The Giant of the Ring
One Balmy Evening in Stellenbosch
You know the opening sounds to “Thunder Struck” by ACDC? No, well here is a link to it. Have a listen. Then picture this. Standing at 2.03m tall in with shoulders as wide as a house, Frantz Kruger, South Africa’ Giant of the Discus stepped into the ring of the Discus circle on Friday 30 March, 2001 in Stellenbosch for the third and final leg of the 2001 Engen Series. The opening cords of the song were blaring as he stepped into the circle to prepare…. As the lyrics hit “Thunder”, Frantz raised his finger to the sky and pointed and the crowd was delirious.
Spurred on by the music, the atmosphere, the competition and being in the best shape of his life, Frantz stood in the circle, started the slow wind up and then whipped around the circle, his long arms leveraging the 20cm, 2kg Discus high into the sky. Clearly one could hear the HoopPaaaaaaah, from Frantz’s mouth as he sent the Discus soaring. And soaring. Endlessly. It seemed an age before the Discus hit the ground. And the stadium erupted. Frantz had sent the round piece of wood with a metal ring to 69.96m – a mere 4cm short of 70m and 21cm further than his previous best of 69.75m from 25 September, 2000.
The crowd loved it. Frantz was looking for a win over the Lithuanian and Olympic Champion, Virgilius Alekna in the final meet of the series. For five rounds it looked as if Frantz would be able to pull it off. His sequence of throws put enormous pressure on Alekna. His opening throw was 69.67m, to which Alekna replied with 70.55m to take the lead showing his class. Round two and Frantz hit another 69m throw. This time 69.23m. Alekna replied with 66.11m. Then in round three, Frantz hit a monster. 69.96m A new South African and African record. Frantz was on fire, in fine form. Surely it was only a matter of time before he went over 70m and beat Alekna. He was in the shape of his life. Confidence soaring. This was his time. And the pressure started to tell. In round three Alekna recorded a no throw. Round four and Frantz put everything into it. Alekna was clearly feeling the pressure. But he put too much into that effort and fell off and recorded a no throw. Alekna also recorded a no throw. This was turning into the Clash of the Titans. Even though athletes such as Robert Fazekas and Roland Varga of Hungary were hitting 66m and 64m, they were relegated to spectators of this epic duel.
Round 5. This time Frantz hit 67.46m. Time was running out. He had only one effort left if he wanted to dethrone Alekna. But the Lithuanian was not Olympic Champion for nothing. He responded with a massive 70.99m. Experience coming through, as Frantz now went into the final round requiring a throw more than a meter further than he had ever gone.
Thunderstruck blared. The crowd cheered and clapped rhythmically. Frantz was pure focus. Sped around the circle. Sent the discus soaring with a mighty roar. The crowd held its collective breath – then sighed. The discus had clearly fallen short. It landed at 66.96m. Alekna had triumphed again. But the two had given South Africa the best display of discus throwing ever witnessed in the country.
That Frantz Kruger was destined for greatness was never in doubt. On 21 July 1994 in Lisbon, Portugal, Frantz became South Africa’s first ever World Champion, clinching the World Junior Title. This after having won the Africa Junior Championships two weeks earlier.
Four years later and he became Africa Champion and then went on to represent Africa at the World Cup of Athletics which coincided opening of the Johannesburg Stadium where he won the Bronze Medal – and also had his first of many encounters with Virgilius Alekna who won the competition with Germany’s Lars Riedel taking silver. This competition was to be tinged with a sense of déjà vu for Frantz.
1999 brought yet another title. The All-Africa Games title. By that time Frantz was regularly peppering the 64m and 65m mark. Discus throwers tend to hit their straps in their 30’s. Frantz was only 24. Here was something special.
2000 and Olympic Glory
At the beginning of 2000 South African season I spent some time with Frantz. Something had happened somewhere between the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000. Frantz was bigger, stronger and lot more confident. It was as if he knew this was going to be a big year for him and the start of a three year high. His 2000 season was meticulously planned out. “Easy” competitions in South Africa, even in the Engen Grand Prix Summer Series where he won comfortably. Then it was off to Europe from June to September. His final competition in Europe on 1 September in Berlin where he finished third with a throw of 67.32m. By that time Frantz was regularly hitting 67m and even gone 68.13m in Cottbus, Germany on 23 August.
After Berlin it was time to head home to Bloemfontein. He had just 22 days before he would line up in the ring in Sydney for the Olympic Games. And he prepared thoroughly. First he set his body clock to Sydney time. That meant he slept in the day and was awake at night. Training was done before going “to bed” in the morning (which became his evening) and again in the evening – which effectively became his morning. In this way he avoided encountering any problems with jet lag. It was also during this time he sent a warning shot across the bows of this competitors. In a small competition organised as a tester for Frantz, he broke destroyed John van Reenen's 25-year old record by 1.27m when he sent the discus to 69.75m, to eclipse the old mark of 68.48m. If any had doubted his ambitions or his potential for Sydney, well those were firmly put their places. Only Alekna had gone further that year.
Sunday 24 September came and into the qualifying rounds he went. A 65m throw would secure a competitors an automatic birth in the final. First it was his rival, Germany’s Lars Riedel who stepped into the circle. The German had no problems, sending the discus to 68.15m – and into the final he went. Frantz and Alekna responded in their opening throws with 67.54m and 67.10m respectively. No problems getting into the finals.
Finals day. 25 September. Frantz opened with 67.89m – and into the lead he went. In round three Riedel replied with 68.50m, but Alekna took over the front running with his 68.73m. Frantz hit 68.19m and the top three positions were taking shape. Only Alekna would improve on his distance to win the Olympic Title with his 5th round throw of 69.30m. Frantz had won Olympic Bronze.