American discus thrower
One of the great figures in Olympic track and field history, Al Oerter was the first athlete to win gold medals in four consecutive Olympic competitions. Between 1956 and 1968, Oerter dominated the discus event at the Olympics, and he continued to maintain his high level of competition into the 1980s—as he approached his fiftieth birthday and long after he had been inducted into various halls of fame.
Alfred Oerter was born in Astoria, New York (a neighborhood in the borough of Queens) on August 19, 1936. His discus career had an almost mythical beginning: while running on his high school track (Oerter began his high school track and field career as a miler), an errant discus, which weighs two kilograms or nearly four and-a-half pounds, fell at his feet. When Oerter threw it back his toss went so far that the coach immediately talked him into competing as a discus thrower. In those days before video, or even readily available film of competitions, Oerter refined his technique in perhaps the most unusual way of all: he studied a flip book of a discus thrower. In 1954 Oerter set the U.S. high school record for the discus. Oerter's career blossomed at the University of Kansas under legendary track and field coach Bill Easton. Easton guided Oerter in his early amateur career that included making the United States Olympic team in 1956.
First Olympic Success
The Olympics transformed Oerter into an athlete of international stature. In The Olympics: 80 Years of People, Events and Records, edited by Lord Killanin and John Rodda, it was acknowledged that Oerter has been "often cited as the Supreme Olympic athletics competitor…" (Here the term "athletics" refers to track and field events.) In 1956 the summer Olympics were held in Melbourne, Australia. Down through the years the United States had always fielded a strong discus team and that year Oerter's colleagues in the event included Fortune Gordien and Desmond Koch. Gordien had won the bronze medal in the 1948 Olympics and was the world record holder. The twenty-year-old Oerter stunned the world when he not only won the gold medal, but in doing so set a new Olympic record with a throw of 56.36 meters (184 feet, 101/2 inches). The U.S. swept the discus competition that year: Fortune won the silver medal and Koch the bronze. Oerter would improve on his winning distance in each of the three succeeding Olympics.
Sets World Records
Oerter was just hitting his stride. In the years between the Melbourne Olympics and the 1960 Olympics in Rome he captured the U.S. national championship for discus three times: 1957, 1959, and 1960. In 1959 Oerter also won the gold medal in the Pan-American Games.
Although he again wasn't necessarily the favorite, nor the world record holder (Poland's Edmund Piatkowski had set the new mark of 59.91 meters in 1959), Oerter easily defended his gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics with a winning throw of 59.18 meters (194 feet, 11/2 inches) as the United States once again swept the discus competition: Richard Babka won the silver medal and Dick Cochran the bronze.
Having established his Olympic credentials once and for all, Oerter dominated the sport of discus throwing on the international scene over the next four years. In a flurry of amazing competitiveness, beginning with a meet in Los Angeles in May 1962, Oerter accomplished the one goal in his sport that had eluded him—he set the world record with a throw of 61.10 meters (200 feet, 51/2 inches); Oerter was the first person to throw the discus 200 feet. Oerter's record was short-lived. Two and a half weeks later Vladimir Trusenyov set the new standard (61.64 meters) in a meet in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. Oerter recaptured the world record with a throw of 62.44 meters in July 1962 in Chicago. In April 1963 he bettered his mark with a throw of 62.62 meters (205 feet, 51/2 inches). Almost exactly a year later, in April 1964, he set the mark again with a throw of 62.94 meters (206 feet, 6 inches). However, by the time the 1964 Olympics came around Oerter's record had been shattered by Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia, who, in a meet in August 1964, threw the discus 64.55 meters.
|1936||Born in Astoria, New York City|
|1954||Enters University of Kansas|
|1956||Wins first Olympic gold medal in Melbourne|
|1957, 1959-60, 1962, 1964, 1966||U.S. National Champion|
|1960||Wins second Olympic gold medal in Rome|
|1962||Breaks U.S. record three times; world record twice|
|1963-64||Breaks U.S. and world records|
|1964||Wins third Olympic gold medal in Tokyo|
|1968||Wins fourth Olympic gold medal in Mexico City, retires|
|1974||Inducted into USA Track & Field Hall of Fame|
|1976||Comes out of retirement to train for 1980 Olympics|
|1976||Personal best discus toss: 227 feet, 103/4 inches|
|1980||Finishes fourth in Olympic trials for three-man team; US boycotts the Moscow Olympics|
|1983||Inducted into Olympic Hall of Fame|
Pain and Triumph
When the 1964 Olympics took place in October in Tokyo, Oerter, the two-time reigning Olympic discus champion, was once again not the favorite. Not only was Danek the world record holder, but he had won an incredible forty-five consecutive competitions. To make matters worse for Oerter he was forced to wear a neck brace because of what was described as a "chronic cervical disk injury." That injury was far from the extent of Oerter's physical woes that season. About a week before the start of the Olympics, Oerter slipped and fell while practicing on a wet field. He tore cartilage in his rib cage. As he recounted to Bud Greenspan in 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History, "I was bleeding internally, I couldn't move, I couldn't sleep and I consumed bottles of aspirin to alleviate the pain. I went through ice treatments to minimize the bleeding and the doctors ordered me not to compete. But these are the Olympics and you die before you don't compete in the Olympics."
