When the javelin-throwing competition began at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki on July 23, 1952, few in the crowd of nearly 70,000 expected a medal for the American Cy Young, who turned 24 that day.
Young — a 6-foot-5 farmer unrelated to the Hall of Fame pitcher of the same name — was one of three Americans challenging Finland’s domination of the event. Four of the previous five men’s Olympic champions had been from Finland, and Finns had swept all the javelin medals at the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
With his second throw in the finals of 73.78 meters, or just over 242 feet, Young took the lead. Four rounds followed, including one in which Young fouled, but that did not matter. He was the new Olympic champion, bettering the Olympic record set in 1932 by Finland’s Matti Jarvinen, who had set 12 world records over six years.
One of Young’s countrymen, Bill Miller, won the silver medal, and a Finn, Toivo Hyytiainen, won the bronze.
“I trained so hard I knew I wouldn’t have any excuse if I didn’t win,” Young said afterward.
He became the first American man to win a gold medal in javelin, and when he died at 89 at his home in Modesto, Calif., on Dec. 6, he remained the only one.
His death was reported last month by his hometown newspaper, The Modesto Bee, but it did not become widely known. His daughter, Jenifer Young, said the cause was complications of vascular dementia.
In the Helsinki Games — the second Summer Olympics to be held since they had resumed after World War II — the United States won 40 gold medals, 18 more than the Soviet Union. Young shared the spotlight with the American champions Bob Mathias (decathlon), Bob Richards (pole vault), Pat McCormick (diving), Harrison Dillard (hurdling) and the runner Horace Ashenfelter, who set a world record in the steeplechase, and who died on Saturday.
(The Games also became a showcase for the Czech long-distance runner Emil Zatopek, who won gold medals in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races and the marathon.)
Young — described in one newsreel as “Uncle Sam’s husky Cy Young” — returned to the Olympics four years later in Melbourne, Australia, but while warming up a week before the event he severely twisted his right ankle. He feared the injury would prevent him from competing. But he healed enough to break his Olympic record in a qualifying throw.
In the finals, however, his best throw — 225 feet — placed him 11th, well behind the winner, Egil Danielsen of Norway, who set a world record of just over 281 feet.
That was the end of Young’s javelin career. He told The Bee in 1996 that he had made a pile of his shoes, sweatsuits and javelins, poured kerosene over them and set them afire.
“It was time to get on with my life,” he said.
Cyrus Young Jr. was born in Modesto, about 90 miles east of San Francisco, on July 23, 1928. His father was a farmer who played baseball for the minor-league Modesto Reds, and his mother, the former Thelma Gartin, was a homemaker.
Young Cy wanted to play baseball, but asthma restricted his athletic activities. At Modesto Junior College, however, a coach suggested that he learn how to throw the javelin.
After practicing at home for a few days on his father’s farmland, he auditioned for the coach, Fred Earle.
“I threw it 150 feet standing still,” Young told The Bee. “Coach Earle said I was on the team.”
He transferred after two years to U.C.L.A., competed against Finnish javelin throwers during an Amateur Athletic Union tour of Scandinavia in 1949 (receiving some tutoring from Jarvinen) and made the United States Olympic team that competed in Helsinki three years later.
Before the Olympics began, Young’s coach at U.C.L.A., Elvin Drake, who was known as Ducky, said Young might break the American and world javelin records.
“Cy is a hard worker, and with his natural physique has improved steadily the past four years,” Drake told The Los Angeles Times shortly before the start of the 1952 Olympics. “His ability to concentrate has made him a consistent thrower, which is a mighty important asset in competing with the other throwers.”
After the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Young became a full-time farmer and rancher. Besides his daughter, he is survived by two grandchildren. His wife, the former Elizabeth Anderson, died in 2009.
In the years since Young earned gold at Helsinki, only one American javelin thrower, William Schmidt, has won an Olympic medal — a bronze in 1972 in Munich.
Tom Pukstys, a former top American javelin thrower who competed in two Olympics, said that state-financed Olympic programs in Europe gave an edge to its athletes in the sport.
“My German competitors had tremendous support through the year,” he said in a telephone interview, adding, “Everything I had came out of pocket.”
Pukstys recalled that he was coaching youngsters when he met Young at a track meet in Modesto in 2003.
“He looked familiar — I thought at first it was Jack Palance — and I said, ‘Do I know you?’ ” he said. “And he said, ‘I’m Cy Young.’ And I knew his history and I told the kids, `I’d like to introduce you to the 1952 Olympic champion.’ He was awe-struck that I knew who he was.”
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