The Greatest Olympic Athletes – women’s throws

Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the women’s throws

Tamara Press

Tamara Press

No athlete in history has dominated both the shot put and discus as successfully as Tamara Press. The Ukraine-born Soviet athlete set six world records in each of those events during her illustrious career, winning a total of four Olympic medals, three of them gold.

Her younger sister, Irina, was similarly successful in athletics, winning the 1960 Olympic 80m hurdles gold and 1964 Olympic pentathlon gold. Between them, the Press sisters cleaned up on the international circuit during the early Sixties and are arguably the greatest pair of siblings in athletics history.

While the Press sisters were still young children, their father Nathan was killed during the Great Patriotic War, leaving them to be raised single-handedly by their mother, Lidia, in their home town of Kharkiv. When Tamara reached her teenage years, she developed an interest in athletics and later linked up with throws guru Victor Alexeyev, coach to multiple Olympic champions and world record-holders.

But little did Alexeyev know that his squad’s newest addition – who had travelled more than 700 miles to join him in St Petersburg – would prove to be his most successful.

In 1958 she had secured her place on the national team for the European Championships in Stockholm and came away with two medals, winning gold in the discus with a 52.32m championship record, and following it up the following day with bronze in the shot, setting a PB of 15.53m.

By the following year, Press’s progression began to take off and she set the first of her six world records in the shot, launching the sphere out to 17.25m. Her progress continued into the 1960 season and she set two more world records – 17.42m and 17.78m. She was heavily favoured to win the Olympic shot title, and she duly delivered.

Three days later, Press turned her attention to the discus final, where – as the reigning European champion – she was again tipped to take the gold medal. But instead it was team-mate Nina Ponomaryova – the winner from eight years prior – who surprisingly came out on top, becoming the first and only woman to regain an Olympic discus title.

Press did not leave Rome disappointed, though. One week after the Olympic discus final, and still in the Italian capital, Press lined up for an impromptu competition against bronze medallist Liu Manoliu of Romania. As had happened in the Olympic final, Press produced her best mark of her series on her final throw – only this time it was much better. Her throw of 57.15m was a world record, breaking the mark that had stood for eight years to fellow Soviet Nina Dumbadze, and it was to be the first of six world records in that event for Press.

Between the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, Press improved her own worlds records in both the shot and discus on numerous occasions, and in 1962 she became the first woman to win the European double in the shot and discus.

There was little doubt that Press would repeat that double at the Tokyo Games – until the qualifying round of the discus where she finished in 13th place, just scraping over the qualifying mark of 50 metres. Press then played catch-up for most of the final. Germany’s Ingrid Lotz unleashed an Olympic record of 57.21m on her first throw, and by the fourth round Press was sitting outside of the medals with 55.38m. But her competitive spirit once again shone through and she fought back with 57.27m, breaking Lotz’s short-lived Olympic record and securing the gold medal – her first in the discus.

Having recovered from that minor scare in the discus, Press made no such mistakes in the following day’s shot final and won with an Olympic record of 18.14m to win by more than half a metre. It rounded off another successful Games for the Press family, as sister Irina had won the pentathlon title with a world record earlier in the week.

Press set the last of her world records in 1965 – 59.70m in the discus and 18.59m in the shot – and her dominance of both events continued into the 1966 season. But ahead of the European Championships that year, the Press sisters retired from competition. The official line is that they wanted to end on a high while still undefeated, and that they had to go and look after their sick mother back home. Others – suspicious of the Press sisters’ strapping build – drew their own conclusions from the fact that gender testing had been introduced at those championships, although no evidence has ever surfaced to suggest that the Press sisters weren’t female.

Irina joined the KGB after retiring from athletics, and passed away in 2004, two weeks shy of her 65th birthday. Press, meanwhile, now lives and works in Moscow. To this day, no other woman has won the Olympic shot and discus double, and Press remains the last woman to have held the world records in both events.

Greatest Olympic throwers

The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.

Nina Ponomaryova
The Soviet thrower won two Olympic discus titles eight years apart, taking her first in 1952 and returning in 1960 to win again. In between these, she took the bronze medal at the 1956 Games and won European gold in 1954.

Ruth Fuchs
One of the greatest javelin throwers of all-time, Fuchs was almost unbeatable during the Seventies. The East German athlete won both the 1972 and 1976 javelin titles, as well as picking up gold at the 1974 and 1978 European Championships. She set six world records in the event, taking it from 65.06m to 69.96m.

Nadezhda Chizhova
Another great Soviet shot putter, Chizhova was the first woman in history to break both the 20-metre and 21-metre barriers. She boasts a full set of Olympic medals, taking bronze in 1968, gold in 1972 and silver in 1976. She also won four successive European titles from 1966 to 1974.

Olga Kuzenkova
For so long the bridesmaid of the women’s hammer, Kuzenkova – the first woman in history to break 70 metres – won silver at four successive global championships between 1999 and 2003. But her moment finally came in 2004 when she won Olympic gold, following it up one year later with the world title.

» Click here to read the other athletes profiled in our ‘Greatest Olympic athletes’ countdown.

» All of these athletes and more are featured in AW‘s bookazine, The Greatest Olympic Athletes, available now for just £9.99.

» You can also pre-order our next special publication – The Greatest Show On Earth – our in-depth preview to the London 2012 Olympics.

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