athletes.

Thereafter, it was further improved to 94.08 metres by Klaus Wolfermann of the Federal Republic of Germany in Leverkusen, West Germany on May 5, 1973. New specifications for the javelin were introduced and javelins with serrated tails were banned in August 1991 at the IAAF Congress and several of the records were rescinded as from September 20, 1991 and the record reverted to Steve Backley’s 89.58, the longest throw with the regular new implement (as of 1986).

The existing world record of 96.96 stand to the credit of Seppo Raty of Finland, established in Punkalaidun, Finland on June 2, 1991.


After Janis Lusis finished competing, he became an athletics coach. The married Olympians and winners of Olympic gold medals in Javelin throw, Janis Lusis and Elvira Ozoliņa spent three years coaching in Madagascar between 1987 and 1990.

Janis Lusis was also a competent decathlete and was regarded by his peers as the gentleman of the sport. Janis Lusis is a cavalier of the Order of Three Stars (Class III), the most distinguished Latvian athlete of the 20th century, awarded in 1999.

After his Olympic career he started competing at the Masters competitions. In 1991, Janis Lusis at IX WAVA World Veterans Championships, Turku, Finland won the silver medal in the M50 javelin with a throw of 57.56 m. In 1994, as a 55-year Janis Lusis had hurled the 800-gram javelin a distance of 55.18 metres at veteran championships.

At the 11th World Masters Championships, Buffalo, United States, in 1995, Janis Lusis, 56, threw the javelin 54 metres to secure the silver medal. During the 2009 Latvian Sports personality of the year award ceremony, Janis Lusis received the Lifetime Contribution to Sport award.

Since the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when Janis Lusis missed Olympic gold in a dramatic duel with the German Klaus Wolfermann in a throw of 90.46 m with two centimetres, the two athletes have been linked by a great friendship.

In 2010, at the invitation of the Landessportverband Schleswig-Holstein (LSV), the two Olympians met in the sports and education center of the LSV and exchanged memories. “Javelin throwing is something for young people,” said Janis Lusis jokingly.

IAAF Hall of Fame

He was bestowed the great honour of being nominated in the IAAF Hall of Fame in the year 2014. The other world renowned athletes who were honoured along with Janis Lusis were, Russian high-jumper Valery Brumel, American hurdler Glenn Davis, a long jumper from Germany Heike Drecksler, Moroccan runner Hicham El Gerrouj, German sprinter Marita Koch, the master of decathlon Bob Mathias, American sprinter Wilma Rudolph, Australian hurdler Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, Finnish runner Lasse Viren and American pole vaulter Cornelius Varmerdam.

Janis Lusis of the Russian Federation was recognized ten times as the most popular athlete of the year in Latvia (1962-1973). Latvian Television filmed a documentary about the legendary athlete, titled, “Latvian Sports Legends. Janis Lusis.” He was the first President of the Latvian Athletics Veterans Association.

The world’s greatest javelin thrower breathed his last on April 29, 2020, aged 80, after battling cancer, according to World Athletics. On May 5, the great sportsman Janis Lusis was buried in his home city of Riga in Latvia.

On September 24, 2021, Latvia released a new stamp block to honour the legendary Latvian athlete Janis Lusis. The release of the stamp is accompanied by the issue of a special cover.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])