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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

Gentlemen of the Rarest Vintage

As Al Oerter and his fellow 1956 U.S. Olympians completed their exhaustive island-hopping trip across the Pacific Ocean aboard a MATS prop plane, landing in Melbourne, Australia, common bonds were beginning to form across the U.S. contingent.

The trip took almost 46 hours with the country’s top Olympians crammed in and seated facing rearward on the retrofitted (from cargo to passengers) aircraft. Even when they landed to refuel in, say Fiji, they were not allowed off of the baking plane.

Athletes were stripped down to their skivvies, men and women alike, and had to sleep in their seats. Al remembered that there was an impassioned plea for more orange juice, because they would always run out of it within an hour of departing the last island stopover.

He felt particularly bad for the big basketball players, like Bill Russell, who were “stuck on this little damn plane.” It was miserable.

In 1956, this is what America’s top athletes had to endure on their way to Olympic glory.

Once arriving in Melbourne, and after suffering communally with his U.S. teammates on the way there, discus thrower Oerter began to enjoy and be amazed by some of the “most wonderful people” he would ever meet from the group of athletes attending those games.

One of the most memorable was Robert Allen Gutowski, a pole vaulter from Occidental College, who had tied for the NCAA Championship earlier that year, but, in June, finished fourth in the U.S. Trials in Los Angeles. Bob Richards had won the competition by clearing 15’- 1”, followed by George Mattos, and seven others, including Gutowski, who had reached 14’- 8½”. Oklahoma A&M’s Jim Graham broke the tie on the basis of having zero misses and took the third spot.

In September, Graham badly injured his ankle while training and Gutowski cleared 15’- 5” a month later. As the calendar approached November, Jim Graham “graciously gave up his Olympic spot” and Bob Gutowski was the last-minute replacement on the U.S. pole vault team.

Bob Gutowski, Olympic Pole Vaulter, Occidental College
Bob Gutowski, Olympic Pole Vaulter, Occidental College

Gutowski and Oerter were very much alike. Al was 20 and Bob was 21 by the time they got to Melbourne. Neither one had expected to make the Olympic team in their events. They were both exceptional athletes, had tremendous work ethics and seemed to quietly thrive on reaching well past their capabilities. While Al excelled at the discus in high school, Bob was actually a mediocre pole vaulter, who was accepted to Occidental on a basketball scholarship.

It was his track coach, Payton Jordan, who noted an athleticism in him that, when combined with his innate analytical prowess and relentless training regimen, made him a perfect candidate for excelling in the pole vault. Al and Bob became instant friends. They both loved the individual challenge of their events…to throw one inch further or vault one inch higher than the last time.

One of the intriguing backdrops of the 1956 Games, which were conducted from November 22nd through December 8th, was not just the fact that it would be the first Olympics held in the southern hemisphere. Queen Elizabeth II had designated her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, as the “Queen’s representative,” to host and open the Games as part of an extended “structured tour of New Guinea and nearby islands” aboard the royal yacht HMY Britannia.

There had been rumors that things were a bit unsettled between the royal couple, and that the trip, with Philip as host, was the Queen’s way of smoothing things over between the two. And then there was Her Majesty’s significant loving gesture of sending along a good portion of “The Queen’s Wine.”

Royal Yacht Britannia arriving in Melbourne, 1956
Royal Yacht Britannia arriving in Melbourne, 1956

Deep in the bowels of Lancaster House, across the yard from Buckingham Palace, rests a well-guarded cavern of rooms housing the Royal Wine Cellar. Today, it is estimated to hold over 38,000 bottles of choice wine with a value of £3 million, which is the majority of the total royal inventory. Some wines go back as far as the 17th century.

While knowledge of this alcoholic treasure trove was not open to the public in 1956, rumors of its existence were rampant. In Melbourne, with Prince Philip as host, the crown had planned no less than 18 major events in 17 days to include offering a multitude of the rarest vintages to a highly select invitation list, primarily made up of the British Olympic contingent and IOC officials.

The Royal Wine Cellar, London, date unknown
The Royal Wine Cellar, London, date unknown

Al Oerter settled in to his apartment quarters in the Olympic Village with roommate Bill Nieder, his older shot put college teammate from the University of Kansas. There were other KU Olympians as well as athletes from around the globe. Al was awed, in a good way, by the invigorating environment. He had trained very hard for months to be at his best, and wanted to put forth that same type of effort.

Bob Gutowski hung around a lot and his coach, Payton Jordan, now an assistant on the Olympic team, took a liking to Al and helped to keep the discus underdog focused on the matter at hand.

Even in the Olympic village, the word was out that Queen Elizabeth had sent down cases of wine from the royal stash as a way to assuage the Prince and that some big dinner was being planned with an exclusive guest list. While the date is foggy (probably around the opening ceremonies), Bob Gutowski, aka “Guts,” confided in Oerter that he thought he had found out where the Queen’s wine was being housed and safeguarded.

The entrance to the '56 Olympic Village
The entrance to the '56 Olympic Village

Gutowski didn’t reveal how he knew, but a couple of nights later, on a cool and clear evening, he led Al over to a storage area in their part of the Olympic Village. It had a huge door that was locked from the inside. The two extremely fit Olympians smashed the door down while trying to muffle the sound. They looked inside, but it was pitch black, and they couldn’t find the light switch.

They stepped inside the room and bumped into what felt like a large cabinet. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they could barely make out the rows of small crates stacked three high. They carried one of the crates outside, where there was a little light, and found the contents to be bottles of Her Majesty’s wine.

