By John Branch
BEIJING : The Olympic gold medalist in discus clutched a large can of sardines, spun and flung it as far as he could. It sailed past a compact disc, a round cracker, an Oreo, even the head of cabbage, which shredded as it flew.
Then Gerd Kanter, Estonia's new posterboy, picked up a fish. Bought at the market, it looked like a sun fish, rather flat and somewhat disc-shaped.
"It doesn't smell good," he said.
The wind at Chaoyang Park was ideal, at least for regulation discuses, if not for flying seafood - a bit of a headwind, good for uplift, and slightly from the right. Kanter threw the fish about 20 meters. It fell well short of the canned sardines.
"We have a clear winner here," he said as he paced the distances with his long stride. The sardines had gone about 30 meters. Kanter was curious, and he flung them again. Fifty meters, surely a world record for canned sardines.
This is a good time to be Gerd Kanter.
With a handful of throws of a real discus on Tuesday night, one of which went 68.82 meters, or 225.79 feet, he won the gold medal. He has been keeping it in his shorts pocket, eagerly pulling it out for anyone who asks.
"People want to see it," he explained. He estimated that he could throw it 30 meters.
But what turned Kanter, 29, into one of the unlikeliest Olympic celebrities was not just the medal, but how he celebrated it after his victory at the 91,000-seat National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. He was handed a blue, black and white Estonian flag and began to carry it around the track. His enthusiasm drew the crowd's attention.
Then Kanter noticed the starting blocks for the sprints.
"I just got this good idea I should use it to promote my country and my flag," he said.
So he backed his feet into the blocks and bent his 6-foot-5, 276-pound body forward. He shot out of them and ran alone down the 100-meter straightaway, the flag draped over his shoulders.
"There's some natural speed in my feet," Kanter said. He once ran 100 meters in a respectable 11.2 seconds, before devoting himself to discus.
Kanter ran most of the way before slowing, then made like the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. He posed and shot an invisible arrow into the sky. Fans cheered wildly. Replays and photographs traveled around the world. A folk hero was born.
His fiancée, Liina Partel, watched Kanter from the stands, not sure what he was going to do. He admitted that he had tried to think of something clever, just in case he won, but did not know what it would be until he did it.
"I think it's great," she said. "He's very emotional. And he likes humor."
"Do you say I'm a clown ?" Kanter teased her.
"No," Partel said. "Like a little boy."
Kanter had really wanted to be Michael Jordan, and his bedroom used to be plastered with posters of the former Bulls basketball star. And he admitted that he has dreamed of being a singer.
"I'm not saying I have a good voice, but it looks like it would be fun," he said.
Instead, he is now wildly famous in Estonia as a champion discus thrower, the country's lone gold medalist of these games. (An Estonian doubles sculls team won a silver.) Kanter's performance coincided with the annual song festival, part of the Estonia's independence celebration in Tallinn. Thousands watched replays of Kanter's performance on big screens, and saw live broadcasts of his interviews in the hours after his performance.
Kanter said he would receive €100,000, about $150,000, from his country as an award for the gold medal, and probably much more from several sponsors. He will be Estonia's flag-bearer in the closing ceremony.
He spent the days following his victory seeing sights like the Great Wall, doing interviews and being wooed by sponsors. Someone at Nike joked with him about creating a new specialty shoe.
"He said in the future, maybe we should design shoes like James Bond," Kanter said. "One time it's a throwing shoe. The next time, you push a button and spikes come out the bottom for the run."
On Friday, Kanter agreed to demonstrate his skills in the discus, not the 100 meters. But rather than bringing his own discuses - he usually travels around the world with about five of them, and routinely is forced to pantomime their purpose to skeptical security officials - he was supplied a few disc-shaped objects. Some looked like specks in his huge hands.
"For some stuff, for sure I'll have to use a different technique," he said. "Like the cookie, I may have to throw like a stone."
He tried the cabbage first. He spun and flung it side-armed, like a discus, and it came apart in flight.
"Not very good aerodynamics," Kanter said.
Then came the cracker, which hit a breeze and boomeranged back, two steps away.
"For a cracker, the wind was too strong," he said. "If there was no wind I could probably add a couple of meters. Now it comes backwards."
The CD fluttered. The Oreo broke apart. The paper plate ("I've got a chance for a negative result here," he said before the throw) fell to his feet.
The floppy fish flew well, but was hard to grasp and get a strong rotation. But the can of sardines spun like a gyroscope as it arched across the sky. Kanter seemed intrigued.
There was only one other disc-shaped object that would seem perfect for spinning and sailing into the sky. Kanter pulled his gold medal out of his pocket. He was not about to let it go.
"It's a pretty good shape for throwing," he said. "But the fish was best."