In Search of The Last Throw
It’s out there, somewhere. Maybe we’ve already found it, but there are still so many questions to be answered. I need your help, and those of your friends and colleagues, who may have an inkling as to what happened to his “Last Throw.”
Al Oerter believed that he and his sport, the discus throw, were one with the past and the future. He was awed by the antiquity of it all. He had studied how the technique had been handed down over thousands of years, from one athlete to another. And now, several months after winning his fourth gold medal, it was his turn to do the same. Let me set the stage for you.
After the medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Games, an exhausted Al Oerter was being interviewed by ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, who pointed out Al’s two daughters in the crowd, ages 6 and 8 years old. Al waved to them and, in that instant, realized there would be no such thing as going for a 5th Olympic Games. It was time for him to focus on being with his family; to devote his time to raising his girls and not miss one day of their growth.
In 1969, Al had been invited to a few track and field relays on the west coast. As a 4-time gold medal winner, he was told that he would be presented with a plaque, cup or other memorabilia to celebrate his Olympic achievements. Even though he was in retirement, hadn’t trained in months, or even lifted weights to increase capability, he could still throw past 190 feet. He accepted an invitation to go out to one meet in Los Angeles.
At that competition, Al was throwing over 190 feet, which he thought was pretty good for not having really trained for it. Just before his sixth turn in the circle, he decided that “This is going to have to be the final throw of my life.” Retirement was real. His last throw was like the others, and put him in fifth or sixth place.
Al wrote, “After the competition was over, I went up to one of my fellow competitors and presented my discus to him. I think he thought I was crazy and received it with a quizzical look on his face.” It was a wooden Gill model, popular among throwers in the late 1960’s.
Al was not trying to give away a free discus. Rather, it was his own symbolic gesture, with special meaning to himself, of giving up the event and passing on the torch to the next generation of discus throwers. He was maintaining the discus continuum going back to the ancient Greeks. Al said, “So, I gave him the discus and left. He thanked me, but looked at me and looked at the discus with a question of, ‘What is this guy doing?’”
Al returned to his family, his Long Island home, and appeared in a couple of meets after that, when, as he said, “It was for a good cause. Anything to help out.”
Most followers of track and field and the Olympic Games know that Al Oerter returned to the sport of discus in 1976, while preparing a comeback for the 1980 Games in Moscow. He would stay competitive through the late 1980’s. So, do we render discussion on “the last throw,” moot? Hardly.
Recently, I came across a short piece Al had written entitled “The Last Throw.” “In 1997, that discus (from 1969) came back,” Al wrote. “I was at the United States Olympic Committee Training Center in Colorado Springs and one of the folks who works at the center asked me if I would sign a discus. I said, ‘Sure!’
“So, she brings out this discus, which was an old, worn, wooden Gill model. I recognized it as possibly the one I had thrown all of those years before. Someone had lacquered it to preserve it. It had the same markings that I remembered being put on it by the various officials who had weighed and measured it to make sure it was legal to throw in competition.
“Sure enough, it was the same discus. And now, after all of those years, it was in my hands again. It was a very nostalgic thing and I signed it and dated it with all the Olympic years. It was a bit of my past corning back, represented by the discus I had passed on to someone else. It was a unique moment.”
I now had many questions that needed answers. Where was this “Last Throw” discus, now? Who was the original recipient and how did it make its way to the USOC Training Center?
It was time to put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and quote Arthur Conan Doyle, “The game is afoot.”
Of course, my first conversation was with Cathy Oerter. She did not recall Al ever mentioning his 1969 gesture of passing along the event in perpetuity. After all, Cathy did not meet Al until the late 1970’s, which was followed by their wedding in 1983. She thought that Al’s 1968 Olympic teammate and fellow gold medalist, Bill Toomey, may have been at that 1969 meet and could provide some clues.
Cathy next suggested that I reach out to Teri Hedgpeth and Amanda McGrory, the former and current Archives and Collections Curators at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, respectively. Teri, in that position for 8 years, brought standardization and excellent recordkeeping to the donation process. Amanda, in addition to taking over from Teri last year, is a world-class and Team USA Track & Field athlete who is a 3-time Paralympian and 7-time medalist.
This story may have ended right here, were it not for Teri Hedgpeth. Before Teri arrived in 2012, the Olympic archives had sat idle for years, stored in boxes in the basement of the shooting building at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center(CSOTC).
As a professionally trained Certified Archivist, Teri came to the USOC with vast experience, including the National Archives and the U.S. Naval Historical Center. Soon after her arrival, Gordon Crawford, USO&P Foundation Board Chair, and curator of one of the largest known collections of Olympic memorabilia, incredibly pledged the funds to build a state-of-the-art archive to preserve and display the Olympic artifacts and archives. Two years later, with $1.5 million and thousands of hours of Teri’s passionate labor, the archives moved from the CSOTC to a new facility at the USOC headquarters.
