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Jim Murray

Discus Is Al Oerter's Tranquilizer

September 18, 1987|Jim Murray

\o7 The year is 2016. The stands in the massive stadium in Beijing are jammed as the XXXIst Olympiad, the first ever held in China, unfolds on the field below.

Suddenly, towards the discus ring comes a strange tableau. Attendants are pushing a wheelchair in which sits a graybearded old man wrapped in blankets and hot water bottles.

As they approach the cement circle, he suddenly leaps to his feet, throws off the shawls and pillows and stands inside the wire fence, muscles rippling. He whirls three times, then releases the wood and metal platter into the distance.

The Chinese break into wide smiles and loud applause. The Chinese worship ancestors and the father of the Olympic discus competition has just reappeared in his 15th competition.

As he is wheeled off, he leaves a mark for competitors who are great-grandchildren of people who first saw him throw a discus to shoot at.\f7

Fanciful? Far-fetched? Doubtless.

But, when Al Oerter won his first Olympic gold medal, Eisenhower was President, the population of the United States was only 150 million, television was black-and-white, Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman were winning Academy Awards and Alaska and Hawaii weren't even states.

The only people driving Japanese cars were Japanese and Don Larsen, of all people, had just pitched the first perfect game in World Series history. Bread was a quarter and Fidel Castro thought he might like to become a major league pitcher. Rocky Marciano was the heavyweight champion of the world, newly retired and undefeated.

Al Oerter was 20 years old. It is now 31 years later but Al Oerter is 23 years old, going on 24. The rest of us age by the year. Al Oerter only ages by the decade. He gets one year older for every ten on the calendar.

To be sure, he does not win gold medals any more. But, consider that the population of the United States has grown by almost 100 million since he was first champion and you have to conclude he is competing against a lot of people who weren't even born when he threw his first one.

You would think you were dealing with an athletic marvel here, something that just walked off a Grecian urn, a physique for the ages that could turn off the ravages of time.

Actually, the doctors want to study Al Oerter for another urgent reason. It is this: Al Oerter, the only man who ever won four consecutive Olympic medals, the first man in history to throw the discus over 200 feet, many times world record holder and world champion, suffers from a disorder that is supposed to affect guys in executive suites, guys who have stressful jobs and never get enough exercise, have poor muscle tone and get short of breath sitting in a chair.

Al Oerter is, and has always been, hypertensive. The blood pressure's high, pulse rapid, nervous system on high. He has exactly the same symptoms as a guy who spends his life answering two phones at once, carrying a beeper in his belt and never leaves the office before 10 o'clock at night.

Al is a mess, to tell you the truth.

Until he gets a discus in his hands, that is. Then, he becomes as calm as a glacier, as unflappable as a well-fed lion.

It's what made him one of the most famous Olympians of all time, an athlete whose record may stand with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Lou Gehrig's consecutive games or any other of the heroic achievements over a period of time. Nobody not on horseback is ever likely to win four gold medals in four separate Olympics again.

He is almost an advertisement for hypertension. For, in each of Al Oerter's winning Olympics, Al Oerter threw the discus farther than he had ever done in his life. You're not supposed to do that in an Olympics, you're supposed to do that in more-relaxed, less-competitive meets where the pressure isn't on and the world isn't watching.

Al wasn't even favored in any of his Olympic successes. In 1956 at Melbourne, it was the world record holder, Fortune Gordien, who was supposed to win when Oerter, aged 20, stepped up and threw the plate four feet beyond the Olympic record--184-11. It was Gordien who became hypertensive and he never got within 5 feet of the youngster from Long Island.

In 1960, at Rome, it was supposed to be the USC giant, Rink Babka, who would walk off with the gold. Oerter broke the Olympic record (his own) again with 194-2, again the best he had ever thrown. Babka was 4 feet behind.

In 1964, at Tokyo, Oerter had ripped cartilage in his rib cage 10 days before the meet and the Czech, Ludvik Danek, was the world record holder. Oerter sailed the plate 200 feet 1-inch for his third straight Olympic record. Danek ended up at 198-6.

In 1968, in Mexico City, the favorite was the mountainous Jay Silvester from Utah who had just broken the world record with a 224-5 toss. Oerter, unconcerned, got off a 212-6, his fourth consecutive Olympic record. Silvester fouled completely out of the picture, straining to catch him.

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