Rarefied Air - Part 1
It's 1968, and Al Oerter attempts to win a never-before-achieved 4th consecutive Olympic Gold Medal in the rain, lightning, thunder and thin air of Mexico City.
The torrential rain cascaded down on Estadio Olímpico Universitario, the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. The darkened sky had taken a few minutes to fill with black clouds and rolling thunderheads. A lone discus thrower stepped into the throwing ring again, as he had been doing in concert with the distant thunder and flashes of lightning.
He was without the makeshift “horse collar” from the qualifying round worn to limit pain and motion from a pinched nerve in the neck, and he refused to acknowledge the sharp sting in his right thigh due to a pulled adductor muscle. His powerful breaths and grunting, like that of a foraging grizzly bear, could be heard across the stadium field, most certainly by the other competitors and Mexican officials seeking shelter under makeshift canopies and tents. They were all squeezed together like fledglings watching their parent hunt for food, desperately trying to stay under cover.
Looking ahead to when the final round commenced, the competitors had to make sure that their footwear and the throwing ring were completely dry. Slipping on a wet surface in the middle of a throw could lead to significant injury. They had trained for four years, not expecting it to rain in the high altitude of Mexico City. Most had thought it would be windy, thin air; an oncoming breeze being beneficial to lifting the discus and aiding in the distance of the throw. Those were the conditions they had trained for and succeeded with. Despite the rain, the air remained still; stagnant.
Al Oerter’s feet splashed into the half-inch deep puddle formed by the lip around the circle. He was stoked; felt very comfortable. He had thrown about ten times during this warm-up, the lone competitor to do so, and found that he could hold the discus, could spin easily and did not want the flaming intensity of his earlier practice throws to dissipate. One of the East German throwers turned to his teammate and remarked, “Look at his tenacity; his technique. No one has ever competed like this. He is a god, that Oerter.”
The day before, Jay Silvester, America’s top thrower and world record holder at over 224 feet, set a new Olympic best in the qualifying round, and the officials had marked that distance for the finals. The crowd in the filled stadium started responding with building chatter and applause as Oerter launched the discus each time well beyond Silvester’s record. Oerter looked over and saw famed U.S. Olympic Track and Field coach Payton Jordan under one of the stands. He had been with Al since Tokyo in 1964, and was smiling broadly at the lone athlete making throw after throw in the rain.
The tent-covered competitors stood wide-eyed and awestruck. Most had said that Oerter was too old to win a fourth consecutive gold medal. The press agreed, as he had entered few competitions in the years leading up to the Games. He barely made the U.S. Team, placing a distant third in the trials. Silvester was especially critical, chiding Oerter for not going out to the West Coast and competing in the years between Games. He said that Oerter had an obligation to the sport and to draw spectators to these competitions. Al was not buying any of it.
After all, Al had to work to support his family as a true amateur athlete. He continued as a computer engineer and systems designer at Grumman Corporation on Long Island. While working full-time, his unalterable focus was to execute his 1,460 day/4-year preparation between Games to be at his peak in Mexico City, both physically and mentally. He loved the Olympic Games and the opportunity to attack barriers and be at his absolute best.
He phrased it as competing “with,” not “against,” his fellow throwers. In the end, it was him versus his own history, knowing that he left no stone unturned in his preparation. This was the mind of an engineer at work; planning for every contingency and considering every variable. All this wrapped into one of the greatest pure athletes to ever walk the Earth: speed, power, precision, technique and intelligent control.
He knew that as he aged, he had to get stronger if he were to break through to new distances. In 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, Oerter weighed 255 pounds. By Mexico City, he was close to 290. He was big and he was strong. He continued a very precise, organized weight training and lifting regimen that originated in his garage-built gym in 1956 while readying for the Melbourne Games. He spent his lunch breaks from Grumman at a gym across the street where he did very serious lifting; heavy iron as he called it, with seasoned weightlifters.
He had competed in Mexico City the year before, simulated training on wet surfaces, and prepared for the lack of wind advantage and poor weather conditions. The wood and metal rimmed disk was difficult to hang onto when wet, so he had spent hours practicing with a water-soaked implement.
Five more practice throws by Oerter and Silvester uncovered himself and got out from under one of the canopies, as did a couple of the other throwers. They felt that they had to do something in terms of a warm-up in case the officials did not cancel the competition or call for a delay. They could see that Oerter was on fire and they needed time to counteract that dominance being displayed by starting and accelerating their warm-ups.
Those that remained under cover were betting that the competition would be delayed. The practice throws were tentative, with experienced throwers hopping around gingerly in a slick half inch of water. Most had a hard time hanging on to the discus. They were all realizing that Oerter was getting a mental edge. He was focused only on himself and not what everyone else was trying to do. He never tried to play the mind games that others did. He didn’t need to and felt that it only diminished one’s performance.
Silvester had already tried to psych out Oerter just before the finals were to begin. When the competitors entered the stadium after the warm-up on the nearby fields, Oerter kept pacing, did not want to cool down, and continued to focus on building intensity as the throwers assembled.
Silvester leaned in to Oerter and pulled out a telegram that was sent to him by his entire hometown of Tremonton, Utah. “All 700 people of my town signed this to wish me well in the Games,” boasted Silvester, as he waved the paper at Al. With the competition about to begin, Oerter did not want to hear that kind of stuff; mental games. He was ready to go out and compete and see where the results fell after the competition.
“It must not be much of a town, with only 700 people,” Oerter countered. “I was born in New York City. There’s 700 people in one building!” Silvester was crushed as he rolled up the telegram and put it back in his bag. One of the U.S. coaches, overhearing the exchange, smiled and rolled his eyes, as if to say, “Oerter, you just nailed him.”
The Czechs, East Germans and Soviets, particularly, held Oerter in high respect and were very complimentary about his accomplishments, execution and training. They were so in wonderment about what was going on inside his head that the East German throwers mentioned “feeling Oerter’s presence” before stepping into the ring. For these countries that put such a keen emphasis on sport as a barometer of the vigor of their homeland, their respect meant a great deal to Al.
The day before in the preliminary round, Oerter had worn the horse collar to stop his head from snapping back, as he had for several months. At the conclusion of the round, he walked out of the stadium with some of the other throwers, including the East Germans. One of them pulled Al aside and in low tones said that he heard that if he wore the collar in the finals, and succeeded, that there would be a protest on behalf of the East German Olympic Committee. The reasoning was that the collar was not a part of the official American Olympic uniform. While some may have looked at this as a competitor trying to gain an edge, Al took it as a friend providing him with a respectful warning.
Discus throwers tend to be supportive of one another because they all must endure common injuries and difficulties in competition and training. On another level, it demonstrated the great respect the East Germans had for Oerter, knowing that a protest was the only way to topple him. And yet, he was advised ahead of time. Oerter did not wear the collar in the final round.
With the rain heavier and lightning striking ever closer, the Mexican officials finally called for a delay in the competition. The throwers were ushered into a small room under the stadium, just barely enough to hold them. Many of the European athletes had entourages of trainers, psychologists and team doctors working on them. Some were being given rubdowns and a few sat with towels over their heads while their psychologists talked to them trying to get their heads back into the competition.
While others were trying to relax, Oerter was the lone thrower who never sat down. He kept pacing back and forth, stepping over and around the others, keeping the fire stoked. He was eager to get back into the stadium. For forty-five minutes he paced, then the storm passed through and the finals competition in the discus was given a green light.
What happened next? Read Part 2.
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