One night last month, while I was lazily channel-surfing at home, I happened on shot-putters doing their thing at the IAAF’s World Athletics Championships in Osaka.

As tiring as it was to watch, there was something truly moving and amazing about all those beefy men puffing out their cheeks, spinning around at incredible speed and then roaring fearsomely as they launched their black steel balls far down the field.

But a question came into my mind, and it quite disturbed my TV torpor.

Why were those top-notch athletes’ careers, their livelihoods and their global legacies, no less, dependent on steel balls? In the free, postmodern world of today, shouldn’t people have more choice about what they throw competitively? How can sports authorities arbitrarily dictate that what’s flung should be limited to those balls or javelins, hammers and discuses? Couldn’t we watch people hurling their bags, their shoes or their cell phones for a change?

In a bid to quiet my troubled mind I called up Takashi Seki, professor of Greek archaeology at Takarazuka University of Art and Design in Hyogo Prefecture. I was seeking his insight into how these ancient competitions all began.

Seki confessed he could cast no light on how shot-putting or hammer-throwing started, but he said there were references to javelin- and discus-throwing from as long ago as the 5th century B.C. He explained that ancient Greek artworks from back then clearly show, and books such as Homer’s “Iliad” describe, fellows at that time engaged in just such athletic rigors. These events are believed to have started as a way to train an exclusive, privileged class of warriors, Seki said.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and these sports have changed little, though participation is now open to women and non-Greeks. But fortunately, I’m not the only one niggled by time-honored restrictions on what can be competitively thrown.

To my delight I found that I can throw cell phones — those ubiquitous symbols of our pressure-cooker lives — without people in white coats coming to take me away. Indeed, at the annual Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships held in the Finnish town of Savonlinna, there’s even the remote possibility of achieving fame akin to that of Homer’s heroes.

One who’s done just that — at this year’s eighth annual event, held on August 25 — is 38-year-old Tommi Huotari, who reportedly remarked after clinching a gold medal with a cell-phone throw of 89.62 meters: “I have never thrown a phone before, but have been participating in potato-throwing. Surprisingly, a potato flies further.”

Not to be outdone in this field of athletic prowess, however, Japan is also home to a new breed of competitive hurlers, some of whom showed up on the artificial beaches in Chita, southern Aichi Prefecture, for the World Mouse Pad Throwing Competition 2007 on July 22.

An awful truth

Organized by Yasuhiro Matsunaga, a Nagoya-based TV/radio director, the event attracted 100 aspiring competitors, of whom 50 were chosen by lottery to take part.

Sadly, the level of dedication by both organizers and throwers was nowhere close to what the Ancient Greeks likely displayed — an awful truth clearly evident in Matsunaga’s explanation of why only 50 people could participate. “Oh, you know, it’s so hot at this time of the year,” he said. “We wanted the event to wrap up in about an hour.”

Matsunaga, who is also president of a TV production company called Interest TV, explained that his inspiration came to him last year while he was directing a radio program that offered mouse pads as giveaways to listeners. “I just found them . . . unexciting,” he said, sounding a bit embarrassed to reveal the source of his vision that opened up this new sporting vista. “So we thought about ‘playing’ with them.”

But then he discovered, he says, that throwing mouse pads could be a great stress release. “We all have times when we feel so distressed that we feel like throwing stuff, don’t we? I thought nobody would get too pissed off if we threw mouse pads.”

In practice, mouse-pad-throwing turned out to be much more fun and far more popular than he had imagined — which was why he held the second competition this year, and is planning another for 2008.

“Because the pad is so light, it’s really hard to make it land within the cone-shaped field,” Matsunaga said. “Pads fly into the air in an inexplicably feeble and complicated fashion. If this wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t be doing it; it doesn’t have any meaning apart from being fun.”

Matsunaga denied speculation that the contest is held just to attract publicity for his company or a radio program. Indeed, revenue from the event has been next to nothing, he said, confiding that his Japan Mouse Pad Throwing Association has sold only about 20 copies of the competition’s DVD so far.

Despite the fact that mouse-pad-throwing officially seems to be less about promoting athletic diversity and more about stress release and whimsical fun, the sheer novelty of the sport has ensured no shortage of wannabe champions.

“The idea of becoming ‘the world’s No. 1’ enticed me,” confessed Hiroki Osawa, a 28-year-old sheet-metal-worker from Gifu Prefecture, who said he entered this year’s contest on a whim as he happened to be touring the area with a friend on that day. He went on to beat all comers with a mighty throw of 63 meters — so setting the new world record.

No matter that Osawa had never hurled a pad before — except for 15 minutes’ “training” at the event site — he says the experience has given him a whole new outlook on life. “Now I look at mouse pads in a completely different way . . . from the perspective of how far they might fly.”

With those two world-class events already over this year, however, readers who feel robbed of a new form of athletic glory still have a chance to put their best ballistic feet forward.

On Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays between Sept. 22 and Oct. 27, Yomiuri Land, an amusement park in Inagi, western Tokyo, will host a mini-golf competition with a difference — as participants will compete by shooting their shoes at the holes. While it’s more a family entertainment than a do-or-die serious competition — with only a par 3 and par 4 on the course — the winner will nonetheless walk off with ¥50,000, the park’s spokesman said.

Let’s just hope that, in the not-too-distant future, a whole new generation of athletes will have pushed the envelope of sporting heroism to encompass even more astounding feats performed with mouse pads, shoes, or who knows what else.

For more details and information about the mouse-pad-throwing championships, visit www.ya-soo.com/jtma.html (Japanese only); for inquiries about shoe golf, call Yomiuri Land on (044) 966-1111 or visit www.yomiuriland.co.jp

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