Dueling Finns at the Tokyo Olympics: Javelin Throwers Pauli Nevala and Terje Pedersen

Pauli Nevala throwing in Tokyo_Tokyo Olympiad Kyodo News Agency
Pauli Nevala throwing at the 1964 Olympics, from the book Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency

Terje Pedersen was the golden boy of javelin throwing from Oslo, Norway. He was 193 cm tall, weighing 93 kilograms, blond and handsome, and was the first person ever to throw a spear over 90 meters, setting a world record at 91.72 meters only five weeks prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

For the citizens of Norway, Nevala may have been expected to take home gold, joining three other Finnish throwers who had won gold in the javelin throw in prior Olympics. And yet, on that cold and wet day on October 14, 1964, Pedersen threw poorly, his best throw of 72.1 meters, nearly 20 meters off of his world record, fell .21 cm short of qualifying for the finals.

The golden boy was out. For desperate Finns, in walked an unlikely hero, or as Neil Allen, who chronicled the 1964 Games in his book, Olympic Diary Tokyo 1964, called Pauli Nevala, the “lucky” Olympic champion. There’s not much written in English about the javelin competition, but Allen mentioned that Nevala was not as popular as Pedersen, and that in fact, “his selection for the Finnish national team prompted several hundred letters to the athletics association saying he was not good enough to go to Tokyo.”

Terje Pedersen
Terje Pedersen

Was Nevala unliked for some personal reason? As Pedersen had just set the world record so convincingly, was there room for only one national hero in the emotional mindshare of Norwegians? I don’t know. But Nevala assumed the mantle regardless. Nevala was certainly a deserving javelin thrower, his personal best of 86.33 being very close to the world record at the time in July 1963, but in the qualifying round at the Tokyo Games, he was in the middle of the pack with throws in the low 70s.

 

In the final round, Nevala improved, throwing 76.42 meters and then 78.39 meters. In the fourth throw, he uncorked a throw of 82.66 meters to take the lead. Gergely Kulcsar of Hungary and Janis Lusis of the Soviet union tried desperately to hit that mark, but fell short as the long wet day dragged on. Nevala was the unexpected Finnish and Olympic champion. Below is footage of his winning throw.

In an AP report at the time, the javelin coach for Finland, Hans Oeverland, painted a bleak picture for his countrymen, saying the competition was “quite disappointing for us and disastrous for Pedersen. But we will make no excuses. The weather was bad but it was the same for all competitors. I guess it all was a question about nerves.”

Hmmm…but what of Finnish champion Nevala?

Gergely_Kulcsár,_Pauli_Nevala,_Jānis_Lūsis_1964 on medal stand (color)
Gergely Kulcsar, Pauli Nevala, Janis Lusis