Three-peating wasn't enough for Oerter

Updated: June 29, 2007, 6:45 PM ET
By Ron Flatter | Special to ESPN.com

Fortune Gordien. "Rink" Babka. Ludvik Danek. Jay Silvester. Between 1956 and 1968, they were supposed to win discus gold medals in the Olympics.

Al Oerter overcame all of them.

Perhaps more impressive, Oerter overcame his own body telling him to stop. Instead, he won four consecutive gold medals, making him the first athlete to four-peat in any Olympic event.

Al Oerter
Oerter won four straight Olympic discus gold medals from 1956 to 1968.

Oerter's flair for the dramatic may not have been intentional. After all, who would want to go into the Olympics with rib trouble, a pulled thigh muscle or even an injury that required the wearing of a neck brace? Oerter won despite all these handicaps, twice on his last throw.

Then again, Oerter always set his goals high. After winning his first gold medal in 1956, the 20-year-old brashly vowed: "I'm not going to quit until I win five gold medals."

Alfred Oerter Jr. was born on Aug. 19, 1936, in Astoria, N.Y., to parents of German and Czech extraction. Growing up in New Hyde Park, Oerter showed he was a special athlete when he threw the lighter discus used in high school 184 feet, 2 inches, a national prep record at the time.

Oerter continued to make a national name for himself by setting an NCAA record early in his career at the University of Kansas. Still, he had never won a major international competition when he went to his first Olympics in Melbourne as a college sophomore in 1956.

Ranked only sixth in the world, Oerter unleashed a throw of 184-10½, an Olympic record and a personal best, on his first toss in the finals. Everything else in the competition was academic, since no one came within five feet of that mark. Not even Gordien, the world-record holder. Oerter finished with the three best throws.

Less than a year later, Oerter's hopes for future gold or future anything almost ended in a near-fatal auto accident. But he recovered fully and was back in shape before long. While he made the 1960 Olympic team, he found himself in the shadow of another world-record holder -- American teammate Richard "Rink" Babka, who beat him at the Olympic Trials. That was Oerter's first defeat in more than two years.

Although he had one practice throw before the qualifying round that went beyond the world-record marker of 196-6, Oerter appeared headed for defeat when they started firing for real in the Rome Games. Headed into the last round of the finals, Babka led Oerter by 15 inches, 190-4 to 189-1.

That lead might have held up had Babka not given Oerter some advice. Studying his teammate's technique, Babka noticed Oerter's left arm was out of position before he threw.

Oerter heeded Babka's suggestion, adjusted his windup and threw the discus 194-2 for another Olympic record and personal best. He thanked Babka and wished him luck on his last throw, but Babka's attempt came up short. Oerter had his second gold medal.

He did not set a world record until May 18, 1962, when his 200-5 mark in Los Angeles made him the first athlete to throw the discus more than 200 feet. He set three more world bests -- 204-10½ later in 1962 at Chicago, 205-5 in 1963 at Walnut, Cal., and 206-6 again at Walnut in 1964, the year he and Vladimir Trusenyov of the Soviet Union traded the record back and forth over a 27-day period.

Six days before Oerter would compete in the 1964 Games in Tokyo, he suffered torn cartilage in his lower ribcage while practicing. Doctors advised him to wait six weeks before competing in order to avoid the risk of internal bleeding. But he ignored the medical warning.

Danek, a Czechoslovakian who had won 45 consecutive meets, inherited the favorite's role when Oerter showed up for the Games covered with ice packs and bandages and shot full of pain killers. In the preliminary round, he set an Olympic round with a throw of 198-8. Before the competition, Oerter said, "If I don't do it on the first throw, I won't be able to do it at all."

In the finals, Oerter was unable to make good on his own prediction when he didn't "do it" on the first throw. He was in third place going into his fifth throw, behind Danek and David Weill.

Laboring and spinning more slowly than he had on his first four tries, Oerter somehow uncorked a throw of 200-1, two feet better than his previous best that day and, again, an Olympic record. Danek would wind up waiting eight more years for his gold medal.

With only one strong season in the next four years, Oerter was an underdog again when he went to the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Silvester finished first at the U.S. Olympic Trials and held the world record at 224-5. In the qualifying round, Silvester broke Oerter's Olympic record with a throw of 207-10, several inches better than Oerter's top heave. But Silvester was dogged by Oerter's mere presence, saying: "When you throw against Oerter, you don't expect to win. You just hope."

Again, Oerter appeared in no shape to compete, let alone win. He had a pulled thigh muscle, and he wore a neck brace because of a chronic disc problem. Rain the day of the finals didn't help, either.

After a bad throw and a foul, Oerter threw away the brace, as he put it, "to worry the opposition." On his next throw, Oerter set his fourth Olympic record -- 212-6. He beat both the competition and his previous personal best by more than five feet. He finished with the three best throws, adding tosses of 212-5 and 210-1. Silvester came in a disappointing fifth, at 202-8.

Oerter retired to family life after 1969. But by 1976, he was divorced, and his two daughters had grown up. At age 39, he plotted his comeback. In 1980, at age 43, he came up with a 227-10½ throw, a personal best that made him a legitimate international challenger again.

That was as close as Oerter would come to his "five gold medals." Finishing fourth at the national trials, he was an alternate on the 1980 U.S. team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics. A strained Achilles tendon prevented him from competing in the 1984 Olympic Trials at age 47.

Less than a year before, Oerter had a throw of 222-9, a mark that would have won him gold if he had been able to duplicate it at the Games in Los Angeles.

After serving as a computer specialist for Grumman Aircraft Corporation for 26 years, Oerter worked for Reebok.

In March 2003, his heart stopped during a condo board meeting in Fort Myers, Fla. Rushed to the hospital, doctors saved him.

Oerter's main interest in retirement is abstract painting. "It's something I want to do every day," he told Sports Illustrated in 2007. In 2006, to promote the relationship between athletics and aesthetics, he helped create an exhibit called Art of the Olympians, which has collected the work of 14 Olympians.

He has been inducted into the Olympic and U.S. Track and Field Halls of Fame. Reflecting on his four Olympic victories, the self-described "terrible technician" of discus said: "The first would be the most surprising, the second the most difficult, the third the most painful, the fourth the most satisfying."