These were strong men, so Al and Bob began hauling two crates at a time back to Al’s apartment. It took them about an hour to clear the room out. Bill Nieder was incredulous when he saw the stack of wine crates filling the living space.

The next day, and for many days after, Al and Bob began distributing the inventory to their fellow athletes. Al admitted many years later, “We had wine in that apartment that we were giving away for the entire length of the stay Down Under, which was several weeks.”

On Nov. 27th, in the discus finals, Al Oerter stunned the world on his first throw with a new Olympic record that stood up for a gold medal. It was a U.S. medal sweep with Fortune Gordien, who had been the heavy favorite, and Des Koch taking the silver and bronze, respectively. Gordien would always claim that Oerter “stole” his gold medal.

Al enjoyed the Olympic experience so much that he predicted to the press that he would win four more gold medals in the Games to come. On Sept. 28th, Bill Nieder won the silver in the shot put, throwing just about a foot short of the U.S.’s Parry O’Brien’s gold medal heave.

Al Oerter's 1st throw sails to a Olympic new record
Al Oerter's 1st throw sails to a new Olympic record

Bob Richards was the defending Olympic champion in the Pole Vault. On Nov. 26th, he and Bob Gutowski battled until Richards cleared 14’-11 ½ “ vs. Gutowski’s 14’-10¼”, which resulted in a silver medal for Guts. It was Richards’ second consecutive gold medal, still something no other man has ever achieved in the event. It was also a new Olympic record, and Bob Richards became the spokesman and face of “Wheaties” breakfast cereal, until he was replaced by Bruce Jenner in 1976. Richards never set a world record, and the 1942 pole vault mark by American “Dutch” Warmerdam (15’-7¾ “), the first to ever pass 15 feet, still stood.

Bob Richards wins the gold; "Guts" takes silver
Bob Richards wins the gold; "Guts" takes silver

After the Melbourne Games, Gutowski was back at Occidental and vaulting well, as he began his spring,1957, season. On April 27th, at the Oxy-Stanford dual meet in Palo Alto, Sports Illustrated reported, “In April, Gutowski was ready. The runway at Stanford felt good. The pole was perfect—not too stiff, not too whippy. The weather was benign. He jumped 15 feet 8¼ inches—higher than anyone had ever gone before.” Guts had surpassed Dutch Warmerdam’s best from 15 years earlier and nailed a new world record.

In June, he took the 1957 NCAA title outright with another world best jump of 15’-9¾”, which would forever remain as the highest height ever using a straight, inflexible pole. The mark was not ratified as a world record, however, because the pole passed under the bar.

Sports Illustrated featured Guts on the cover of its 6/24/57 issue, “Bob Gutowski..The Assault on 16 Feet.” The article stated, “The young man straining down at you from this week's cover is the best pole vaulter in the world—and in history… Payton Jordan observed, ‘Gutowski is keen, ambitious, relentless, determined and especially fearless.’ At the L.A. Coliseum Relays that year, Gutowski put Bob Richards away and then soared over 15 feet 6 inches…Gutowski said soothingly, ‘Sixteen feet? Just a matter of time.’”

Sports Illustrated Cover with Bob Gutowski 6/24/57
Sports Illustrated Cover with Bob Gutowski 6/24/57

Bob Gutowski’s world record would stand for three years until Don Bragg surpassed it by only ½” at the U.S. Olympic Trials on 7/2/1960 (at Stanford). Gutowski and Bragg had pushed each other since the mid-1950’s, and the self-proclaimed arrogant, pompous and loud-mouthed Bragg finally got past Guts. “Bragg celebrated by picking up his girlfriend and dancing around doing Tarzan impressions,” USA Track & Field wrote in its annals.

Bill Nieder and Al Oerter were there that day qualifying for the U.S. team headed for the Olympics in Rome. Favoring injuries much of the season, Bob Gutowski was there too, finishing 7th in the pole vault. By then he had entered the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and was serving as a 1st Lieutenant, having passed the Officers Candidate Course at Quantico. Guts also competed in the Decathlon Trials, which were held a week later to allow individual event athletes to compete for the first time. He finished 16th in the grueling event; but he finished.

Bragg, Nieder and Oerter would all win gold medals in their events in Rome. From the medal podium, Don Bragg did his infamous Tarzan yell to a shocked crowd. He would later try to parlay that skill into playing the role of Tarzan in motion pictures. He fell short.

Less than a month after not making the 1960 Olympic team, Bob Gutowski was killed in a head-on collision with a young, drunk, Marine driver coming at him in the wrong lane, near Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. Bob was on his way home from the base to nearby Carlsbad, where he lived with his wife. He was 25 years old.

Throughout his athletic career, Guts was also a top talent in the long jump and was a sub 10-second sprinter in the 100. In his last major competition, he long-jumped 24’- 8 ¾” at the 1960 AAU’s. In reporting on his death, the New York Times wrote, “ But pole vaulting and the challenge it offered him were most dear to him. When he was asked if he feared falling after clearing the bar, he replied: ‘That’s the easy part.’”

Bob Gutowski, Olympic silver medalist and world record pole vaulter
Bob Gutowski, World Record Pole Vaulter (1935 -1960)

Robert Allen Gutowski was inducted into the Occidental College Hall of Fame and, in 1980, was elected to the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. He was a beloved teammate, competitor, Olympian, friend and husband. Bob was aged to perfection and a gentleman of the rarest vintage.

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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