Four For Four
“Obviously,” announced a Topeka newspaper sports writer on the morning of October 15, 1968, Al Oerter would “need a fantastic toss today to win an unprecedented fourth gold medal.” And indeed, there was considerable skepticism among reporters and fans that the one-time Jayhawk was capable of making such a throw in the final round of the discus event at the Mexico City Olympics. Such disbelief was not unwarranted, since Oerter’s finest discus toss in his entire career had fallen 17 feet short of his teammate Jay Silvester’s best heave.
Silvester, the favorite in the event, had a world record toss still pending from a pre-Olympic meet, and during the qualifying rounds had already bettered the Olympic record Oerter had set in 1964. Nonetheless, despite the fact that he had looked less-than-impressive in the qualifying rounds, as Oerter reclined on his cot in Mexico City’s Olympic Village to rest an injured leg, he was supremely confident in his own ability to collect a fourth gold medal. After all, it was not the first time the 6’4” 260-pound hurler had found himself in the Olympic finals of the discus as an underdog.
Twelve years earlier, while a sophomore at KU, the transplanted Long Islander found himself in the discus finals of the 1956 Olympics held in Melbourne, Australia.
(Oerter, the 1954 interscholastic discus record holder, had wound up at KU in large part because his high school coach, who had gone to Emporia State, had some connections in Kansas and was familiar with the KU track program, which was enjoying some of its glory years under head coach Bill Easton. In addition, KU was willing to offer Oerter an academic scholarship rather than an athletic scholarship – the latter of which would have enabled the Athletic Department to coerce him into playing football and thus distract him from developing as a discus thrower. In the first year in which he was eligible to compete as a varsity athlete for KU, Oerter had claimed the Drake, Texas and Kansas Relays discus titles.)
But he arrived in Melbourne never having won an international competition and was given scant chance of taking home a medal. However, in his very first Olympic toss, the 20-year old established a new Olympic record. He went on to upset his teammate, world-record holder Fortune Gordien, and claimed first place in the event. Exuberant over his first Olympic gold medal, Oerter responded to reporter’s query about his future by insisting that he wouldn’t quit until he had won five of them.
While Oerter’s performance through the rest of the 1950s was sufficient to make him one of the favorites at the next Olympiad held in Rome in1960, two of his competitors, fellow American Richard “Rink” Babka and Poland’s Ed Piatowski had both thrown the discus farther than Oerter ever had. Nevertheless, at the Rome games, the former Jayhawk set yet another Olympic record and found himself a short time later on the center podium with a gold medal draped around his neck. (Oerter would later recall Babka’s giving him advice on his technique as one of his fondest Olympic memories since it embodied the best of the Olympics inasmuch as Babka jeopardized his own chances for a gold medal by helping him. Indeed Babka finished second and his decision to help Oerter probably did result in his having to settle for the silver medal.)
By the 1964 Tokyo games, the world record in the discus belonged to Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia, and the Czech stood as the clear favorite in the event. However, Oerter refused to be intimidated by Danek and in a move of psychological gamesmanship deliberately ignored him. Dr. M. Vanek, the Czech sports psychologist, acknowledged that Oerter’s strategy succeeded in unsettling the world record holder. Even so, on the morning of the discus finals, the former Jayhawk wasn’t even sure that he’d physically be able to compete. While practicing on a wet field six days earlier (and already nursing a dislocated cervical vertebra), Oerter tore “the cartilage off the right side of his rib cage.” Ignoring his doctor’s recommendation to withdraw, and fighting constant pain, he still managed to spin the 4.67-pound wood and metal disc 200 feet, 1½ inches – a toss good for another gold medal and yet another Olympic mark.
“These are the Olympics,” he said afterward when questioned about the wisdom of his decision to continue competing in spite of the injuries, “You die for them.” (In witnessing Oerter’s gutty performance, Dr. Vanek “called Oerter a mental giant, totally committed to his objective.”) Not surprisingly, Oerter’s physical and mental toughness turned him into something of a living legend. His victory also permitted him to join fellow Americans John Flanagan and Ray Ewry in the lofty perch of Mt. Olympus’ greatest heroes as the third track and field athlete to win three consecutive gold medals in an event. (Flanagan, a New York City police officer, won the gold medal in the hammer throw at the 1900, 1904, and 1908 games. Ewry, a teammate of Flanagan in the three Olympiads, took first place all three times in both the standing high jump and standing broad jump.)
No one, however, had ever claimed four consecutive gold medals in a single event and as of mid-morning on the day of the 1968 Olympic discus finals, it did not look like the 32-year old Oerter would be the first to do so. Although American newspapers duly noted that the former Jayhawk had “made a career of overcoming the odds in the Olympics,” they downplayed his chances of winning. To be fair to the journalists, it’s worth reiterating that Oerter was nursing a bum leg and his performances to that point in the XIX Olympiad had proven rather lackluster.
That afternoon as Oerter made his way to the field where he would fling his last discus in Olympic competition, the favored hurler, Jay Silvester, showed Oerter a telegram from his hometown in Utah containing 400 or so signatures encouraging the young world record holder to win the event. If Silvester hoped to intimidate Oerter with this tactic, his attempt sorely backfired. Oerter used the opportunity to once again engage in the sort of psychological warfare he had used so effectively against Danek in 1964. “Four hundred signatures!” taunted Oerter, who had returned to Long Island following his graduation from KU in 1958. “It can’t be much of a town.” Silvester reportedly walked away pouting and distraught. (In 1982, still amused by the incident, Oerter told the Saturday Evening Post that he still couldn’t figure out “why [Silvester] ever showed me that telegram.”)
