Friday, October 05, 2007

Al Oerter, 1936-2007

As I was growing up, nothing in our household was bigger, when it came to sports, than the Olympics - especially the Summer Olympics. One of my very first memories watching sports was the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City. Eight years old at the time, to this day I remember the great American athletes who made a name for themselves at that Olympiad: Bob Seagren on the pole vault, Tommy Smith and John Carlos in the 200 meter dash (who also made a name for themselves in an historic moment that transcended sports), Jim Hines and Wyomia Tyus in the 100 meter dash, Debbie Meyer in swimming, Lee Evans in the 400 meter dash, Dick Fosbury in the high jump (who revolutionized the sport with his at the time-unorthodox technique, called the "Fosbury Flop"), Bob Beamon's miracle in the long jump, heavyweight George Foreman's demolition of the competition in his weight class, and Bill Toomey's triumph in the decathlon.

And Al Oerter.

Al Oerter was one of the great Olympians of all time. From his biography, on his web site:

Al Oerter is one of only two track stars (Carl Lewis being the other) to win the same Olympic event four times in a row. He is the only athlete to set four consecutive Olympic records. Seen as a longshot for a medal in the 1956 Games, the 20-year-old youngster surprised the Melbourne crowd by winning the Gold Medal on his first throw and setting his first Olympic record. Four years later in Rome, he exceeded his winning distance in Melbourne by 10 feet to win his second consecutive Olympic Gold Medal. Oerter's third Olympic Games, 1964 Tokyo, brought another Gold Medal despite a severe rib cage injury. Then, in 1968 in Mexico City, Oerter made Olympic history by becoming the first Olympian to win the same event in four consecutive Games. Remarkably, Oerter achieved his best throw in 1980 while preparing for the boycotted Moscow Games.

Oerter was an athlete of immense determination and amazing presence of mind. From David Wallechinsky's The Complete Book of the Olympics, the tale of his 1964 gold medal:

In 1964, Oerter knew that he would be in for a real struggle if he wanted to win a third gold medal. Not only did have have to face world record holder Ludvik Danek, who had won 45 straight competitions, but he had also been suffering for quite some time from a chronic cervical disc injury, which caused him to wear a neck harness. As if that wasn't trouble enough, Oerter tore the cartilage in his lower ribs while practicing in Tokyo less than a week before the competition. Doctors advised him to rest for six weeks, but the day of the preliminary round, he showed up anyway, shot up with novocaine and wrapped with ice packs and tape to prevent internal bleeding. With his first throw Oerter set an Olympic record of 198 feet 8 inches.

In 1968, Oerter again was a heavy underdog. Wallechinsky tells the tale:

The third round began with Oerter in fourth place, behind Lothar Milde, Ludvik Danek, and Jay Silvester. But, as if out of a fairy tale, the incomparable Oerter uncorked a throw of 212 feet six inches - five feet farther than he had ever thrown before. Al Oerter had become the first athlete to win four gold medals in the same event.

Al Oerter was more than just an athlete. He was an artist who went on to a successful career in abstract art, creating a gallery where the art of fellow former Olympians could be featured.

Having suffered from high blood pressure for most of his life, Oerter suffered in recent years from various cardiovascular problems. Advised that he would need a heart transplant to survive much longer, he declined, stating:

“I've had an interesting life, and I'm going out with what I have.”

They truly don't make them like Al Oerter any more. R.I.P.

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