100 days of Kansas City-area Olympians: Al Oerter, discus

Al Oerter
Tamara Press Al Oerter
Posted at 8:00 AM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 12:30:36-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Al Oerter is the greatest discus thrower in Olympic history.

There can be no debate about that.

Oerter — a native of Astoria, New York — and Carl Lewis are the only Olympic track and field athletes to repeat as champions four times in the same event.

Oerter won gold in the discus at four consecutive Olympics from 1956 to 1968, while Lewis won four straight long jump gold medals from 1984 to 1996.

Oerter attended the University of Kansas on a track and field scholarship, winning the NCAA discus championship twice (1957-58) and serving as team captain for the Jayhawks’ national runner-up team as a senior.

He was not the favorite to win the discus at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but won the event by more than 1 1/2 meters with an Olympic-record throw of 184 feet and 11 inches.

Oerter was seriously injured in a car crash in 1957, which nearly killed him and threatened to end his athletic career.

Four years later at the 1960 Rome Olympics, fellow U.S. competitor Rink Babka was a slight favorite, having bested Oerter at the U.S. Olympic Trials and going undefeated in the two years leading up to the Olympic Games.

Babka led though the first four of six rounds, but it was some advice he gave Oerter before the fifth throw that led to a repeat.

Oerter uncorked an Olympic-record throw of 194-2, winning the gold and bumping Babka to the silver.

It wasn’t until 1962 that Oerter set the world record in the discus for the first time, eventually becoming the first person to throw a discus more than 200 feet as he reset his world-best mark three times during the next two years.

Al Oerter
Al Oerter of the New York Athletic Club holds his discus after cracking the world record in his specialty at night on May 18, 1962 at the Los Angeles Coliseum Relays. His mark of 200 feet 5 ½ inches cracked the existing mark of 199 feet 2 ½ inches held by Jay Silvester.

But a neck injury, which required a brace, and torn rib cartilage threatened to derail his bid for a third Olympic gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

When trying to get medical clearance to compete, he reportedly told his doctors, “These are the Olympics. You die for them.”

Despite the injuries, Oerter authored one of the grittiest performances in Olympic history, narrowly missing a world record but breaking his own Olympic record with a throw of 200-1 to win.

For the fourth straight Olympics, Oerter failed to win the U.S. Olympic Trials in the discus.

Also for the fourth straight Olympics, he would not be denied.

Oerter had the three longest throws among all competitors in the final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, including a new Olympic-record throw of 212-6.

He was selected as the U.S. flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies. He later carried the U.S. flag during the 1984 Los Angeles Games and carried the Olympic flame into the stadium for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

After the 1968 Olympics, Oerter retired from competition only to make a comeback in the late 1970s in the quest for a fifth gold medal.

He narrowly missed qualifying for the 1980 Moscow Games, which the U.S. ultimately boycotted anyway, but did have the longest discus throw in the world that year and a personal record (227-10 1/2) — a remarkable feat at age 43.

Oerter also won six AAU national titles and a 1959 Pan American Games gold medal during his career.

He was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 and is a member of the KU Athletics Hall of Fame, among other honors.

Oerter, who became a painter later in life, died in 2007 at age 71 from heart failure.

The Kansas City region has a deep, rich history with respect to the Olympic Games. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games approach with the Opening Ceremony scheduled for July 23, we will profile an athlete with ties to Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas each day.

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