As the finals got underway, dark storm clouds threatened to drench the competition in rain. (Indeed the 1968 Olympiad would be remembered for its foul weather nearly as much as for the civil disobedience of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the winner and bronze medallist respectively in the 200-meter race, who used their moment of triumph to make a defiant statement of Black Power and were subsequently removed from the Olympic Village amidst a storm of controversy for “politicizing” the Olympics.)
Although Oerter adjusted his technique for each of the three throws allotted the competitors in the finals, any one of them would have proven sufficient to garner him his fourth gold medal. His longest toss (of 212 feet, 6 ½ inches) was roughly five feet further than his previous best and established his fourth Olympic record, even if it was more than 10 feet shy of Silvester’s pending world mark. Oerter then refused to watch Silvester’s final toss, claiming that he didn’t want to watch his teammate beat him. As fate would have it, however, Silvester finished out of the medal standings.
Oerter’s wife Corrine and their two daughters were watching from the stands. They saw Oerter shake Silvester’s hand and assumed that he had failed in his quest for a fourth gold medal. “The figures were in meters,” Corrine Oerter told reporters by way of explaining her confusion, “and we didn’t know how to convert them.” Later, when she saw her husband being interviewed, she suspected that he might actually have won, but she wasn’t certain until the medal ceremony two hours after the close of the discus competition.
In a classic understatement, the man who “stood alone among Olympians” having had four gold medals hung around his neck explained his improbable victory to reporters by saying, “I get fired up for the Olympics. Something happens to me when I get to the games. The people, the pressure, everything about the Olympics is special to me.” He seemed to suggest his retirement from further Olympic competition, however, when reporters pressed him with questions about the 1972 games, which were to be held in Munich. “I’m tired,” he said, and “1972 seems to be very far away.” “I hate to commit myself,” he added, “I don’t want to retire and then come back.” But that was precisely what he would try to do.
With his “goals … gone” and injuries still lingering, Oerter decided after 1968 that he “couldn’t put up with the pressures of trying for another Olympics.” Perhaps overwhelming all of the other motivations behind his retirement was the fact that training consumed lots of time and he didn’t want to miss watching his two daughters (then aged 8 and 10) grow up. Unlike many Olympic champions, Oerter didn’t attempt to become a professional and profit off of his athletic reputation.
And so he returned to a relatively quiet life on Long Island where he worked for the Grumman Corporation. (This is not to say Oerter wasn’t recognized for his accomplishments. The 1969 Kansas Relays, for example, were conducted in his honor.) In 1976, however, an interview with legendary sports filmmaker Bud Greenspan for a piece on the “five greatest Olympians of all time” sparked the desire of the recently divorced Oerter to begin spinning the discus competitively once again. Thus, after an eight-year hiatus, he announced in June 1976 that he had “decided to go for [his] fifth gold medal in Moscow in 1980.”
And so began a well-publicized return to what Oerter referred to as his “private madness.” Practicing at the State University of New York, Farmingdale, not too distant from his house in West Islip, New York, he began training. (Oerter trained without a personal coach and in fact had never had one. “I am just a big, strong dude who can throw things a far ways,” he once told the Kansas City Star.) By 1979, he had thrown the discus 219 feet, 10 inches – more than 7 feet further than his winning toss in Mexico City. And in May of the following year, at the age of 43, he uncorked a toss of 227 feet, 11 inches – the longest of his career.
By the time the US Olympic Trials got underway, however, President Jimmy Carter had announced that the United States would boycott the Moscow games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Consequently, the Trials became a perfunctory gesture and Oerter “began taking energies away from [his] training and channel[ing] them toward other goals.” Since he didn’t finish in the top three at the June competition, his performance wouldn’t have been sufficient to earn him a place on the team, although he claimed, “If we had gone ahead with the Games, I would have done whatever work was necessary to make the team.”
To his credit and in spite of the fact that he initially felt cheated when he heard of the boycott, Oerter wasn’t bitter about the government’s removing his last legitimate opportunity to win a fifth gold medal. He even continued his training in the hope of making the 1984 Olympic team. (An injured Achilles tendon would ultimately derail his bid to earn a spot on the 1984 US Olympic squad.) In 1982, The Saturday Evening Post ran an article on him that praised the “45-year old blond giant” as an exception – a celebrity athlete worthy of emulation in an era dominated by greedy, self-important, and substance-abusing “superjocks.” The following year he was inducted as one of 20 charter members of the US Olympic Hall of Fame.
In 1988, after more than 30 years of competing against the best discus throwers in the world, the 51-year old grandfather finally stopped competing on the amateur open circuit against athletes less than half his age. The honors, however, continued to roll in. In 1999 the University Daily Kansan ranked him as the fifth best athlete in KU’s history and ESPN celebrated him as one of the century’s top 100 athletes.
While his longevity as a dominant athlete certainly played a role in establishing his legacy, and the toughness that he demonstrated in 1964 made him a legend, it was his improbable toss in October 1968 at the XIX Olympiad that earned him lasting fame. Indeed only Carl Lewis, who won his fourth consecutive long jump crown at the 1996 games in Atlanta, has since joined Oerter in laying claim to four gold medals in a single Olympic event. Together, they form an elite club of two in the pantheon of Olympic greats.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas