Tom Petranoff understands why people keep asking him the question. He keeps asking it himself.
It's certainly a reasonable question. After all, if ever an athlete had a lock on an event, it was Tom Petranoff for the gold medal in the javelin throw in the 1984 Olympic Games.
He held the world record in the event (with a 327-foot, 2-inch throw in 1983) until East Germany's Uwe Hohn threw the spear 343 feet, 10 inches just before the Olympics. Thanks to the Soviet-inspired Olympic boycott, however, neither Hohn, nor East Germany's Detlef Michel, the reigning world champion, nor the Soviet Union's Dainis Kula, the 1980 gold medalist in the javelin, nor Heino Puuste, a countryman of Kula's and among the top five javelin throwers in the world, would be on hand.
That left Petranoff the chance to be the golden boy. No problem. Just hop on the freeway from his home in Northridge, cruise into the Coliseum to the roar of the hometown crowd, fling his javelin 300 feet--which he had done many times before--pick up his medal on the way out and head straight to the William Morris Agency to start lining up Lite beer commercials.
So . . . what happened?
Petranoff sat in the weight room the other day at Cal State Northridge, where he has resumed working out, and spoke with a reporter for the first time about what went wrong.
"What a difference," he said. "You win and you are making $250,000 and doing Wheaties commercials. You lose and you ain't going to be (bleep)."
Petranoff looked like Wheaties material during the Olympic preliminary round. He calmly stepped up and threw his javelin 282 feet. It was easily the best throw of the day.
Ho-hum. Watch out Mary Lou Retton. Beware Edwin Moses.
Then came Sunday, Aug. 5. The Olympic finals. It was the moment Petranoff had dreamed about almost since the day he picked up a javelin. You would think the adrenaline would be flowing. That's what Petranoff figured.
"I thought, 'What's wrong? This is the Olympics.' " Petranoff said. "The opening ceremonies were a bigger emotional high with all the patriotism.
"The adrenaline was flying for the prelims. The crowd behind me was going bananas. I thought, 'Man, let's have the finals right now. When you're talking about the Olympics, you're talking about me and Carl Lewis.' But it was hard to hold that adrenaline until 5 p.m. the next day. I wish I could have shut off my mind and been nonexistent until the next day.
"I was up at 6 a.m. on the day of the finals. I had all day to think about it. I was thinking, 'Yes, it's the day! It's the day! It's here! It's now!' But then when it actually happened, it was like 'This is it? This is the Olympic finals?' There was an awards ceremony going on while we were competing. It was like a circus."
He was nervous enough to make his first two throws flatten out in the first of Sunday's two final rounds.
Now the smile was gone. The Wheaties commercials would soon follow.
"Man, I've got only one throw left," Petranoff told himself. "Here I am, the hometown favorite, and I'm one throw from being out of it. I had a gun to my head."
When that final throw was finished, the javelin lay only 257 feet, 3 inches away from Petranoff. It was 70 feet shorter than his world-record toss a year earlier. Petranoff, the favorite, finished in 10th place.
He didn't even stick around for the closing ceremonies.
"I didn't have any feeling," he said. "I was just happy it was over with, that I didn't have to deal with it anymore. There was just disbelief. I didn't want any part of it. It left a bad taste. It still does. All I wanted to do was forget about it and move on.
"For a couple of months, I was really depressed," Petranoff said. "I didn't want to talk about it, be reminded of it. Everything had been planned around a win, not a loss. It was like the Cubs being knocked out of the playoffs. Everybody was up and then San Diego comes back. Everybody was left dumbfounded. When it was over, I thought, 'Wait a minute, I was supposed to win it.'
"It was a total mental game. There was pressure I wasn't used to. I had never been in a big meet like the Olympics."
Petranoff's coach for the last five years, Cal State Northridge track Coach Bill Webb, cited "so many variables" for the poor performance.
"It's impossible to say this is the reason for throwing what was a mediocre distance for him," Webb said. "A lot of people would dream about throwing that far, but he's thrown farther many, many times. It's kind of like going into overtime in a pro basketball game and you've got the greatest free-throw shooter in the NBA and he just can't do it at that moment. There were 100,000 people in the Coliseum that day screaming, 'USA! USA!' at anything in red, white and blue. Different people handle that in different ways. Tom was nervous.
"He didn't have the same type of consistency he had in 1983. That year, he was strong early, often and quite consistently. He didn't have that confidence in '84. He was in and out of it and he just wasn't on a hot streak. He is not the first person in track and field to have an off year. Everybody wanted to talk to him last year. There were banquets, luncheons."
There was another factor, according to Petranoff. He had been alternating between two models of javelin: the Held Custom II and Custom III. The Custom III, with a thinner tail, goes farther, but has to be thrown at least 290 feet at 90 feet per second to turn over properly, allowing the front end to come down first. (The front end of the javelin must be at least one degree lower than the tail to qualify as a legal throw). Even then, the Custom III is unreliable--often not turning over. That results in a flat, illegal throw.
"I didn't want to gamble on the Custom III," Petranoff said. "I figured since the East Germans and the Russians weren't there, let's not take the risk. The Custom II was a safe bet. I thought with my first throw I could pop it 275-280 feet, then go for broke with the Custom III at the end."
As it turned out, the end came before he had a chance to try his Custom III.
After the Olympics, javelin designer Dick Held called Petranoff to give him some good news and some bad news. The good news: A series of tests using a compressed-air gun had determined the proper release angle for the Custom III to avoid its erratic behavior. The bad news: It was below 30 degrees, possibly as low as 25, the very angle Petranoff prefers.
"I could have been bitter about that," Petranoff said, "but it was my own fault for listening to them (beforehand). I've just got to roll with the punches and be happy that I know more about the javelin than I used to. It gives me something more to look forward to. It (the Olympics) is just water under the bridge now. It's 1985. '84 is history. I can still make six figures doing this and hopefully I can get back to the form I had in '83."
So Petranoff, 26, is back at Cal State Northridge. He is sprinting, jumping, lifting, throwing the heavy ball and smashing logs with a sledgehammer six days a week.
"I would have liked to have won at the Olympics," he said, "then decided whether to stick with it."
Webb has no doubt he'll do that. "I think he'll bounce back," his coach said. "He's back to business out here, back working as hard as ever. He's a good, consistent 300-foot thrower. He's going to be on the world scene for years to come. He'll be around for the Olympics in '88 and maybe even one after that."
Who knows? He might even get on that Wheaties box after all.