Al Oerter was a classic Olympian at a classic event. He was the four time gold medalist of the discus. No one has come near matching his wins. Oerter died this morning, October 1, 2007, of heart failure. This is just a short commentary on what he meant to our sport and this writer. I have followed up with some related links….
Al Oerter, the only man to win the Olympic Discus four times ( 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968) died this morning. He was 71.
Oerter exemplified the Olympic ideal throughout his career, always coming back from injuries, always the underdog, always some reporter thinking his best days were past. It was his amazing competitive drive, and his drive to be the best that made him stand out. Surely, there were athletes as gifted, perhaps more, in his competitive years, but no one possessed the drive, or the focus of Oerter.
When this writer met Al Oerter in 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics, for an interview, the competitiveness was still there. Always the observer of the sport, Oerter knew more about how to compete and how to draw the best out of himself than many of his contemporaries.
Oerter suffered from high blood pressure since he was a child and had some serious heart issues over the past decade. But he stayed focused on his love of
painting and his family.
After winning the gold medal in 1968, Oerter retired, but made a comeback in the 1980 Olympic Trials, finishing fourth. He also made a game run for the Olympic team in 1984. In 1984, he had to be content with carrying in the Olympic flag with several other famous U.S. Olympic champions. An irony of ironies was that he threw his best throw ever at the age of 43.
When asked in 1980 why he was competing again, Oerter shrugged his huge shoulders and told Running magazine, ” I wanted my daughters to see me compete, they were too young to remember me competing….”
Al Oerter will be missed, not because he was such a fine Olympic athlete. He was, and there has not been another discus thrower like him. Al Oerter will be missed because he showed athletes, coaches and fans alike that there is honor
in competing to ones limits, respecting ones competitors and challenging oneself.
I found this quote from Pindar, one of the finest of the Greek poets, it is from
the Olympic Odes, a poem he wrote for a Olympic champion. It was written
in about 476 B.C.E. I think it captures the Olympic mystique that a man such Al Oerter believed in and lived by:
“Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests,  look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia.”
For the a related story from USA Track & Field, please click:http://www.usatf.org/news/view.aspx?DUID=USATF_2007_10_01_11_40_05
For a related story from the IAAF, please click: http://www.iaaf.org/news/kind=2/newsid=41940.html#athletics+mourns+loss+legend+al+oerter+dies
To download a free book of the poetry of Pindar, try this link: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10717
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