[First published October 4, 2007]
On October 1st, 2007, Al Oerter, four-time Olympic gold medalist in the discus, stepped out of the terrestrial throwing circle for the final time. He was 71 years old.
According to the obituary in the New York Times, Oerter was a high school sprinter turned distance runner (a miler!) when he first picked up a discus that had been thrown by one of his teammates and had landed near him. He tossed it back — farther than it had been thrown originally — and his coach immediately made him a discus thrower.
He first won an Olympic gold medal in 1956 at Melbourne, throwing 184-11, an Olympic record. Four years later in Rome, he threw 194-2, another record.
But what he did in Tokyo was something else again. Six days before the competition, Oerter tore his rib cartilage on his throwing side, causing internal bleeding and severe pain. Team doctors told him to forget the Olympics and to not throw for six weeks. According to the Times, he responded “These are the Olympics… You die before you quit.” He threw 200-1, set another Olympic record and won his third gold medal.
I was ten years old in 1968 when Oerter won his fourth gold medal. He was not considered the favorite, was not the world record holder, but threw 212-6 in the thin air of Mexico City to win his fourth gold medal and set his fourth consecutive Olympic record. I remember thinking that it was amazing how an old guy (he was 32 at the time) could perform so well.
It was 12 years later at age 43 that Oerter, coming out of retirement, threw a lifetime personal best of 227-11 at the 1980 Olympic Trials. He finished fourth, but it didn’t matter. The U.S. team boycotted, so none of the throwers would compete in Moscow. He competed again in 1984, making the finals of the Olympic Trials at the age of 47, but tore a calf muscle before he could take his final three throws. He retired from elite competition after that, but continued to compete in age group meets, and at age 61 was still throwing over 200 feet with a lighter discus (“It feels like a potato chip,” he said).
Oerter was an old school thrower. He believed in taking 60-70 throws in practice, all of them for distance. He was not a great technical innovator, and his technique was perhaps not the best. But he had an incredible work ethic, and his competitive instincts were incomparable.
He also had a full life outside of athletics, as an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and in his later years, improbably, as an abstract artist. He never considered himself a professional athlete, and said, “I’m happy that I had a normal life, with a career and family. That makes a person whole.”
Al Oerter: September 19, 1936 – October 1, 2007