Oerter competed with his rib cage heavily taped and packed with ice, and not even three shots of Novocain could dull the pain. After four rounds (each competitor gets six throws or rounds) Oerter was in third place-a remarkable enough achievement given the circumstances, but still more than seven feet short of Danek's best throw. Acknowledging he was in too much pain to try a sixth toss, Oerter decided to go for broke in the fifth round. His throw of sixty-one meters (200 feet, 11/3 inches) was a new Olympic record and nearly half a meter better than Danek's best toss. Oerter never saw the discus land. He was lying on the ground, doubled up in pain.
Oerter continued competing; for him the intervening years were primarily warm-ups for the Olympics. However he did win his sixth U.S. National championship in 1966 (besides the aforementioned three national championships, Oereter was also national champion in 1962, 1964).
By the time 1968 Olympics, held in Mexico City, rolled around, the world record holder was fellow American, Jay Sylvester, who had topped Danek's mark with a toss of 66.54 meters in May of that year. Sylvester extended his record in September with a throw of 68.4 meters.
But it was Oerter who once again made the Olympics his special stage. His throw of 64.78 (212 feet, 6 inches) was good enough to win his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal; Lothar Milde of the German Democratic Republic took the silver medal while Danek captured the bronze medal. Oerter's winning throw was a personal best, but more important, his four consecutive gold medals in the same event was a feat no other track and field athlete had ever duplicated. However, it was overshadowed by the controversial "black power salute" by African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos who were protesting against racism in the United States. Smith and Carlos took the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 meter event.
The Later Years
Although he had hoped to win five consecutive gold medals for discus Oerter decided to retire after the 1968 Olympics. Injuries were taking their toll on him, and at that time track and field was far less lucrative. Oerter earned his living as a computer engineer. In 1976 Oerter had a change of heart, he came out of retirement and began training for the 1980 Olympics. He freely admitted that that year (1976), he tried steroids to bulk up but quickly gave up on the experiment when his blood pressure rose too high. He afterward became a vocal opponent of steroids and drugs. In 1976 Oerter set his own personal record discus throw of 227 feet, 103/4 inches. In 1980 the 44-year-old Oerter finished fourth in the Olympic trials, but the United States boycotted the summer Olympics that year (held in Moscow), so it was all a moot point.
In 1996 Oerter was further honored for his Olympic feats as the final torch bearer in Atlanta.
Related Biography: Coach Bill Easton
One of the greatest track coaches at the university level, Millard E. "Bill" Easton was born September 13, 1906 in Stinesville, Indiana. He attended Indiana University where he was coached by Billy Hayes.
Easton first made his mark as a coach at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He coached the Drake track team from 1941 to 1947 and in that time the Drake cross-country team won three consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles—1944-46.
From Drake, Easton moved on to Kansas University, which he built into a powerhouse of track and field during the 1950s. During his 18-year tenure as track coach his teams won 39 conference championships. The cross-country team won the national title in 1953 and the outdoor team won the 1959 and 1960 national titles.
While at Kansas Easton coached thirty-two All-American athletes and four Olympians. He was also coach of the 1968 Mexican Olympic team. Easton was inducted into seven halls of fame including the U.S. Track & Field hall of Fame (1975), the National Track & Field Hall of Fame (1975), Drake relays Coaches Hall of Fame (1976). Easton died October 7, 1997.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1954||U.S. high school record|
|1956, 1960, 1964, 1968||Olympic gold medal|
|1957, 1959-60, 1962, 1964, 1966||U.S. National Champion|
|1962||American record (3); world record (2)|
|1963-64||American and world records|
|1974||USA Track & Field Hall of Fame|
|1983||Olympic Hall of Fame|
Oerter continued to compete until the mid-1980s, long after his legacy as one of the great discus throwers of all time was secured, courtesy of his four Olympic gold medals and his four world records. In addition, there was the Pan-American championship and the five U.S. records that he held. In 1974 Oerter was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame and in 1983 he was inducted in the Olympic Hall of Fame.
Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. Los Angeles: General Publishing Group, 1995.
Laing, Jane, Ed., et al. Chronicle of the Olympics, 1896-1996. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1996.
Associated Press (July 17, 1996).
Christian Science Monitor (April 2, 1990).
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (May 27, 1996).
