October 5, 2007


Death of an Olympian (R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., October 5, 2007, Washington Times)

The death this week of Al Oerter, four-time Olympic gold medalist in the discus throw, prompts some thoughts on the great generation of field-event athletes that is now passing. Al Oerter is the only Olympian to win four gold medals in his event (1956, 1960, 1964, 1968) with an Olympic record every time. Sprinter and long-jumper Carl Lewis won golds in four straight Olympics but he did not set Olympic records in each win. And Lewis, though one of the greatest athletes of his era, competed in a different era, an era after the Olympic ideal of amateur sport had been maculated by professional sports contracts.

In Oerter's day there was no money in amateur sport, but there were plenty of great athletes and not coincidentally great characters. Another who passed away a few months back was shot-putter Parry O'Brien, winner of two consecutive Olympic golds and in his third attempt in 1960 a bronze.

In 1964, O'Brien finished fourth. Both these athletes were innovators in their events and legendary competitors, without displaying the guff we often see today. They were also lifelong athletes who exemplified the athlete's highest ideals: character, competitiveness, health. On this last point, Oerter's experience might not be totally convincing. He died at 71, but he died after overcoming a life of high blood pressure since youth and cardiovascular problems. He also was often afflicted with injuries in competition, injuries that he usually overcame, often heroically.

Interesting that while steroid revelations and big contracts have had no effect on the popularity of team sports they destroyed the individual ones and effectively rendered the Olympics a nullity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2007 6:56 AM
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