Al Oerter (born 1936) is the only athlete ever to win a gold medal in the same event at four consecutive Olympic Games. He won gold in the discus in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968. Oerter set and broke many Olympic records.
Alfred Adolph Oerter, Jr. was born in Astoria, New York, on August 19, 1936. He grew up in the nearby town of New Hyde Park, a suburb of New York City, and his athletic talent became apparent early. While still in high school, where athletes used a lighter discus than that used by adult competitors, he hurled it 184 feet, 2 inches, setting a national prep record.
After high school, Oerter attended the University of Kansas, where he set an NCAA record. He never won a major international competition, but qualified for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, when he was a college sophomore. At the time, he was ranked sixth in the world in the discus.
At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, he didn't expect to win, since he was up against some tough competition. He knew he had a chance at a medal, however, and resolved to do his best. "Everything built up inside me," he said, according to Cordner Nelson in Track's Greatest Champions. I really was keyed up and inspired." He looked out over the field, where a flag marked the Olympic record of 180-6 1/2. Then he went into the windup, spun, and released the discus, astonishing his competitors and 100,000 spectators by throwing 184-10 1/2, on his first toss. The distance was a personal best for Oerter, and an Olympic record. The competition was not over, however, and Oerter was still worried about his competitor, Fortune Gordien, who held the world record at the time. "Naturally, I kept my fingers crossed," he said, according to Nelson. "I was always afraid Fortune would beat me. I knew he could."
Gordien's best throw was only 179-9 1/2, more than five feet short of Oerter's mark. Overall, Oerter ended with the three best throws of all the contestants-including Fortune Gordien. "I don't know how I did it," he said later, according to the IAAF Website. "Everything just went right and this throw came out." He also said, according to Ron Flatter in ESPN.com, "I'm not going to quit until I win five gold medals."
Oerter was involved in an almost-fatal automobile accident in 1957, but he fought back, recovered fully, and worked hard to get back in shape. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1958, and continued to compete under the sponsorship of the New York Athletic Club. At the same time, he was working for Grumman Aircraft, doing information processing. Although it's difficult for many athletes to train, have a family, and work, Oerter balanced all these responsibilities. He alternated weight training and throwing practice, and didn't compete in many meets. Still, he kept improving.
In 1960, he made the Olympic team again, but this time the competition looked even tougher than in 1956. American Richard "Rink" Babka threw a toss that beat Oerter's in the Olympic trials-Oerter's first defeat in over two years.
At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Oerter did well in the qualifying round, throwing farther than the world record distance of 196-6, but he didn't do as well in the finals. Babka was ahead of him by 15 inches-Babka's best throw was 190-4, while Oerter's was 189-1. Babka was a true teammate, however, and gave Oerter some advice before Oerter made his final throw. He had noticed that Oerter's left arm was not in the correct position before he threw. He advised Oerter to adjust his windup. Oerter thanked Babka for the advice, changed his windup and hurled the discus 194-2, setting a new Olympic record and personal best. He wished Babka good luck, but Babka didn't beat Oerter's throw. Oerter won the gold, and Babka took home the silver.
Although Oerter had set Olympic records, he had never set a world record. This changed on May 18, 1962, when he threw 200-5 in Los Angeles and became the first person ever to throw the discus over 200 feet. He beat his own record in that same year when he threw 204-10 1/2 in Chicago; in 1963, he threw 205-5 at Walnut, California, and in 1964 he threw 206-6 at Walnut. Oerter was still balancing work, family, and training, and at about this time, according to Nelson, he said, "Technique and strength can be maintained over prolonged periods of time with minimum effort. As I become older, it becomes more satisfying to be able to maintain a world class condition while having a wife and family and a job that's rather demanding."
Oerter was scheduled to compete in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but six days before the competition, he tore cartilage in his lower ribcage during practice. His doctors told him that if he didn't wait six weeks before competing again, he might suffer internal bleeding. He ignored their advice, and headed for Tokyo. He was wrapped in bandages and ice packs to prevent the bleeding, and taking Novocain shots to dull the intense pain, so he was not expected to win; onlookers had transferred that expectation to his rival, Ludvik Danek, a Czech who had won 45 meets in a row.
