Al Oerter - U.S.A. - Four times Olympic Champion

Photo/Foto: George Herringshaw

Date: 07 July 1979

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      Saturday, 19 September 1936
      New York. U.S.A. Died 1st. October 2007 aged 71.
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Al OERTER - U.S.A. - Four times Olympic Champion

Al Oerter is pictured at the 1979 British AAAs Championship at the Crystal Palace

National Sports Centre in south London.


Born in 1936 in Astoria, Queens, New York City, Al Oerter grew up in New Hyde Park and attended Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park. He began his career at the age of 15 when a discus landed at his feet and he threw it back past the crowd of throwers. Oerter continued throwing and eventually earned a scholarship to the University of Kansas in 1954 where he became a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. A large man at 6' 4" (193 cm) and 280 pounds (127 kg), Oerter was a natural thrower. Competing for Kansas, in 1957 he became the NCAA discus champion; in 1958 he successfully defended his title.

Oerter began his Olympic career at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. He was not considered the favorite but he felt a rush during the competition and he unleashed a throw of 184 feet 22 inches (56.64 m)—which, at the time, was a career best. The throw was good enough to win the competition by more than 5 inches (130 mm).

It seemed Oerter's career would be over at the age of 20, when in 1957, an automobile accident nearly killed him. He recovered in time to compete at the 1960 Summer Olympics at Rome, where he was the slight favorite over teammate and world record holder Rink Babka.

Babka was in the lead for the first four of the six rounds. He gave Oerter advice before his fifth throw; Oerter threw his discus 194 feet 2 inches (59.18 m), setting an Olympic record. Babka was not able to beat Oerter's throw and finished with silver.

During the early 1960s, Oerter continued to have success, setting his first world record in 1962. In the process, he was the first to break 200 feet in the discus. He was considered a heavy favorite to win a third gold medal at Tokyo in 1964.

Injuries again seemed to have felled Oerter before the Games. He was bothered by a neck injury then he tore cartilage in his ribs shortly before the competition. Competing in great pain, Oerter set a new Olympic standard and won a third Olympic gold medal despite not being able to take his last throw due to the pain from his ribs. As before, he bettered his own record with a throw of 61 metres (200 ft).

Oerter returned to the Olympics in 1968 at Mexico City but he had yielded the position of favorite to teammate Jay Silvester. Many felt that Oerter, at 32, was finished since Oerter had never thrown as far as Silvester did on his average throws. At the Olympics, however, Oerter released another Olympic record throw of 64.78 metres (212.5 ft) on his third throw. His record held and he became the first track and field athlete to win four consecutive gold medals.

Oerter retired from athletics after the 1968 Olympics. Later eyeing a comeback, in 1976 he took anabolic steroids under medical supervision in order to put on muscle mass. However, he stopped the course as this affected his blood pressure and failed to give much improvement on the field. After this he advised athletes to avoid such drugs and focus on training and technique instead. He was critical of the increase of drug use and the subsequent testing in track and field, stating that it had destroyed the culture of athlete camaraderie and that the banning of athletes such as Ben Plucknett was merely scapegoating by international officials.

Oerter did make an attempt to qualify for the American team in 1980 but he finished fourth. He nonetheless set his overall personal record of 69.46 metres (227.9 ft) that year at the age of 43. Dr. Gideon Ariel, a former Olympic shot putter himself for Israel, had developed a business of biomechanical services, and Oerter after working with Ariel—at age 43—threw a discuss 27 feet farther than his best gold medal performance.

When filming for a TV segment, he unofficially threw about 245 feet (75 m), which would have set a still-standing world record. In later years, Oerter carried the Olympic flag for the 1984 Summer Olympics, then carried Olympic flame into the stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Oerter had struggled with high blood pressure his entire life, and in the 2000s, he became terminally ill with cardiovascular disease. On March 13, 2003, Oerter was briefly clinically dead; a change of blood pressure medications caused a fluid build-up (Pericardial effusion) around his heart.

As Oerter's heart condition progressed, he was advised by cardiologists he would require a heart transplant. Oerter dismissed the suggestion. "I've had an interesting life," he said, "and I'm going out with what I have." Oerter died on 1st October 2007, of heart failure in Fort Myers, Florida at the age of 71. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.

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