Phil Olsen, Canada’s greatest javelin thrower, faced a dilemma before competing at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. Someone had stolen his javelins.
He practised instead with broomsticks, an improvisation that nearly wrecked his perfect technique. He recovered in time to win the gold medal, a consolation after a promising qualification round at the Olympics in Montreal two years earlier ended in bitter disappointment.
Olsen, who has died at 63, was a world-class competitor for a decade at the ancient warrior sport of spear throwing.
At 19, he was the youngest javelineer at the Montreal Olympics. He was ranked third in the world four years later, when Canada joined many other Western countries in boycotting the Moscow Olympics to protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984, his hope to contend for a medal at the Los Angeles Olympics ended with an injury.
His ascension into the world rankings seemed unlikely for a high-school athlete from Nanaimo, a port city and former coal-mining centre on Vancouver Island, with little history of track-and-field success on the world stage.
Asked by a reporter what he enjoyed about the sport, Olsen replied, “I just like watching things sail through the air.”
Philip Einar Olsen was born in Nanaimo on Jan. 31, 1957, the youngest of six children for the former Mary Samarin and Einar Norris Olsen. His mother was the daughter of immigrants from Yugoslavia, while his father was born in a utopian Lutheran community of Norwegian immigrants at Hagensborg in British Columbia’s wild Bella Coola Valley. Einar worked as a painter and maintenance man at a pulp mill.
Phil Olsen attended Quarterway Elementary, Woodlands Junior Secondary and Nanaimo District Secondary schools. He played soccer and hockey, dreaming of a professional career in the NHL, an aspiration that ended when he tore ligaments in his left knee three times. The knee would bother him all his life.
He was trying out to be quarterback for the school football team in junior high, when the gym teacher came into the huddle and told him to hit him with a pass 25-yards downfield.
“I threw it,” Olsen recalled in 1976, “and it sailed 15 feet over his head.”
The teacher invited the 13-year-old to join the track-and-field team as a javelin thrower.
“He was a happy-go-lucky, robust kid,” recalled Glenn Di Georgio, a science and physical-education teacher, who later became a national throws coach for discus, hammer, javelin and shot put.
Di Georgio remembers the young student’s first javelin toss beating those of his classmates by more than 30 metres.
“He looked at me. I looked at him. I said, ‘You know, Phil, you can do this.’ He had a helluva arm.”
The teenager first gained national attention in 1973 by winning his event at the Canada Summer Games held in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. He carried the Summer Games flag in the closing ceremony, which was broadcast to a national television audience. The 17-year-old youth was chosen Canada’s outstanding amateur junior athlete of the year, and was presented the Viscount Alexander Trophy at a televised banquet at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa.
As a Grade 11 student, Olsen’s throw of 71.46 metres established a provincial high-school record that has stood for 46 years. (A later design change to the javelin reduced the distance athletes threw.) It was also a national junior men’s record.
Coached by Di Georgio, the athlete adopted a rigorous weekly regimen, including three days of weight training and a day of running short wind sprints, as well as the use of a medicine ball to build strength in the upper torso.
The original plan had been to train for the 1980 Olympics, as most javelin throwers reach a peak in their mid-20s. He had such great success so early that it was decided he should try to qualify for the 1976 Olympics to be held in Montreal. He easily met the standard.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound athlete said walking into a roaring Olympic Stadium behind the flag with fellow Canadian athletes was “like walking into electricity.”
In the Olympic Village, he chatted with Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci and chewed the fat with Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev. He told the world record-holder in javelin, Miklos Nemeth of Hungary, that he was going to defeat him.
“He was cocky and he was brash,” Di Georgio said of his athlete. “He loved the big show. When he stepped into the qualifying round, there were nearly 70,000 people in the stands. He just played to it.”
On his first throw, Olsen hurled the javelin a stunning 87.76 metres, less than three metres short of the Olympic record. He skipped his other two throws. His was the third-longest throw of the day, a personal best that set a Canadian and Commonwealth record.
The next day in the finals, Olsen struggled. His approach before the throw took 16 precise steps. Unknown to him, an athlete in a different event had moved Olsen’s marker on the track. His first throw, which was close to 90 metres, was disqualified, as he was red flagged for crossing the throw line. “That just destroyed him,” Di Georgio said.
To make matters worse, Nemeth’s first throw of 94.58 metres, a world record, dispirited other competitors. Olsen finished in a disappointing 11th place. Had his qualifying throw from the previous day counted, he would have earned a bronze medal.
“I came so close,” he said a month after the Olympics, “and really wanted to do well in front of the home crowd, but I just couldn’t cut the cake in the finals.”
In 1975, Olsen accepted a four-year athletic scholarship at the University of Tennessee after a chance meeting with Bill Schmidt, the reigning Olympic bronze medalist. Under track coach Stan Huntsman at Knoxville, Olsen was the National Collegiate Athletic Association champion in 1976 and a four-time All-American. He was the dominant student-athlete javelin thrower of his generation, and 35 years would pass before another javelin thrower (Sam Humphreys of Texas A&M) qualified for four consecutive NCAA outdoor championships.
The triumph at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton came on a rain-slicked approach runway, as Olsen threw precisely 84 metres for Canada’s only gold medal in athletics.
Nanaimo Mayor Frank Ney presented Olsen with a $100 silver plate after he returned to the city.
At the 1982 Commonwealth Games, Olsen finished fourth. In three Pan American Games, Olsen finished fifth, fourth and seventh in the javelin. He was an 11-time Canadian champion, but by the end of his competitive career had been overtaken by Laslo Babits, of Oliver, B.C.
In 1994, Olsen was chosen Canada’s greatest javelin thrower by a panel of Canadian sports writers selecting Canada’s best men’s athletics team in history, which included sprinters Harry Jerome and Percy Williams, as well as decathlete Dave Steen.
Olsen was among the charter inductees into the fledgling Nanaimo Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
Olsen, who worked for 30 years as an education assistant at Vancouver Island schools, died on March 15 after suffering a heart attack while gathering firewood with his wife near the Nanaimo River. He leaves his second wife, Nancy Olsen, whom he married two years ago. He also leaves two sisters and two brothers. He was predeceased by a sister.
His Olympic experience, however unsatisfying, was permanently etched on his skin. He had the interlocking Olympic rings tattooed on his shoulder.