During warm-ups, the pain was severe, and he thought about dropping out. Despite his injuries, on his first throw during the preliminaries, he threw 198-8, setting another Olympic record. After this, he said of the finals, "If I don't do it on the first throw, I won't be able to do it at all," according to Flatter. In the finals, however, he didn't throw well on his first few tries and was in third place by his fifth throw. Danek was in first place, and David Weill was in second place.
Oerter wound up slowly on his last throw, looking heavy and labored. Inside his mind, however, he had a plan, according to Nelson; he later said, "I was using a slow spin and trying to stretch the tendons to get a little higher. I had been throwing too low and I was trying a very easy turn to correct the problem. The sixth [throw] was to have been my best effort with a faster turn." He didn't have to wait until his sixth throw, however, because his fifth throw flew to 200-1 1/2, a new Olympic record-beating the one he had set during the preliminaries. His gold medal for this event made him only the second person ever to win the same Olympic event three times.
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Oerter was suffering from a dislocated cervical vertebra, for which he had to wear a neck brace, and he had a pulled thigh muscle. During the previous four years, he had not done well, and he was not expected to win. His competitor, Jay Silvester, was expected to take the gold, but Silvester was not as certain. "When you throw against Oerter, you don't expect to win," he said, according to the IAAF Website. "You just hope."
Hope was not enough. During the qualifying round, Oerter took off his neck brace-partly because he knew doing so would ignite fear in his competition-ignored the tremendous pain he was feeling, and hurled the discus to his fourth Olympic record of 212-6. This distance beat his own personal best by over five feet. His other throws included distances of 212-5 and 210-1. Silvester finished in fifth place, with a throw of 202-8. With his gold medal at these Games, he became the only person ever to win a gold medal in the same event in four consecutive Olympic Games.
Oerter's win at Mexico City demonstrated his skill at using what many athletes are only now beginning to harness-the power of the mind. Nelson noted that he said, "Once in the Olympic Village you can't improve on your strength or speed. The only thing still possible is to improve your mental attitude. In the weeks before an Olympic competition, I mentally simulate every conceivable situation for each throw. For example, I imagine that I'm in eighth place, it's my fifth throw, and it's pouring rain. What do I do? An inexperienced thrower might panic or be thinking, "Gees, I hope I don't fall down." [But] I know ahead of time what I will do under every circumstance."
Oerter retired in 1969 to work full-time and raise his young family. In 1976, however, he was divorced, and his two daughters were grown. He planned to return in 1980 at the age of 43 and threw a 227-10 1/2, a new personal best that allowed him to qualify as an alternate on the Olympic team. He might have reached his goal of five gold medals, but that year, because of political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, where the Olympic Games would be held, the U.S. team boycotted the Games and Oerter didn't get to show what he could do. In 1984, he hoped to compete at the Olympics in Los Angeles but couldn't compete in the trials for the Games because he had a torn Achilles tendon. Less than a year before, he had thrown 222-9, a distance that would have brought him a gold medal if he had been able to attend the Los Angeles Games and do it again. He said he might try again for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when he would be 60 years old. He missed the goal-directed life of an athlete, always reaching out for improvement and a new record. "I miss going for something elusive," he said, according to the IAAF Website.
According to Cordner Nelson in Track's Greatest Champions,, Oerter once said, "The Olympics are unique, a world community … what men have been trying to achieve for centuries. There is no job, no amount of power, no money to approach the meaning of the Olympic experience. It's unfortunate they only happen once every four years. They are so special." He preferred Olympic competition to world-record-hunting, and once said, "I don't chase world records. If they come during the competition, fine. But the competition is first," according to James D. Whalen in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports.
Oerter worked for Grumman Aircraft Corporation as a computer specialist for 26 years, then worked for Reebok. In recent years, he has divided his time between Long Island, where he lives in the summer, and Florida, where he spends the winter months.
Oerter once described the reasons he loved competing in the discus throw. "I like the beauty, the grace, and the movement. I can feel myself through the throw and can feel the discus in flight." According to Nelson, Oerter is "a soaring, creative, competitive genius, the like of whom has seldom been seen at any time, or any place, in any sport." He has been elected to the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Encyclopedia of World Sport, edited by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, ABC-CLIO, 1996.
Nelson, Cordner, Track's Greatest Champions, Tafnews Press, 1986.
"Al Oerter," IAAF Website, http://www.iaaf.org/athletes/legends/AlOerter.html (December 20, 2000).
"Three-peating Wasn't Enough for Oerter," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016388.html (December 20, 2000).