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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

With the upcoming 2020 Academy Awards ceremony, it is time to look back to when Hollywood took away Al Oerter’s gold medal

Susan Anton, "Golden Girl" Movie Poster, 1979
Susan Anton, "Golden Girl" Movie Poster, 1979

In 1977, Avco Embassy Pictures was readying production on their newest film, "GOLDENGIRL," based upon the science fiction novel by Peter Lear (nee Peter Lovesy). Susan Anton, who was known as “The Muriel Cigar Girl,” from TV commercials, was to star as Goldine, the Golden Girl.The movie’s tagline read, “A neo-Nazi doctor tries to make a superwoman of his daughter who has been specially fed, exercised and conditioned since she was a child in preparation of the 1980 Olympics.” The producers were planning a June, 1979 U.S. release in theaters, while NBC scheduled a 184-minute, two-part miniseries version to air during their coverage of the 1980 Olympics.

Al Oerter received a phone call from Avco Embassy asking him to loan them a medal. Now, since he had a good collection of medals, he asked what they wanted it for, and they said they were making a film by the title of “GOLDENGIRL” starring Susan Anton. In the film, “Goldine” wins three gold medals as a sprinter and they wanted one of Al’s gold medals so they could make duplicate prop copies of it, for authenticity. Al remembered, “So I loaned my 1968 Mexico Games Olympic gold medal to them. Then, they went radio silent. For the next year, I never checked on that medal to see where it was or when they would be done with it.”

About a year and a half later, Oerter was competing in the national championships in Los Angeles, still having not heard a word from Avco Embassy. “I decided to contact those folks to get my medal back.” On the first call, they put him on hold and then he was transferred several times. One of the people said there had been a problem with his gold medal and referred him up the chain of command. Finally, he spoke to someone with accountability who said that there had been a mix-up with the silversmith who was tasked to make copies of the medal for the film studio. The silversmith thought that the original medal was a cheap prop sent over to make the duplicates from.

“I found out later that in making the duplicates, they put my gold medal in an acid bath and it dissolved. Melted. Destroyed,” recounted Al. The studio head was frantic and said they would like to come over and talk to Al and that they were truly sorry for the mistake. They offered to contact the Olympic Committee, or whoever else they needed to, and obtain a replacement medal. While Al felt that was fine, he knew it would not be an easy task. The number of medals the IOC strikes is very close to the number of all medals awarded in all sports. Basically, he knew that option would be a dead end.

After the call, Al went back to the dining room at the training center and sat down with several of the weight throwers. He opined,” If you want to get an honest opinion about almost anything in life you talk to a weight thrower. They are athletes without big egos, very straightforward and generally they are people who have nothing to prove in life. They are large and strong and they have been put upon by smaller people all of their lives so there is nothing they have to prove, nothing that they have to be other than what they are.”

Oerter asked the group of athletes what they would do if one of their gold medals was lost in this manner. Would they sue the motion picture company? Would they just try to get a duplicate of the medal back? He wanted to know their opinions. The first response was,” Do you know how long you worked to get that medal, and they destroyed it? I’d sue their butts for every penny you can get. I'd sue them for 10 million dollars!” He went around the table and someone else said,” All you should do is get a replacement back, because the medal is very little by itself. It just represents what you were able to accomplish in the Olympic Games.”

Al felt that the latter opinion was the right sentiment about what a gold medal really meant. He never considered medals as badges of honor. They represented a period of time in his life where one puts days together to compete in the Games successfully and, almost as an afterthought, you get a medal. It was not the medal ceremony that meant that much, although he did find that an enjoyable thing to go through. It is what it represented…being able to accomplish one of the more elusive goals on Earth. Maybe the value of the medal, if he were to resell it, would be more substantial than just getting a replacement, but he hoped that we never reach that point in the United States where athletes who have won gold medals start selling them on the memorabilia market.

Oerter went back to Avco Embassy and instructed them to just get a replacement medal and they would be square. Avco reached out to the IOC and learned there were no extra medals to replace the one that was destroyed and that there were no extras around that they could buy.

Almost a year and a half later, a duplicate 1968 Olympic Gold Medal was forged. Avco had arranged to borrow 1968’s Olympic Decathlon champion Bill Toomey’s gold medal from which to make a copy. Toomey graciously loaned them the medal and Al surmised that it came with some heavy insurance and assurance that they would not destroy Bill’s medal too. Al was invited to Los Angeles where the head of the studio and executives presented the replacement medal. Attached was a small one-inch square tag indicating the event, which was the only surviving piece from his original medal. He learned later that Toomey’s medal had also been used to make a replacement for Muhmmad Ali, who was a 1960 Gold Medalist.

Al thought that there was probably more gold in the replacement medal than the one destroyed. More importantly, it has more of a story to it now. After all, it took Avco Embassy almost four years to get the medal back to its owner, the same amount of time Al Oerter would train between Olympic Games. It simply is just one more interesting thing that goes along with his Olympic life journey.

“GOLDENGIRL” was a box office flop. NBC’s plans for television were disrupted by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. They finally aired a 117-minute version in January, 1981 to low ratings. However, Susan Anton received a Golden Globe nomination for “New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture–Female.”

Al Oerter's Reforged Gold Medal with Green Ribbon
Al Oerter's Reforged Gold Medal with Green Ribbon

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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