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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

Rarefied Air - Part 2

Missed Part 1? Find it here.


After hours of delay, the final round of the Men's Discus event is nigh. Victory goes to the one who has trained to adapt to the elements and master them to his advantage.

Al Oerter was still pacing in the small, crowded room under the stadium when word came that the weather delay had been lifted and the final round was to begin after another warm-up session. Most of the other finalists were seated on benches or stretched out on the floor, having cooled down considerably after the decision to delay was made an hour earlier. Oerter was the last in line as the throwers walked out onto the stadium floor. They made a scramble up to the rack where the discs were stored in order to pick out an implement they were familiar with. All except Oerter, who had seen this same behavior at each one of the Games. He did not care, always making his disc selection from what was left. He started cranking out warm-up throws of 202 feet, 203, and got up to 206.

As he had practiced earlier, Oerter altered his regular technique to compensate for the slippery surface. As a right-handed thrower, instead of keeping both feet on the back part of the ring at the start of the throw, he moved his left foot eight or ten inches towards the center of the ring. Normally, he would push off his left foot, but with the wet surface he simply turned on it with no danger of falling or encountering a strange throwing position that could lead to severe injury. With the extra time given, he threw more often in this second session then he had done in the first, and the most in any competition of his life.

The finals commenced. Lothar Milde and Hartmut Losch, two East Germans, led after two rounds. Oerter was third after round one and fouled in round two. Prior to the third round, Oerter noticed that Jay Silvester was lying on the wet ground in a puddle with his legs elevated on a chair. Silvester was trying to get some energy back in his legs, Oerter thought. He said to himself, "But it's not raining anymore, and he's lying in a puddle!" Al felt this would have to cool Jay down or take the stoke out of him, if there was ever going to be any going into that day.

Al Oerter, breaking Olympic Discus record, 1968
Al Oerter, breaking Olympic Discus record, 1968

Oerter entered the ring for his third throw and he thought “this is it.” He said to himself, “You are going to turn with greater force now than you ever have in your life.” He knew he could be stable in the ring. He knew he could hold the slippery disc. Time slowed down for him as he felt good in the initial turn. In the blink of an eye he reached the throwing position and hammered the discus the hardest he ever had! 290 pounds of synchronized, flawless, fluid, explosive human torque. He saw the disc sail away against the backdrop of the stadium flags hanging straight down and still. There was no wind. The disc carved a deep divot in the ground, well past any other throw. 212 feet, 6 inches. A new Olympic record.

This did not assure Oerter of the gold medal, but his focus became getting beyond Silvester’s best throw in the prior day’s qualifying round. He fulfilled that vision, his third-round effort won the Gold, and with his last two throws he had the first, second and third best of the day. A sweep; a shut out; hitting for the cycle if you were to compare it to achievements in other sports.

Lothar Milde never got past his own second-round distance, winning the Silver Medal. He would later say that even though he was leading the competition, he felt Oerter’s looming presence. Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia, a prior world record holder, had trouble with the wet ring, the wet disc, and was unable to warm up properly. He took the Bronze. In 1968, Jay Sylvester won 20 of 22 meets, set two world records and won the U.S. Olympic trials. Yet, in this Olympic competition, he finished fifth, having fouled on three of his last four throws.

As Al Oerter stood on the medal platform, he bent low to have the Gold Medal placed over his head, hang around his neck and rest upon his chest. He was tired, more tired at the conclusion of a competition than he had ever been in his life. After winning gold in ’56, he predicted that he would win four more gold medals. Now, as he stared out at his two young daughters in the crowd, he made the immediate decision that this would be his last Olympics and he would retire from competition. He wanted to spend more time with his family and be there as his girls grew into adolescence.

Two days after the competition, the East Germans sent a letter to Oerter asking if he would allow them to conduct a psychological study and profile to better understand what makes him tick and perform at such a high level. He said yes. They concluded that the only differentiating factor that was the basis for Oerter’s success was his thorough enjoyment of the Olympic experience.

When Al Oerter achieved his fourth gold medal in the thin air of Mexico City, he became the first athlete to do so in four consecutive Olympic Games. Each time, he defeated the reigning world record holder and set a new Olympic record.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks defined the four elements of matter as Earth, Water, Fire and Air, and Al Oerter took on all of the elements at the '68 games. Oerter adapted to the slick surface of the Earth beneath him, he embraced the torrential rain, he continuously stoked the fire burning inside him through delay after delay, and he chose to not rely on any oncoming breeze, rather conquering the thin atmosphere that was given to him. In essence, he mastered the elements and entered the rarefied air of the Olympic ideal. But the story does not end there. It may have only been the beginning. For he would return one day to begin the climb Back to Olympus.

© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


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