Golden Olympic Great Oerter Dies

Al Oerter, the discus thrower who won consecutive gold medals in four straight Olympic Games from 1956 to 1968, has died of heart failure. After track, he began a career as an abstract painter. He was 71.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And talk about winning mindset - Melbourne, 1956; Rome, 1960; Tokyo, 1964; Mexico City, 1968. In four, straight Olympic Games, an American won the gold medal in the discus. Each time, it was the same American: Al Oerter. He was the first track and field athlete to win gold four consecutive times. And Al Oerter died today in Florida.

NPR's Tom Goldman has this remembrance.

TOM GOLDMAN: Al Oerter won modern-day fame in a sport linked directly to the ancient Olympic Games. Indeed, there was an almost mythical beginning to his career. Oerter was running on a track in high school, when an errant discus landed in his feet. He picked it up, threw it back so far, that the coach convinced Oerter that the little four and a half pound object that looked like two dinner plates stuck together was his future. He got better and better and in 1956, made the U.S. Olympic team. In Melbourne, Oerter hardly was the favorite. But on his first throw, he set an Olympic record and won the gold medal. He would repeat that performance at the next three Summer Olympics.

Mac Wilkins, who won the Olympic discus gold in 1976, says one of the keys to Oerter's success was that Oerter loved Olympic competition. And, says Wilkins, Oerter always talked about competing with people rather than against them.

Mr. MAC WILKINS (Olympic Gold Medalist 1976, Discus): Maybe that made it easier for him to enjoy the competition and a little less stress. If, oh, I got to worry about this guy and what he's doing and that guy what he is doing, and they're not your enemies. They're your comrades.

GOLDMAN: That was certainly the case in the 1960 Olympics, when Oerter's teammate and world record holder, Rink Babka, helped Oerter win the gold medal. Babka was leading the competition early on and Oerter was throwing poorly. Babka pulled Oerter aside and gave him some advice. Oerter's next throw set the Olympic record and beat Babka, who years later said he was proud it was Al who beat him.

Unidentified Man: The Olympic torch is about to be extinguished in a blaze of glory by the U.S. track team.

GOLDMAN: Four years later in Tokyo, Oerter won on his own in perhaps his most memorably Olympic moment. He was wearing a neck brace because of a chronic cervical disc injury. He had a torn cartilage in his ribcage from a training accident. Doctors told him not to compete, but Oerter wrapped his side with ice packs, injected Novocain and set another Olympic record. Asked why he went ahead and competed, Oerter said, these are the Olympics and you die before you don't compete in the Olympics.

In a 1986 interview on NPR's MORNING EDITION, Oerter talked about his apparent mastery of the discus as an endless quest.

Mr. AL OERTER (Olympic Gold Medalist, Discus): I don't think there's ever been a discus thrower in any throw that they've ever had - and that's millions and millions of throws - who's ever said, that's the best that I can do. Because it's the nature of the sport to say, if I had changed this a little bit, I would've been a better.

GOLDMAN: After his athletic career ended, Oerter dove into the world of abstract painting with a similar love and devotion. He once said, never having an athletic coach or a teacher or a mentor in art, everything I create comes from within. Al Oerter battled high blood pressure his entire life. He died of heart failure today in a Florida hospital. His wife Cathy said in a statement, Al always said he would leave this world content and with no regrets.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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Olympic Discus Champion Al Oerter Dies at 71

Al Oerter, center, is flanked by fellow Americans Rink Babka, left, and Richard Cochran. i i

hide captionAl Oerter, center, is flanked by fellow Americans Rink Babka, left, and Richard Cochran. The trio swept the medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

AFP/Getty Images
Al Oerter, center, is flanked by fellow Americans Rink Babka, left, and Richard Cochran.

Al Oerter, center, is flanked by fellow Americans Rink Babka, left, and Richard Cochran. The trio swept the medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

AFP/Getty Images
Al Oerter throws the discus at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. i i

hide captionAl Oerter throws the discus at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where he won his fourth straight Gold Medal in the event.

AFP/Getty
Al Oerter throws the discus at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Al Oerter throws the discus at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where he won his fourth straight Gold Medal in the event.

AFP/Getty
Al Oerter at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. i i

hide captionAl Oerter at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Mike Powell/Getty Images
Al Oerter at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Al Oerter at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Mike Powell/Getty Images

Discus great Al Oerter, who won gold medals in four straight Olympics and became one of track and fields biggest stars in the 1950s and '60s, died Monday. He was 71.

Oerter died at a hospital near his Fort Myers Beach, Fla., home, his wife Cathy Oerter said. He had dealt with high blood pressure since he was young and has 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.

Born in New York City, Oerter grew up on Long Island, molding himself, without coaches or formal training, 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 Associated Press last year.

In Melbourne in 1956, Oerter threw 184 feet, 11 inches on his first toss. No one 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 212 feet, 11 inches 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.

Later in life, Oerter discovered a new passion and took up abstract painting.

Oerter maintained a tie to the Olympic movement through Art of the Olympians, a program he founded to give him and other former Olympians who've taken up art to showcase their work.

"Al approached the art world the same way he approached the sports world," said friend and former Olympian Liston Bochette. "He studied it. He analyzed it. And he sought excellence in the arts."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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