• Andrew Pettit

A Farewell to Arms

The crowd was buzzing at historic Hayward Field at the University of Oregon in Eugene. It was Wednesday, June 25th, 1980, and the Men’s Discus final round was about to commence at the U.S. Olympic Trials. In its official trials summary, Track & Field News wrote: “Of all the events, this one was the one which drew the most attention in 1980.” The top three throwers would make up the Men’s U.S. Olympic discus team, but they would have no chance to participate in the Games of the XXII Olympiad.

Four years earlier, Al Oerter ended his 8-year retirement and returned to training with what would be a transformative strategy that included some of his tried-and-true methods. First, he plotted a 1,460-day calendar, with increasing distance benchmarks for each of the next four years: 1977 (175 ft), 1978 (200 ft), 1979 (215 ft), 1980 (225 ft).


“Why are you doing this after winning four gold medals?” “Why risk losing all you’ve accomplished if you fail?” These were typical questions asked by friends and members of the press. Al never understood such comments. “You don’t understand,” he would reply. “It’s not whether you get there. It’s the journey.”


Early on, the 1980 Olympic Games were not in his sights. After all, he’d be 43 years old; but the desire to do better than when he left Mexico City in 1968 was definitely there.


Al knew he had to get stronger. He engaged with weightlifting partners John Boos and Dave Spector, and found himself blasting through strength limits that had been self-imposed. Al employed computer analyses to improve his throwing technique and worked with Julie Martin, a ballet instructor with The Laban School, on fluidity of movement.


In April, 1977, at the second meet of his return to competition, Al met up with Art Swarts at the CW Post Relays on Long Island. Swarts, 9 years Oerter’s junior, had placed 6th at the U.S. Trials in ’76. A competitive friendship developed, and soon Al and Art would often train together and put on “all-comers” meets near Art’s home in New Jersey.

Al Oerter in his second meet of comeback Post Relays 1977
Al Oerter at 1977 Post Relays

At this point, sports reporters were convinced that Oerter was preparing for the 1980 games in Moscow. Al, seeing that his progression was on track, indicated that the Moscow Olympics were a possibility, even at his advanced age. However, in that first year and a half, the comeback road was as bumpy as hell. Al’s entire body ached. He broke his ankle twice, pulled leg muscles, ruptured a calf muscle, strained both shoulders, and pulled chest and stomach muscles.


Al’s best throw in ’77 was 205-1, which happened to be while competing with Swarts in New Jersey. Art was second that day with a 204-5. By December, Oerter had not only met his goal for the year, he had also passed the benchmark for ’78.


By spring,1979, as Oerter’s distances started to move out past the 210’s, his need for a throwing partner to work alongside with, who was just as intense as he was in that environment, became critical. Art Swarts was already just that kind of competitor. The two men fed off of each other, as if each could stoke the other’s internal fire.

Al Oerter & Art Swarts AC Meet, NJ 1978
Al Oerter & Art Swarts AC Meet, New Jersey

By the end of 1979, Mac Wilkins was the most dominating thrower in the world. The gold medalist in the ’76 Olympics, he had set four world records that same year, three on the same day, with his last of 232-5 ¾. Still, Wolfgang Schmidt (East Germany), who won silver in Montreal, eclipsed Wilkins’ WR in 1978 by throwing a foot further. John Powell, who took the bronze in ’76, was a 1975 world record holder and, with Wilkins, was in the top-2 in the U.S. At 6’-7”, and over 300lbs, Ben Plucknett was very much in the picture to make the U.S. Olympic team, as was Ken Stadel.


Mac Wilkins & Al Oerter first competition 1978
Mac Wilkins & Al Oerter, Cover Photo, July 1978

On Saturday, December 8th, 1979, in his final competition of the year, at a cold, all-comers meet in New Jersey, Al Oerter launched a throw of 221-4, and established a new personal record. For the year, Oerter was rated 4th in the USA and 9th in the world. It was time to assess his progress heading into 1980, and build toward the U.S. Trials in June and the Olympic Games in Moscow.