In June of 2019, the USOC became the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, with a transcendently designed new USO&P Museum, which just opened last summer under Covid-19 restrictions.
With Teri’s astute memory of events and Amanda’s ability to search cataloging, accession records and confirm certain details through the data management system, some facts came to light. Al signed six blonde discuses with Olympic years at the first Olympic Memorabilia and Coin Show in 1998. Two of those were found in the collection after it was transferred over from the old library at the CSOTC. They are lacquered, appear to never have been used, but do not have the Gill branding.
Then, Amanda identified a discus that was blue on one side and plain wood on the other, that was heavily worn. It was signed on the blue side by Al with his four Olympic years on the other. It did not appear to be lacquered nor did it have the Gill brand on it. This was the implement that was used for the 1968 Olympics 50th reunion display, just as Bill Toomey and Teri Hedgpeth had thought. It is currently on loan to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum.
In the photo sent by Amanda, I noticed on the blue side of the discus the word “HOLLOWOOD” on the top portion, and “STAR” on the lower, and found that the blue Hollowood Star model was a Gill product, and popular in the late 1960’s. It appears Al wrote “Used for Training + Competition.” There is also an official’s circular stamp clearly visible as “Checkers-OK-Official.” These were key identification marks that Al mentioned.
The blue Gill discus was pretty beat up and not lacquered. Perhaps, I thought, Al was presented with this discus at that memorabilia show in 1998; when he signed the six clean, blonde ones. Could he have simply confused the “lacquered” discs with the Gill Hollowood Star? Maybe.
Also, the wood side was signed "Al Oerter" at the top with "Olympic Gold 1956-60-64-68" at the bottom, just as Al had said. The marking pen used on the wood side was different from the blue side. Another theory could be he signed the wood side at that memorabilia show and then added the writing on the blue side later (i.e. after returning home). Amanda McGrory wrote that while neither example perfectly matches what we’re looking for, “it seems possible that the blue discus may be the closest.”
One other surprise, to me at least, was that the cataloging records confirmed what Teri Hedgpeth had remembered, that Cathy Oerter had donated two blonde and one blue discus to the Crawford Family U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Archives in 2014 or 2015. Now, my head was spinning.
Sherlock Holmes stated, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Cathy said that the blue discus had been displayed in their home until she donated it to Teri at the archives at the USO&PC, as the records confirm. Could this have been the “Last Throw” discus that Al mentioned? At first, after reading his recollection, I assumed he had left it with the USOC in 1997 or 98. However, he never stated that. Due to its personal nostalgic value, it seems he brought it home, along with the two lacquered blondes.
There are still gaps in our detective work that remain, and this is where we need your help. Who was it that Al Oerter handed off his last throw discus to? What meet was it at in Los Angeles? Did the discus change hands from 1969 to the time it was brought to the USOC (before 1997), and who was the donor? Teri Hedgpeth surmises that, “Originally, it was most likely dropped off to the library casually, as many items were for the years prior to my arrival and standardization of the donation process."
In the meantime, we’ll treat the blue Hollowood Star with the reverence it deserves and honor its current resting place, on loan, at the new USO&P Museum in Colorado Springs. This is fitting since the museum was designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with an eye toward creating a building in motion. It is a 60,000-square-foot interactive museum sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains, that is dedicated to telling the stories of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. It is an accessibility marvel, and, when viewing it from overhead, resembles a discus thrower in mid-throw.
Installed in the entryway of the new museum is a larger-than-life bronze sculpture by Peter Schifrin titled “Olympus Within.” Josh Barr, of the USO&PM, wrote: “Schifrin chose Al Oerter as the inspiration for the mold. Oerter also was an artist and founded the 'Art of the Olympians.' As part of that group, Schifrin got to know Oerter’s widow, Cathy; she gave Schifrin a discus that had been signed by her husband. Schifrin said it is the only piece of sports memorabilia that he has.”
(Don’t worry, it’s a blonde discus, not a blue Gill Hollow Star.)
“That power and grace connects back to ancient history and the discus is a modern sport as well, so it connects to today,” Schifrin said.
Even though Al Oerter went on to hurl the discus thousands of more times after 1969, he may have been right; that this was his last throw. Until we know for sure, it’s still out there spinning and soaring in the lofty meadows of the ether. Whether that be on someone’s bookshelf, in an eBay listing, buried under some lonely field or within the eclectic confines of the USO&P Museum, that throw was everlasting.
As Sherlock Holmes concluded, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved