Take Your Child to Work Day is a little different if you're an Olympic athlete. Shigenobu used to bring his young son along to practices and meets when he was still competing; Koji literally learned the art of the hammer at the feet of his father, absorbing the intricate footwork necessary to spin a 7.2-kg hammer at speeds up to 100 km/h. When Koji was 10 years old, Shigenobu decided to teach him the formal steps just for fun. "He learned all the basic foot movements in three days," Shigenobu says. "He has an amazing ability to absorb information."
What Koji didn't have was a hammer thrower's natural size. Even today the 1.87-m-tall Olympian weighs just 97 kg—huge for an ordinary Japanese, but more than 10 kg less than the average world-class thrower. In a sport where the difference between a gold medal and nothing is measured in centimeters, giving up that kind of body weight should have been Koji's cue to stick with one of the other sports he tried as a kid, like soccer or even the discus. "I thought it was impossible because he was too small," says Shigenobu.
Maybe it was just his natural stubbornness, but Koji felt differently, choosing at 15 to dedicate himself to his father's profession. "I wanted to be No. 1 at something," he says. Koji was away at Narita, attending a high school with a renowned track-and-field program, but his father, who coaches track and field at Nagoya's Chukyo University, would make the four-hour trip about once a month to help him train. Together they worked on an unorthodox throwing technique that made Koji's relatively small size work in his favor. As Koji begins his windup spins for a throw, he leans further and further back with each turn, extending the radius between the axis of his spin and the head of the hammer. Thanks to centrifugal force, Koji can get extra speed on the hammer as he spins, compensating for his reduced body mass. The style, which is virtually impossible for larger opponents to emulate, helped Shigenobu become one of Asia's very few world-class throwers. By Koji's second year in high school, his throws were already surpassing the winning distances in college competitions.
It was a very Japanese solution—flawless technique and relentless will trumping a lack of natural resources.
Honing that kind of technique takes constant work for the athlete and the coach alike, and when Koji joined his father at Chukyo University for college, it didn't take long for familial fatigue to set in. At the very point at which most young people are finally getting a taste of independence, Koji was spending day and night with his father—not how most college students envision their freshman year. "I saw my father at class, at practice and when I came home," he says. "I knew I was talented. I thought I knew more than him, so I didn't listen."
Like any young adult, Koji wanted to forge his own path, yet the career he had chosen meant he was always tethered to the man who was both his father and the record holder whose feats he was expected to surpass. Every son measures his accomplishments against his father's, but for Koji the pressure was especially intense. Shigenobu waited, and let his son and student find his own way back to him. "Sometimes someone can give you good advice, but you're not ready to hear it," says Koji. But eventually he found a way to make hammer throwing all his own, and he now speaks of the sport with a sense of mystical wonder you would never hear from the straightforward Shigenobu. "Sometimes I think of myself as the earth and the hammer as the moon," Koji says as he spins a 7-kg leather bag (moon) over his head (earth) by way of demonstration. "I just have to cut the gravity. It's so natural. It's a cosmic sport."
Koji swiftly rose up the rankings of the hammer world, beating his father's national record in 1998 at age 23 and becoming the first Asian to throw more than 80 m in 2000. (The world record is 86.74 m.) Expectations were high for a medal at the Sydney Games, but Koji came up short in the final round, finishing ninth; still, his silver at the 2001 world championships was Japan's first-ever throwing medal at a world competition. Although both father and son are humble about medal hopes for Athens, Koji has already thrown further than all but two men in the history of the sport. Olympic glory is his for the taking.
His father may have been with him every step of the way, but when Koji Murofushi picks up the hammer in Athens, he'll be on his own. "You have to find your own way," Koji says. "I need to make my own throw." Still, whether that throw is good enough for gold or falls short, Koji knows that the man who has been with him since the beginning will still be there for him afterward. Indeed, the bond that the sport has created between father and son may be prize enough. "The goal is not the records or the results," says Koji. "It's bigger than that. I'm not alone in this."