October 3, 2007


Al Oerter: Four times Olympic gold medallist (Independent, 04 October 2007)

The word "Olympian", according to some senior sports figures, has been misused in recent times to apply to anyone who competes at an Olympics, rather than only to those who attain the heights of Olympus. There can be no debate that Olympian is the right word to describe Al Oerter, the American who won the discus at the 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968 Games and whose very image – a 6ft 4in, 21-stone blond giant at full stretch, a disc in hand, about to be flung into the far distance – has become a sporting icon.

Only one other track and field athlete has managed to retain his Olympic title three times – Carl Lewis in the long jump between 1984 and 1996. But even the flamboyant sprinter-jumper failed to match Oerter's feat of winning with an Olympic record performance on each occasion. [...]

Not once did he go into an Olympics even as the American champion, having never managed to win the notoriously tough US Trials. Certainly, with the discus regarded as an event that relies heavily on experience rather than youthful exuberance, when he made the long journey by ship across the Pacific to Australia for the 1956 Melbourne Games, he did so as the callow novice looking to gain experience from the likes of Gordien, who was 34, and the 39-year-old Italian veteran Adolfo Consolini.

Yet Oerter managed to break the Olympic record with his first-round 56.36m throw, a lifetime best and better than all his rivals by more than 5ft. Watched by around 100,000 in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, nerves now struck him. "I had a hard time even raising my arm after that," he said. "I never felt I had won until the last throw was made." Overwhelmed by his victory, Oerter nearly fainted on the medal podium.

A year later, Oerter survived a near-fatal car accident. Discus throwers are catapults in human form, their arms and spines enduring terrific forces in each competitive effort; the accident damaged Oerter's frame and he threw inconsistently over the next three years.

At the 1960 US Olympic Trials, Oerter suffered his first defeat in two years, to Rink Babka. Edmund Piatkowski, of Poland, arrived at the Rome Games as the world record-holder. Oerter struggled with nervousness in the early rounds, and only in the fifth, penultimate, round did he manage to throw 59.18m, winning the gold medal this time by a margin of nearly 4ft.

Two years later, Oerter set a world record for the first time, notably becoming the first man ever to throw beyond 200 feet (61.10m). But he went into the 1964 Olympic season suffering from a chronic cervical disc injury that forced him to wear a neck harness and, a week before the Tokyo Games, tore a cartilage in his lower ribs. Doctors advised six weeks' rest.

Oerter competed, using painkillers and ice-packs, and broke his own Olympic record in the qualifying round. Mindful of his injury, he knew he had limited chances to throw in the final. "If I don't do it on the first throw, I won't be able to do it at all," Oerter told a team-mate.

Yet after four rounds, Oerter was only third. He took another throw, and left the circle doubled up in agonising pain. "It felt like somebody was trying to tear out my ribs." When he looked up at the scoreboard, he saw the judges had measured his throw at 61.00m, an Olympic record to beat Ludwik Danek.

According to Cordner Nelson, writing for Track & Field News in 1968, Oerter confirmed his status as "one of the greatest pressure competitors in sports", beating the then world record-holder Jay Silvester to win a fourth Olympic gold in Mexico City. "You have to be better than whatever it is that keeps you from being your best," Oerter said. "Pressure is nothing more than opportunity. Why not embrace it?"

President Carter was right to boycott the Moscow Olympics, but having made the team you could almost imagine Mr. Oerter winning another medal.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2007 7:46 PM
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