120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 44): Al Oerter’s four straight gold wins in discus throw

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So far in this series, we have come across a lot of personalities who not only won multiple medals in a single edition but went on to defend one or more of their titles in the subsequent Games as well. Let us, in this episode meet a man who was the first to win an individual event for four times on the trot – the famous American discus thrower Al Oerter.

In a previous episode, we discussed about the Hungarian fencer Aladár Gerevich who won a team event in sabre a record six consecutive times. And till date, only Carl Lewis had emulated the feat of Oerter in the form of his heroics in long jump. And very much Lewis, the American discus thrower too had had to dig in deep to keep himself motivated and brush aside injury scares well into an age which is well past the general prime.

The six-and-a-quarter feet man from New York made his debut at the Melbourne Games in 1956 when he was barely 20 years old and was not exactly the tournament favourite (as he would be in any of his subsequent appearances). However to everyone’s dismay, after some initial throws around early 50-metre marks and with just one crossing the 55-metre mark, Oerter in the final round delivered a throw that travelled some 56.64 m (over 184 feet) – the then career best from the American. The throw eventually won him his first Olympic gold by a good 0.13 metres. At 20, Oerter became the youngest discus champion at the Olympics. The final podium was an all-American show – completed with the world-record holder Fortune Gordien and the NCAA Champion Des Koch for the silver and bronze respectively.

After suffering a near-fatal accident the following year, Alfred Oerter recovered in time and went on to win back-to-back NCAA titles. At the Rome Games, the US Olympic Trials winner Rink Babka was his major contender and the new world-record holder took the lead in the initial rounds. However, Oerter was no push-over as he threw 59.18 – an Olympic record! Babka settled for silver as Dick Cochran summed up yet another American 1-2-3 on the podium.

 

One specialty of Oerter was that though he did not hold any world-record until 1962 when he became the first to cross the 200-feet mark in discus history, yet he always found a way to produce his best to succeed at the biggest level. To one’s surprise, he never won the national Olympic Trials but went on to win Olympics every time! So at the 1964 Olympics too, the US Trials found a champion in Jay Silverster who would ultimately return without a medal from Tokyo. However, Oerter’s chief challenger here was the latest world-record setter from Czechoslovakia – Ludvík Daněk. Suffering from a cervical disk injury and sporting a neck collar, the American legend, knew that he could throw no more than a few times at the final due to his prevailing condition and hence decided to give all in his fifth throw instead of waiting for the mandatory six rounds. With the Czech hitting the 60.52 m, Oerter hurled a perfect 61 m – setting an Olympic record. And thus, Oerter bagged his hat-trick of Olympic golds.

In build up to the Mexico Games of 1968, Jay Silvester looked favourite with the American winning 20 of the last 22 meets, including the national trials. In the qualifying round, Silvester took the lead while in the first of the final, he was overtaken by two German – the eventual silver medalist Lothar Milde and Hartmut Losch. In the second round, Milde touched the 63-metre mark. Oerter accompanied Silvester to joint-third with throws of 61.78 m. Like the previous ones, Oerter came up with his best when it mattered most – creating an Olympic record of 64.78 m in the third. Though the match seemed to be over and out, still the American went farther with 64.74 m in the fifth and 64.04 m in the sixth – both of them ended up ahead of Milde’s silver winning 63.08 metre mark.

Though Oerter retired soon after the Games, he staged a comeback in 1976 but was however unsuccessful due to his heart could not take up much of the anabolic steroids prescribed by the doctors. He then switched to basic training for gaining fitness. Oerter was a big critic of the steroid culture prevalent in sports and that not much counter-attacking measures were taken by the authorities except dishing out bans. Another effort to make an Olympic appearance failed for Oerter when he came fourth at the trials. However at an age of 43, he did set a personal best of 69.46 m. Unofficially, he was also recorded to have thrown about 75 m while filming for a television channel.

Apart from the Olympic feats, Oerter, an engineer, worked as a system analyst for a reputed US firm and was a motivational speaker as well. He is a rare Olympian who also happens to be a surreal painter. The IAAF Hall of Fame inductee set for the heavenly abode on 1st October, 2007 after failing to battle a cardiac arrest. An estimation of Oerter can be made in his own words: “I didn’t set out to beat the world; I just set out to do my absolute best”.

He will be remembered as the one who reserved his best for the Games. Or the Games that always deserved his best.

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