Oerter recognized that his lifting regimen at age 43 was well beyond anything he had done before. He was bench pressing in the 500’s, squatting in the 700’s, curls between 250 and 300 and flies with 100lb dumb bells. He never thought he could push past those weight barriers, until he did, realizing that they were all in his head.


He knew he was now stronger and leaner than he had ever been in his life. He weighed 297lbs in Mexico City eleven years earlier. Now, he was 277, and had greatly reduced body fat.


Al felt that his throwing was increasing on schedule towards world class levels as well. He respected, but was not intimidated by, the world records of Wilkins and Schmidt, since experience taught him WR’s were not predictive of performance in the Olympic environment. Looking back to ’76, Mac Wilkins’ gold medal throw of 221-5 was 11 feet less than his world record set less than 3 months before. And then there was the fact that in Al’s four Olympiads, he had defeated the existing world record holder each time, while also setting new Olympic records.


Returning from his athletic retirement, and continuing to hold a full-time job, Oerter was closing in on completing his fourth year of training and competition, while overcoming age and nagging injuries. As long as he continued to work harder than anyone else, he believed he now had a bona fide chance of being in the top 3 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the new year. Winning that 5th gold medal in his chosen sport, which he had promised 24 years earlier, was a possibility again. His history was on his side. Al was charged up and ready to make it all happen.

Al Oerter 1979 training at US Air Force Academy
Al Oerter training at USAFA 1979 (courtesy of Tom Fahey)

On Christmas Eve, 1979, in the midst of the Cold War, 30,000 troops of the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to put down the growing insurgency against the USSR’s communist proxy, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. With the 1980 Summer Olympics scheduled for Moscow in July, there was a worldwide cry to boycott the games.


When Al heard about President Jimmy Carter’s stance to boycott the Moscow Olympics unless the USSR withdrew troops from Afghanistan, he was incensed. On January 10th, 1980, Oerter appeared on the MacNEIL/LEHRER REPORT on PBS and argued the point against the boycott. Al stated that “American athletes are being cheated out of a chance to show their worth against Russia. They have worked for long periods of time to get to these games and they should be allowed to compete.”


The famed NY Times sportswriter, Red Smith, also was on the panel, and he cautioned that the U.S. should not go and play into the propaganda of the Soviets, similar to what Nazi Germany had engineered in 1936.


Red Smith opened up Al’s eyes and mind, and by the end of the program, the Olympian changed his position. Oerter’s conscience took over, and he stated that members of the Olympic team were citizens, first, and athletes, second, and that we, as a country, should oppose the Soviet invasion of their neighbor, and support the boycott.

Olympic Boycott Newsweek Magazine January, 1980
Newsweek Magazine, January 28, 1980

Al was besieged by journalists who were incredulous that he would back the boycott and give up his attempt at a fifth gold medal. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (including Senator Joe Biden) and several other congressional committees, appeared on multiple television news programs, and was interviewed by press from all over the world.


Oerter received hundreds of letters in support of his position. However, not everyone was happy with Al’s stance. At times, it seemed like he was the lone athlete to stand behind the boycott, even when engaging with the USOC. Some athletes expressed that they “had a lot to lose,” or asked “do you know what this will cost me?” Al said, ”Everyone knows for every instance in life what is right and what is wrong. For me to go to the Games at that time was wrong.”


Finally, on March 21st, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the Olympic Games scheduled to take place in Moscow that summer. The announcement came after the Soviet Union failed to comply with Carter’s February 20th deadline to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.


Oerter continued to train as there was still a slate of upcoming major meets. The USOC was still going to hold the Olympic Trials in June even though there would not be a team sent to Moscow. Al would not be building up to the trials with the same intensity as previously in his career, as there was no Olympic outcome. It would be just another track meet.


With the late-night interviews, flying down to Washington DC to testify and all of the other activities, Al was unable to put in the 100% time-commitment for his training. As he explained it, “There were times I would get home very late from New York City after appearing on a TV interview, and that would mean I’d have to lose an hour of training the next day.” If a spot on the Olympic team was truly on the line, he would have ended all of the distractions.


