Look Not to Moscow for the Olympic Ideal: It Can Be Found in 43-Year-Old Al Oerter
07/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Before the U.S. announced its boycott of the Olympics this year, Al Oerter was approached about doing a TV commercial for American Express. As the only modern-day athlete to win gold medals at four successive Games (1956 through 1968), Oerter is a name that jogs memories. Yet his face is not widely recognized. He seemed a natural for one of those credit card ads that asks, "Do you know me?"
Americans should. Although the 22nd Games open this week in Moscow with none of their countrymen marching into Lenin Stadium, they should know that Al Oerter represents the Olympic ideal as eloquently as any of the thousands of international athletes who will compete. His career stands for what is best in amateur American athletics. It is worth considering at a time when the Stars and Stripes will not fly in triumph over the Soviet capital. In a modest way, Oerter's example can ease the national disappointment.
No U.S. team was going to Russia, but the country's Olympic Trials were held last month in Eugene, Oreg., anyway. Oerter was the center of attention at the discus throw. After a long voluntary retirement from competition, he was making a comeback at the astonishing age of 43. On this, a chill and damp afternoon, he stepped into the ring, breathed deeply and coiled his body close to the soggy ground. Pirouetting as he rose, he grunted and threw the four-pound six-ounce platter. It sailed 215'1", farther than any of his Olympic-winning performances. Alas, it was 10'3" short of a magnificent effort by Mac Wilkins, eight feet less than one by John Powell and just 37 inches on the wrong side of a toss by Ben Plucknett. Only the top three finishers can be designated Olympic team members.
The Trials were an academic exercise; there is no telling how Oerter would have done if a trip to Moscow had actually been at stake. He was philosophical in defeat. "I gave it my best shot. It just didn't come." He is not always so gallant. Last January, when President Carter first suggested a boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Oerter was outraged. At the time, he remembers, "There was no way in hell I wasn't going, regardless. All I could think of were the hours and hours of training and sacrifice—out the window. I wanted the U.S. to show off its strength the way the Czechs did in 1968 and the Hungarians in 1956. I wanted to go to Moscow and knock their jocks off."
Two days later he had changed his mind. Why? "My conscience overcame me," he says. "The gremlin was sitting on my shoulder and telling me that going just wasn't right." When a congressional committee called Alfred Oerter, respected elder statesman of U.S. amateur sports, to testify, he publicly supported the ban (to the dismay of some of his friends in track and field). "By not participating, we can raise a question in the mind of Soviet citizens that something is not right," he says.
Perhaps the decision was easier for him because sports is not his livelihood or a means to some lucrative end. "I've always viewed it as recreation," Oerter says. "I don't need a pot of gold to make me train hard. That's absurd for a discus thrower. You work four years for a medal and then throw it in a drawer. I was training for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that I get a lot of fun out of seeing that damn thing fly." He vows that this year's Olympic Trials will not be the last time he is heard from. "One more, Al," a fan called to him as he left the field in Oregon. "At least one more," he grinned, thinking ahead to 1984.
Settling his 6'4", 275-pound body into an easy chair in the immaculate living room of his Babylon, L.I. home, Oerter has both hands occupied. One languidly pets his dog, a German short-haired pointer named Coco, while the other holds up a glass of wine to the sunlight streaming through a bay window. As the music of Bob Dylan drifts through the room, Oerter talks about his broken marriage, his years as a single parent raising two girls, both now in college, and his decision to return to competition.
"It was all very civil," he says of his 1976 divorce from his wife, Corinne. "She wanted to pursue a career as a painter—she's exhibited out in the Hamptons. We settled on joint custody of the girls, although they have lived with me since 1975. They were 16 and 13 then—Crystiana and Gabrielle—and I wanted to get to know them as people. Corinne had already established a mother-daughter relationship with them, and a separation wouldn't change that. I cooked and cleaned and raised the girls, and it was all very strange at first. I didn't know how to give them both physical and emotional support. But once I got over the initial fears, it was easy. I provided the father image and never tried to assume both parenting roles. One day, though, I answered the doorbell and was handed a bouquet of roses for Gabrielle from her boyfriend. I felt like a bride."
Oerter pauses, then continues in his soft, measured voice. "Since the divorce my life has opened up to many things. Music. Wine. Books. I'm even dating again. It's a falling-down, bumping-into-things kind of situation—like a second childhood." The old life was never quite enough. Oerter "felt cheated. I mean, an athlete can retire physically, but never mentally. I was beginning to wither. I lost weight. I was becoming smaller!