"Al Oerter." USA Track & Field. http://www.usatf.org/athletes/hof/oerter.shtml (January 9, 2003).
"Al Oerter." http://vm.mtsac.edu/relays/HallFame/Oerter.html (January 8, 2003).
"Millard 'Bill' Easton." USA Track & Field. http://www.usatf.org/athletes/hof/easton.shtml (January 21, 2003).
"M.E. 'Bill' Easton." Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. http://www.kshof.org/inductees/easton.html (January 21, 2003).
"World Record Progression-Throwing." Sportsfacts.net. http://www.geocities.com/loki314285/history/athletics/world_records/throwing_world_records.html (January 13, 2003).
Sketch by F. Caso
Al Oerter (born 1936) is the only athlete ever to win a gold medal in the same event at four consecutive Olympic Games. He won gold in the discus in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968. Oerter set and broke many Olympic records.
Alfred Adolph Oerter, Jr. was born in Astoria, New York, on August 19, 1936. He grew up in the nearby town of New Hyde Park, a suburb of New York City, and his athletic talent became apparent early. While still in high school, where athletes used a lighter discus than that used by adult competitors, he hurled it 184 feet, 2 inches, setting a national prep record.
After high school, Oerter attended the University of Kansas, where he set an NCAA record. He never won a major international competition, but qualified for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, when he was a college sophomore. At the time, he was ranked sixth in the world in the discus.
"Everything Built Up Inside Me"
At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, he didn't expect to win, since he was up against some tough competition. He knew he had a chance at a medal, however, and resolved to do his best. "Everything built up inside me," he said, according to Cordner Nelson in Track's Greatest Champions. I really was keyed up and inspired." He looked out over the field, where a flag marked the Olympic record of 180-6 1/2. Then he went into the windup, spun, and released the discus, astonishing his competitors and 100,000 spectators by throwing 184-10 1/2, on his first toss. The distance was a personal best for Oerter, and an Olympic record. The competition was not over, however, and Oerter was still worried about his competitor, Fortune Gordien, who held the world record at the time. "Naturally, I kept my fingers crossed," he said, according to Nelson. "I was always afraid Fortune would beat me. I knew he could."
Gordien's best throw was only 179-9 1/2, more than five feet short of Oerter's mark. Overall, Oerter ended with the three best throws of all the contestants-including Fortune Gordien. "I don't know how I did it," he said later, according to the IAAF Website. "Everything just went right and this throw came out." He also said, according to Ron Flatter in ESPN.com, "I'm not going to quit until I win five gold medals."
Oerter was involved in an almost-fatal automobile accident in 1957, but he fought back, recovered fully, and worked hard to get back in shape. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1958, and continued to compete under the sponsorship of the New York Athletic Club. At the same time, he was working for Grumman Aircraft, doing information processing. Although it's difficult for many athletes to train, have a family, and work, Oerter balanced all these responsibilities. He alternated weight training and throwing practice, and didn't compete in many meets. Still, he kept improving.
In 1960, he made the Olympic team again, but this time the competition looked even tougher than in 1956. American Richard "Rink" Babka threw a toss that beat Oerter's in the Olympic trials-Oerter's first defeat in over two years.
Returned to Olympics
At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Oerter did well in the qualifying round, throwing farther than the world record distance of 196-6, but he didn't do as well in the finals. Babka was ahead of him by 15 inches-Babka's best throw was 190-4, while Oerter's was 189-1. Babka was a true teammate, however, and gave Oerter some advice before Oerter made his final throw. He had noticed that Oerter's left arm was not in the correct position before he threw. He advised Oerter to adjust his windup. Oerter thanked Babka for the advice, changed his windup and hurled the discus 194-2, setting a new Olympic record and personal best. He wished Babka good luck, but Babka didn't beat Oerter's throw. Oerter won the gold, and Babka took home the silver.
Although Oerter had set Olympic records, he had never set a world record. This changed on May 18, 1962, when he threw 200-5 in Los Angeles and became the first person ever to throw the discus over 200 feet. He beat his own record in that same year when he threw 204-10 1/2 in Chicago; in 1963, he threw 205-5 at Walnut, California, and in 1964 he threw 206-6 at Walnut. Oerter was still balancing work, family, and training, and at about this time, according to Nelson, he said, "Technique and strength can be maintained over prolonged periods of time with minimum effort. As I become older, it becomes more satisfying to be able to maintain a world class condition while having a wife and family and a job that's rather demanding."
Competed Despite Severe Injuries
Oerter was scheduled to compete in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but six days before the competition, he tore cartilage in his lower ribcage during practice. His doctors told him that if he didn't wait six weeks before competing again, he might suffer internal bleeding. He ignored their advice, and headed for Tokyo. He was wrapped in bandages and ice packs to prevent the bleeding, and taking Novocain shots to dull the intense pain, so he was not expected to win; onlookers had transferred that expectation to his rival, Ludvik Danek, a Czech who had won 45 meets in a row.
