Sports Outside the Beltway

Olympic discus great Al Oerter dies at 71

He won gold medals in four consecutive Olympics, setting Olympic records each time. Oerter died of heart failure yesterday in Florida. RIP.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Al Oerter was destined to become an athlete, although he often wondered what he might have been if not for a chance meeting with a discus.

“I could throw a baseball, a football or a golf ball a country mile,” Oerter told the Associated Press in an interview last year. “It was just easy to throw anything.”

The discus great who won gold medals in four straight Olympics to become one of track and field’s biggest stars in the 1950s and ’60s, died Monday of heart failure, less than two weeks after his 71st birthday.

His long love affair with the circular disk that would bring him fame began one day when he was hanging around a track, watching practice and gave it a try.

“I picked it and threw back to a guy further than he threw it to me,” Oerter recalled. “The coach walked over to me and said you need to go over there with them.”

Oerter died at a hospital near his Fort Myers Beach home, wife Cathy Oerter said. He dealt with high blood pressure since he was young and struggled with heart problems, she said.

“He was a gentle giant,” she said. “He was bigger than life.”

Oerter won gold medals in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968. Oerter and Carl Lewis are the only track and field stars to capture the same event in four consecutive Olympics. Oerter, however, is the only one to set an Olympic record in each of his victories.

“His legacy is one of an athlete who embodied all of the positive attributes associated with being an Olympian,” said Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “He performed on the field of play with distinction and transferred that excellence to the role of advocate for the Olympic movement and its ideals.”

Born in New York City, Oerter was 6-foot-4 and once competed at nearly 300 pounds. He dispensed with coaching and conventional training methods, molding himself into a fierce competitor who performed his best when the stakes were highest.

“I can remember those games truly as if they were a week ago,” Oerter told The AP.

In Melbourne in 1956, Oerter threw 184 feet, 11 inches on his first toss and watched in amazement when nobody else, including teammate and world-record holder Fortune Gordien, came close to beating him.

He came from behind to win again in Rome, and overcame torn rib cartilage and other injuries to make it three in a row at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

At 32, he was a long shot in the 1968 field headed by world-record holder Jay Silvester. However, Oerter responded with a personal-best of 212-6 to leave Mexico City with the gold.

He came out of retirement and won a spot as an alternate on the 1980 team that didn’t compete because of the boycott ordered by President Carter.

“Al Oerter is one of the greatest track and field athletes, and one of the greatest Olympic athletes, of all time,” said USATF CEO Craig A. Masback.

“What made him even more special was his excellence off the track, in pursuits ranging from community outreach to art. The track world has lost a legend, a Hall of Famer, and a true gentleman. USATF extends our deepest sympathy to Al’s family.”

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