The first major meet after the boycott decision was the Mount SAC Relays on April 19th. Oerter won with a 214-3 throw and it was one of the few times he outdistanced Wilkins (2) and John Powell (4). Art Swarts was there and finished 8th.


Al and Art both competed in the Track and Field Association (TFA) Championships held at the end of May in Wichita, KS, not far from Al’s alma mater, KU. On Friday night, May 30th, in the invitational round, Ben Plucknett outthrew Al, 214-2 to 204-1. That night, Oerter got a really good night’s sleep.


The next day, May 31st, conditions were favorable for good throwing. In the TFA finals, Al and Art were in a bit of a battle with each other, with Al taking a 2-foot lead with a 217-11 after three rounds.


On his fourth throw, with the competitive juices flowing, Art Swarts cranked one that seemed to sail forever. 227-1 ! The crowd applauded wildly. Swarts was elated. “Finally, a very long throw in a major competition and good for first place,” Art remembered. He felt it would hold up.


Art, smiling broadly, ran out on the sidelines to retrieve the discus when a “thought” jumped into his head. He turned to see his training partner and friend about to step into the ring for his fourth attempt. Art knew what was going to happen. It was “response time.” He said to himself, ”Here comes Al’s best throw ever!”


With the crowd shouting their support, the 43-year-old, 4-time gold medalist spun and loosed one for the ages on the field of Cessna Stadium. The disc took a chunk out of the ground less than a foot past Art’s. It took a little longer for the officials to measure, and then it was announced, “227-11, a new personal best for Al Oerter!” Afterwards, Al emphasized, “That’s what happens when you get a good night’s sleep.”


James Dunaway of The New York Times wrote, “Oerter’s throw gave him the third longest mark in American history, behind Mac Wilkins and Jay Silvester, and the fifth longest in the world.”


Al Oerter's lifetime best discus throw 227-11 Wichita, KS
Al Oerter's Lifetime Best (5/31/80) Wichita, KS

The newly formed TAC (The Athletics Congress) conducted their first national outdoor championships at Mt SAC in Walnut, CA (June 14th). Mac Wilkins (224-3) and John Powell (222-5) cemented their top two rankings in the U.S., finishing first and second, respectively. Al Oerter placed sixth with Art Swarts seventh.


Next up were the U.S. Trials. T&F’s The History of the U.S. Olympic Trials wrote, “The US boycott of the Moscow Olympics meant that the trials were far less meaningful than usual. The general feeling for the athletes and spectators was that this was just another track meet.”


Even so, at 5:30pm on Saturday, June 25th at Hayward Field in Eugene, a cold, bundled-up crowd of 14,356, awaited the final round of the Men’s Discus event. In the qualifying round on Friday, the top 5 distances were set by Wilkins, Powell, Oerter, Plucknett and Swarts.

Hayward Field, University of Oregon site of 1980 U.S. Track & Field Trials
Hayward Field, University of Oregon (2007)

Frank Litsky (New York Times) wrote, “Usually, discus competition attracts little attention. Here, largely because of Oerter, it held center stage.”


Al remembered going into the competition that evening: “Even though these were not the 1980 Trials that I had envisioned back in 1977, I approached them as a good track meet. The better athletes of the United States were there and were trying hard to become members of an Olympic Team, even though no team was going to be sent to the games. They would still be recognized as an Olympic Team member, however. I must admit that I entered that competition with less intensity then had it been for real.”


Sports Illustrated quoted Oerter: "I'm sure these are not the Olympic Trials, because I've been sleeping at night.”


In the first round, John Powell opened with a 223-1 throw to lead Mac Wilkins’ 220-11. Al Oerter started with 212-5, and in round two cemented his hold on third place with a 215-1 heave. After the third round, Wilkins was in the lead for good with 225-4 and Ken Stadel moved to fourth with 208-2, just ahead of Ben Plucknett’s 206-10.


Plucknett launched a 218-2 throw in the fourth round to displace Oerter from third to fourth. In the fifth round, Al was only able to respond with a 207-0. He now awaited his last attempt in the sixth-round to make one more throw.


