American champion John Powell hurled the discus 214 feet a inch on his sixth and final throw today to win a National Sports Festival gold medal, defeating his San Jose, Calif. neighbor Art Burns by four feet and four-time Olympic gold medalist Al Oerter by eight.
But Oerter, 44, who is making a comeback bid for the 1984 Olympics after an eight-year layoff following his retirement in 1968, said he was please to have come that close to Powell's toss and that his personal timetable for the Olympics is on schedule.
"John Powell has been 10 or 15 feet ahead of me all year long," said Oerter, who won Olympic gold medals in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968, the only person to win the same event four times in the Olympics.
"We are going to be competing again in Bucharest in two days, then in London two days after that and in several other meets in Europe. I'm eight feet behind him now. When we finish the tour I'd like to be four or five feet behind him."
Clearly the sentimental favorite of the crowd of about 2,000 who lined the field to watch the discus today, Oerter also made his best effort on a sixth and final throw, hurling the discus 206-2 to gain third place in the field of eight. Burns, whose 210-foot toss on his second throw had been the final throw, said "I've been trading meets with John all year. He's gotten me on several meets, but I've gotten him too."
Powell, 34, a real estate investments counselor and a member of three U.S. Oolympic teams, said his final throw "king of surprised me.
"I sort of enjoy my reputation of being best on the last throw, but I don't like to count on it. And it felt good when I let it go, but it was hard to tell because the wind was such a factor today."
Approaching the point in midlife where most athletes of any caliber begin to see their skills deteriorate, Powell, like Oerter, has his sights set on 1984. "As long as I can throw it an inch farther I'll continue," said Powell. "I'll take it a year at a time."
But Oerter, who candidly admits that age is his biggest obstacle, clearly has the more uphill battle.He will say, when asked, that one of his goals is to find out for himself and others just what the human body can do in the fact of advancing years.
"With the right kind of strategy, there is a chance to make the Olympics. Not much of a chance at age 47, but there is a chance," said Oerter.
"I have absolutely no concept of how far I can go at what age because I have no examples."
Oerter retired from active competition after the 1968 Olympics. He set an Olympic record in the discus that year, as he had in each of the previous three Olympics in which he participated. A computer programmer from Long Island, Oerter is said to have been distraught watching the 1972 Olympics on television and realizing that he was no long a participant.
Returning to competitive discus throwing in 1976, Oerter has thrown well in several meets since, although he barely failed to make the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. He practices alone in a field near his house on Long Island and has his movements recorded on camera for later analysis.
A dance consultant advises him on the twirling movements that lead up to the release of the discus, movements that require precision, timing and balance and are not unlike the movements of a gifted ballerina.
"When I train, I train in solitude," said Oerter. "If I were in California, where most of the better throwers are, I would be in a constant competitive environment. I have not been paying attention to distance throwing this year. I have been paying attention to developing strength and strategy.
"I had the sense today that no one was really up," said Oerter. "It happens sometimes. The wind was depressing."
Even under those conditions, however, Powell's winning throw was one inch ahead of his winning throw two years ago at the last National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs, setting a meet record.
Conspicuous by his absence from the discus competition today was Ben Plucknett, holder of the world record until he was barred for life from international competition and stripped of his records by the International Amateur Athletic Federation earlier this month on charges of using illegal drugs to improve his performance.
The suspension was roundly condemned by the discus throwers at the Sports Festival today. "There is no consensus in the testing precedures," said Oerter. "They should test everyone or they should test no one."
Said Burns, "He got a bum-rap."
Powell said, "It's like thre is somebody out there called the IAAF and they say you're under the influence, but they won't say what you're under the influence of."
New York Gov. Hugh Carey made a brief appearance to participate in some of the awards ceremonies, but the attention he attracted from the media and sports fans was clearly second to the charismatic appeal of Herschel Walker, the University of Georgia all-America running back who ran the second leg on the South's regional team in the 400-meter relay.
Walker said he has no regrets about turning down an offer from the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League to play for $1 million a year for three years. "I don't regret turning down Canada because I'm having such a good time here. If I was in Canada I couldn't be here to compete with all these fine athletes this week. I'm having a good time in college and I don't need the money."
Walker said he has made no decision on whether to challenge the NFL rules prohibiting teams from signing college players until their college eligibility has been used up, although he did say he opposes the rule.