"I don't like being small!" he says. "My size, my physicality, is my way of expressing myself. When I play a guitar I wrap my body around the instrument, and when it reverberates the sound goes through my body. I feel its energy, its power. Power excites me. Once I ran along the beach during a hurricane and I felt the power of 80-mph gusts and it was beautiful. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was soaked like a drowned rat. The next day I had a fever, but I had too much energy to stay inside. I went out and began to chop down trees. I worked up this incredible froth, and the day after that my fever was gone."
To see and hear him now, it is hard to imagine that Al Oerter was painfully shy growing up on Long Island. His broomstick physique contributed to it. With the encouragement of his father, a plumbing contractor who had been a nine-sport high school star, young Al took up weight lifting to build his size and strength. "From about 12 to 16,1 expressed myself solely through sports," he recalls. "It gave me my first taste of independence and confidence." Starting as a sprinter and football player, he discovered the discus quite by accident. One day he picked one up as a joke, cocked his arm as if he were holding a baseball, and let fly. It went farther than anyone else on the track team could heave it. At that moment Al Oerter discovered the athletic specialty that changed his life.
A track scholarship took him to the University of Kansas, where he resisted pleas to go out for football. "I told them anyone can become an All-America," he remembers, "but only one man wins a gold medal in the discus at the Olympic Games every four years." To increase his chances of being that man, Oerter began a serious program of weight training, throwing and even ballet exercises. "Discus throwers are whales," he laughs, "but they've got to have some grace of movement." He had just completed his sophomore year when he collected the first Olympic gold at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
Graduating with a degree in business, Oerter returned to Long Island to marry his summer vacation sweetheart and land a job with the Long Island-based Grumman Aircraft. The company's support of his athletic career has been more than generous, says Al, now manager of data communications at Grumman Data Systems. "I'd go away for months to train and compete, and they backed me 100 percent. They never exploited me or my Olympic victories, and they could have." There were ample opportunities to do so, since Oerter repeated his Melbourne triumph at Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico City in 1968.
None of the wins came easily. He always seemed to be fighting injuries—a pinched nerve and bruised ribs at Tokyo, a pulled thigh muscle at Mexico City. Though he has held the world discus record on six separate occasions, he was not the real favorite at any of those Olympics. "I never trained for records," explains Oerter. "I tried to simulate game conditions—weather, my competition, etc. I would introduce variables, a habit from my computer training. When I'd win, the competition always said I was lucky, that if the wind had died down they would have beaten me. But I never dealt with 'ifs.' I dealt with the conditions that existed. The others panicked in less-than-ideal situations. They'd throw 10 feet less than their best—they beat themselves. I never beat myself." After Mexico City he retired from competition at 32 to become, he says, "a doting father and husband."
In retirement, Oerter tried to create a life that had all the simplicity and order of his athletic training. But sport's progression toward victory was fathomable in the way his disintegrating marriage was not. By returning to competition after his divorce, he hoped to bring back that sense of discipline to his life.
"The thing that really triggered my return," he says, "was being interviewed in late 1975 by Bud Greenspan for a film on Olympians. It brought back all those memories. When I started talking about my career as a former Olympian I suddenly thought, why 'former'—why not 'current'? I'd already been jogging and lifting a bit, and I guess subconsciously I was moving toward a comeback." He set modest goals for himself and surpassed them every year. He began to lift weights in the cellar of a friend and fellow Grumman executive, John Boos, a 5'4", 190-pound body builder who is a former Mr. World. After four years of training, Al was capable of throwing the discus farther than he ever had. His best in 1968 was 212'6"; this year he did 227'11". (The current world record is 233'5", held by East Germany's Wolfgang Schmidt.) "Age is a myth," Oerter insists. "Guys in their 40s can be just as strong as younger guys if they work at it. Not in three weeks, but in 33 weeks, maybe. I no longer have the boundaries I once did."
As of now, Al Oerter has every intention of trying out for the 1984 Olympic team. He will be 47 then, and the challenge enthralls him. "I could never become a professional athlete," he muses. "Sport then becomes important only as a means to an end—money. Amateur sports are an end in themselves. You don't live by a contract. You're free. Even the Olympic Games, to a large extent, are anticlimactic. What's important is the whole wonderful experience of working for four years toward that goal."
If others scoff at his chances at the Los Angeles Games four years hence, Oerter is untroubled. "So what if I never win my fifth gold medal," he shrugs. "It's only one at the end of the string. That doesn't matter. It's competing that matters. It's proving that there is a place for guys like me in sports. It's a personal challenge to extend myself."