During warm-ups, the pain was severe, and he thought about dropping out. Despite his injuries, on his first throw during the preliminaries, he threw 198-8, setting another Olympic record. After this, he said of the finals, "If I don't do it on the first throw, I won't be able to do it at all," according to Flatter. In the finals, however, he didn't throw well on his first few tries and was in third place by his fifth throw. Danek was in first place, and David Weill was in second place.
Oerter wound up slowly on his last throw, looking heavy and labored. Inside his mind, however, he had a plan, according to Nelson; he later said, "I was using a slow spin and trying to stretch the tendons to get a little higher. I had been throwing too low and I was trying a very easy turn to correct the problem. The sixth [throw] was to have been my best effort with a faster turn." He didn't have to wait until his sixth throw, however, because his fifth throw flew to 200-1 1/2, a new Olympic record-beating the one he had set during the preliminaries. His gold medal for this event made him only the second person ever to win the same Olympic event three times.
Wons Gold for the Fourth Time
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Oerter was suffering from a dislocated cervical vertebra, for which he had to wear a neck brace, and he had a pulled thigh muscle. During the previous four years, he had not done well, and he was not expected to win. His competitor, Jay Silvester, was expected to take the gold, but Silvester was not as certain. "When you throw against Oerter, you don't expect to win," he said, according to the IAAF Website. "You just hope."
Hope was not enough. During the qualifying round, Oerter took off his neck brace-partly because he knew doing so would ignite fear in his competition-ignored the tremendous pain he was feeling, and hurled the discus to his fourth Olympic record of 212-6. This distance beat his own personal best by over five feet. His other throws included distances of 212-5 and 210-1. Silvester finished in fifth place, with a throw of 202-8. With his gold medal at these Games, he became the only person ever to win a gold medal in the same event in four consecutive Olympic Games.
Oerter's win at Mexico City demonstrated his skill at using what many athletes are only now beginning to harness-the power of the mind. Nelson noted that he said, "Once in the Olympic Village you can't improve on your strength or speed. The only thing still possible is to improve your mental attitude. In the weeks before an Olympic competition, I mentally simulate every conceivable situation for each throw. For example, I imagine that I'm in eighth place, it's my fifth throw, and it's pouring rain. What do I do? An inexperienced thrower might panic or be thinking, "Gees, I hope I don't fall down." [But] I know ahead of time what I will do under every circumstance."
Oerter Retired, Then Came Back
Oerter retired in 1969 to work full-time and raise his young family. In 1976, however, he was divorced, and his two daughters were grown. He planned to return in 1980 at the age of 43 and threw a 227-10 1/2, a new personal best that allowed him to qualify as an alternate on the Olympic team. He might have reached his goal of five gold medals, but that year, because of political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, where the Olympic Games would be held, the U.S. team boycotted the Games and Oerter didn't get to show what he could do. In 1984, he hoped to compete at the Olympics in Los Angeles but couldn't compete in the trials for the Games because he had a torn Achilles tendon. Less than a year before, he had thrown 222-9, a distance that would have brought him a gold medal if he had been able to attend the Los Angeles Games and do it again. He said he might try again for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when he would be 60 years old. He missed the goal-directed life of an athlete, always reaching out for improvement and a new record. "I miss going for something elusive," he said, according to the IAAF Website.
"A Soaring, Creative, Competitive Genius"
According to Cordner Nelson in Track's Greatest Champions,, Oerter once said, "The Olympics are unique, a world community … what men have been trying to achieve for centuries. There is no job, no amount of power, no money to approach the meaning of the Olympic experience. It's unfortunate they only happen once every four years. They are so special." He preferred Olympic competition to world-record-hunting, and once said, "I don't chase world records. If they come during the competition, fine. But the competition is first," according to James D. Whalen in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports.
Oerter worked for Grumman Aircraft Corporation as a computer specialist for 26 years, then worked for Reebok. In recent years, he has divided his time between Long Island, where he lives in the summer, and Florida, where he spends the winter months.
Oerter once described the reasons he loved competing in the discus throw. "I like the beauty, the grace, and the movement. I can feel myself through the throw and can feel the discus in flight." According to Nelson, Oerter is "a soaring, creative, competitive genius, the like of whom has seldom been seen at any time, or any place, in any sport." He has been elected to the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Encyclopedia of World Sport, edited by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, ABC-CLIO, 1996.
Nelson, Cordner, Track's Greatest Champions, Tafnews Press, 1986.
"Al Oerter," IAAF Website,http://www.iaaf.org/athletes/legends/AlOerter.html (December 20, 2000).
"Three-peating Wasn't Enough for Oerter," ESPN.com,http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016388.html (December 20, 2000). □