Al Oerter, 71; Won Gold in the Discus In Four Olympics

Al Oerter at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, his final Games. He and Carl Lewis are the only track and field athletes to win an event in four straight Olympics.
Al Oerter at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, his final Games. He and Carl Lewis are the only track and field athletes to win an event in four straight Olympics. (Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Al Oerter, 71, a discus-throwing sensation who won gold medals in four consecutive Olympics, broke numerous world records and was one of track and field's biggest stars in the 1950s and 1960s, died Oct. 1 at HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers, Fla. He had a history of high blood pressure and heart problems.

Sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis is the only other track and field athlete to achieve the gold medal in an event in four consecutive Olympics, though Mr. Oerter is the only one to set an Olympic record in each of his wins. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

Alfred Oerter Jr., who was born in Queens, N.Y., on Sept. 19, 1936, came to the discus by chance.

He excelled as a miler and hurdler on his high school track team. But one day, a discus fell near him at practice. Oerter's powerful return throw impressed his coach, who soon changed the young athlete's specialty to discus.

Mr. Oerter improved his skills by studying a flip book showing a discus thrower's movements, a low-tech technique he always advised hopefuls to use as a study guide.

By 1954, he set a high school discus-throwing record -- 184 feet 2 inches -- and won an academic scholarship to the University of Kansas. There, he received coaching from Bill Easton, who also taught such track-and-field world record holders as Bill Nieder and Billy Mills.

As a college sophomore, Mr. Oerter qualified for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team at the Games in Melbourne, Australia. He threw the discus 184 feet 11 inches on his first toss, stunning the world record holder, Fortune Gordien. Mr. Oerter bested Gordien, his closest competitor, by five feet.

Mr. Oerter, who was 6 feet 4 and competed at a weight of up to 300 pounds, went on to win six U.S. national championships and a gold medal in the 1959 Pan American Games, as well as gold in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, with a throw of 194 feet 1 1/2 inches.

He performed strongly at non-Olympic meets during the next four years and ultimately set a world record of 206 feet 6 inches at a 1964 contest in Walnut, Calif. That was soon shattered by Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia, who threw the discus more than 211 feet.

Mr. Oerter was not considered the favorite in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Not only had Danek proved a terrific thrower, but Mr. Oerter also had injured his ribs and neck shortly before the competition. He was fitted with a neck brace and taped his ribs but remained in such pain that he could not feel the effects of Novocain shots.

"I was bleeding internally," he later told sports documentarian Bud Greenspan. "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."

At the Games, he managed to place third by the fourth round of throws, seven feet behind Danek. Although discus throwers are allowed six rounds, Mr. Oerter knew he could muster strength only for five rounds.

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