Induction Year: 1990
Category: Track & Field
Al Oerter was an American athlete and a four-time Olympic Champion in the discus throw. He was the first athlete to win a gold medal in the same individual event in four consecutive Olympic Games. Oerter is an inductee of the IAAF Hall of Fame. Although he was born in Astoria, he grew up in Nassau County and lived in Suffolk County for most of his adult life.
He began his track and field career at the age of 15 at Sewanhaka High School (Floral Park), when a discus landed at his feet and he threw it back past the crowd of throwers. Oerter continued throwing and eventually earned a scholarship to the University of Kansas in 1954 where he became a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. A large man at 6′ 4″ (193 cm) and 280 pounds (127 kg), Oerter was a natural thrower. Competing for Kansas, he became the NCAA discus champion in 1957; he successfully defended his title the following year.
Oerter began his Olympic career at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. He was not considered the favorite but he felt a rush during the competition and he unleashed a throw of 184 feet 22 inches (56.64 m)—which, at the time, was a career best. The throw was good enough to win the competition by more than 5 inches (130 mm).
In 1957, it seemed that Oerter’s career would be over at the age of 20 when he was nearly killed in an automobile accident. He recovered in time to compete at the 1960 Summer Olympics at Rome, where he was the slight favorite over teammate Rink Babka, who was the world record holder .
Babka was in the lead for the first four of the six rounds. He gave Oerter advice before his fifth throw; Oerter threw his discus 194 feet 2 inches (59.18 m), setting an Olympic record. Babka settled for the silver medal when he was not able to beat Oerter’s throw.
During the early 1960s, Oerter continued to have success and set his first world record in 1962. In the process, he was the first to break 200 feet in the discus. He was considered a heavy favorite to win a third gold medal at Tokyo in 1964.
Oerter was hampered by injuries before the Games began. He was bothered by a neck injury, and he tore cartilage in his ribs shortly before the competition. Oerter was competing in great pain, but he set a new Olympic standard and won a third Olympic gold medal despite not being able to take his last throw due to the pain from his ribs. As before, he bettered his own record with a throw of 61 meters (200 ft).
Oerter returned to the Olympics in 1968 at Mexico City, but teammate Jay Silvester was cast as the favorite. Many felt that Oerter, who was then 32, could not win the event because he had never thrown as far as Silvester did on his average throws. At the Olympics, however, Oerter hurled another Olympic record throw of 64.78 metres (212.5 ft) on his third throw. His record held and he became the first track and field athlete to win gold medals in four consecutive Olympic Games. This accomplishment would be equaled many years later by fellow Americans Carl Lewis and swimmer Michael Phelps.
Oerter retired from athletics after the 1968 Olympics. He later eyed a comeback and took anabolic steroids in 1976 under medical supervision in order to put on muscle mass. However, he stopped the course as this affected his blood pressure and failed to give much improvement on the field. After this he advised athletes to avoid such drugs and focus on training and technique instead. He was critical of the increase of drug use and the subsequent testing in track and field, stating that it had destroyed the culture of athlete camaraderie and that the banning of athletes such as Ben Plucknett was merely scapegoating by international officials.
Oerter did make an attempt to qualify for the American team in 1980 but he finished fourth. He nonetheless set his overall personal record of 69.46 metres (227.9 ft) that year at the age of 43. Dr. Gideon Ariel, a former Olympic shot putter himself for Israel, had developed a business of biomechanical services, and Oerter after working with Ariel—at age 43—threw a discus 27 feet farther than his best gold medal performance.
When filming for a TV segment, he unofficially threw about 245 feet (75 m), which would have set a still-standing world record. In later years, Oerter carried the Olympic flag for the 1984 Summer Olympics, then carried Olympic flame into the stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Oerter passed away on October 1, 2007 of heart failure. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. On March 7, 2009, the Al Oerter Recreation Center was opened in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.