By Jason Bennett
Downtown Lawrence was alive with the sound of clapping, cheers and Rammstein on April 18, as the 85th annual Kansas Relays kicked off with its opening event, attended by more than a thousand people, of a world-class shot put competition featuring some of the biggest – and I mean the BIGGEST – throwers in the world.
It was an event that bore a strong resemblance to a pro-wrestling competition, with its massive, muscle-bound men wearing skin-tight spandex and stepping into a ring to the sounds of rock and heavy metal. But this was no WWE match. Officials with Kansas Athletics and the Kansas Relays had transformed Eighth Street, between Massachusetts and New Hampshire, into an Olympic-sized shot put arena.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, competitors stand inside of a ring 7 feet in diameter as they try to heave an 18-pound ball of solid iron the farthest without stepping outside of the ring; a feat more difficult than you might imagine, as they often spin in a circle to gain momentum before throwing.
There was something for everyone. An inflated bounce house for the kids to play in, live music, an excited atmosphere, and a nearby tavern, the Sandbar, serving beer in the street. But don’t expect every track meet to be this exciting – Lawrence is the only city in America that hosts an outdoor, downtown shot put.
It’s not just the fans who enjoy it, but also competitors like Ryan Whiting, who won first place in the Indoor World Championships in March. Although he finished 5th in Wednesday’s competition, Whiting said he enjoyed the downtown atmosphere.
“I love it, “Whiting said.”It’s a lot more engaging for us and the crowd actually gets to see what we do instead of us just being on the infield of the track. We do a meet like this in Stockholm and I hope it catches on over here so we don’t have to travel as much.”
History of the downtown shot put
It was in Stockholm, Sweden, that the idea for a shot put event in the middle of the city began. In 2008, track meet organizers DN Galan, tried an innovative marketing strategy and moved the shot put event out of the stadium and into a park in the heart of the city.
Since then, the Stockholm event has grown in popularity. In 2010, it became part of the Samsung Diamond League. Competitors who break a stadium record in Diamond League events win a 1-carat diamond worth about $10,000.
While no diamonds are awarded for the Lawrence event, Kansas Athletics and the city of Lawrence came together to re-invent the sport’s perception. But not only have they copied Europe’s example, they might have improved on it, according to Reese Hoffa, who won the event with a throw of 71 feet, 3 3/4 inches. So far, that’s the longest throw in the world in 2012.
“Doing it here is 100 percent unique. You don’t get this in Europe. They usually put us in a park somewhere, just a ruckus, just as exciting… I think that’s what makes this a good event, is the fans are right on top of you, you can give them a high-five, it’s awesome.”
Hoffa always makes sure to engage with his fans and get them on his side. He’s even been known to don a hood and cape when he throws in the ring, dubbing himself “The Unknown Shot Putter.” Before his sixth and final throw to win the event, Hoffa was in second place behind Olympic silver-medalist Christian Cantwell. It just might have been the backing of his fans that propelled him to victory.
“You know honestly, they give you that little bit that helps you get over the edge in terms of getting that good distance,” Hoffa said. “Especially when you’re really close.”