Al took his time stepping into the ring for his final attempt. He noticed that there were four more throwers that would come after him. He flipped the discus from right hand to left hand and back again. He stepped closer to the back of the circle and began his spin. He twirled and released with a familiar grunt. The discus fell short of Plucknett’s mark. Frank Litsky reported, ”The Al Oerter fairy tale ended tonight.” Or did it?


Al Oerter at 1980 U.S. Trials, Men's Discus Finals, 06/25/80
Al Oerter, 1980 U.S. Trials, Discus Finals (06/25/80)

“That’s it for Al Oerter,” the p.a. announcer concluded. At first, there was just a general murmur of conversation by a portion of the crowd. Then, a spattering of applause began which soon grew louder, like an orchestra tuning up before a concert. Those in the stands began to rise. A few at first, then groups all around the stadium, until seemingly everyone was on their feet clapping. It was loud and meaningful.


Al remembered, “I didn't know what to do. I was in the middle of the field and the stands were full and people kept applauding. When you receive applause for a minute, that seems like a long time, but this was going on well beyond that.


"In the midst of all this, I started applauding back because I realized, perhaps hoped, that what they were applauding about was the stance I had taken through that entire winter and spring of saying that ‘we are athletes second and citizens first.’ I felt part of that applause was in recognition for what I had stood for that year. Another part of it was that, ‘This is the end of the road for Al: he's forty-three and he'll never have another chance to compete in the Olympic Games.’


“One of my first reactions was that this was terrific, but the guy that was throwing right after me had to delay getting into the ring to throw and that took away from his effort. I felt bad about that. The whole competition was delayed.”


At Al’s memorial service in 2007, John Powell paid tribute to that moment: “Al, age 43, had just taken his last throw, finishing as the Olympic Team Alternate. The Eugene fans rose to their feet and gave him a 10-minute standing ovation. It was truly electric. For the ‘perception-impaired’ let's review how long ten minutes is. Get on your hands and knees, start doing push-ups, and by the time you quit you will still have 9 and a half minutes left... 10 minutes is a very long time. Plus, it’s hard to applaud any longer because your hands get sore!”


Powell added, “As I was applauding, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Pretend this is for you, John, because this is as close as you're ever going to get.’ That applause is as vivid a memory to me now as it was in 1980.”


John Powell & Al Oerter U.S. Discus friends and competitors
John Powell (L) & Al Oerter (R) Friends & Competitors

Al appreciated the moment the Eugene fans were giving him. However, it was a mixed emotion for him. He wanted to tell them, “Hey, it’s not over folks. I’m coming back into this thing. So, hold your applause and let me get back into this and show you what I'll be worth at age forty-seven in Los Angeles. If you think winding up fourth in this track meet on this day is pretty good, then there is a lot more to be shown in the future.”


“Mac Wilkins was the class of the discus world in 1980,” concluded T&F’s The History of the U.S. Olympic Trials. According to Track & Field News, in July, he would throw a personal and lifetime best of 232-10 at the World Games in Helsinki, and Mac also topped the U.S. Men’s list for 1980. Al Oerter’s 227-11 put him second on that same list. Art Swarts at 227-1 was next. John Powell (223-9) and Ben Plucknett (223-8) were fourth and fifth, respectively.


Wilkins (29), Powell (33), and Plucknett (26) were considered to be in their primes as Olympic athletes. Al Oerter, at 43, had proved that his prime was a fluid one and still evolving.


On July 28th, at the Games of the XXII Olympiad in Moscow, Viktor Rashchuplin, age 29, of the Soviet Union took the gold medal in the men’s discus with a throw of 218-7. Wolfgang Schmidt (26), placed fourth.


On that June evening in Eugene, Al Oerter appreciated the crowd’s warm salute of his devotion to the Olympic Games; the medals won; the legend gained; the considerable humanity exhibited that cost him a shot at a 5th medal. It had the trappings of a Viking funeral, where the revered warrior is sent adrift upon the floating pyre and soon set ablaze by arrows from the shore, on his way towards the setting sun.


But, for Al Oerter, there was still 1984 and beyond ahead of him. There was still a full life to live.


It was not his time to go. Not yet. Not yet.



© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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