The Born Ultimatum
Al Oerter was finally going home.
At the counter in the Moscow airport, he held out his passport and slid his bags forward towards the Aeroflot ticketing agent who nervously glanced at the Russian official that had accompanied the American from his hotel to this point.
The agent flipped the luggage onto a table, when two uniformed airline inspectors stepped up and one began to rifle through it.
“This isn’t good,” Al said to himself, even though it wasn’t unexpected.
Here, in the summer of 1958, the Cold War had even affected the world of international track and field. But how did it get to the point between the U.S and Russia that the 1956 Olympic discus gold medalist might now be ensnared in a web of concocted espionage?
Nineteen months earlier, upon his return to the University of Kansas after the Melbourne Games, Al continued to excel in his collegiate career. In June, Oerter had taken first place at the 1957 NCAA championships and followed that with his first AAU National title.
At the time, the AAU had come under severe criticism for the poor handling of meets and treatment of the participating athletes. A “Track & Field News” article titled “AAU Meet Fouled Up” reported, “The poorest national AAU meet in many years is now history. Badly staged with unfavorable physical conditions and unbelievably bad officiating.”
Even though Oerter won the AAU title, his best throw was not measured and he lost out on a new championship record. Tom Anderson, a USC half-miler, had accidentally kicked the marker out of the ground and the AAU officials did not replace it. Anderson told the press that Al’s toss was four feet better than the “winning one” measured.
Additionally, another T&F article stated, “Some deficiency in the (AAU) organization permits its national track and field championships to be conducted with shameful disregard for the spectators who finance the meet and with shocking injustices to the athletes.”
Placing second at the AAU meet in the discus was USC’s Rink Babka, who would prove to be Oerter’s biggest competitor over the next three years, and eventually his closest friend and Olympic teammate
In October of 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world with the launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, and, oxymoronically, super-heated the Cold War with the USA. Sputnik’s successful mission triggered the Space Race between the two countries. The impact was felt throughout many walks of life including, most notably, the first international track and field competition between the two nations.
At about the same time as the Sputnik launch, Al Oerter was the passenger in a horrific car crash, and nearly killed, while traveling with a University of Kansas friend on the way to his buddy’s home in Missouri. Al had gone through the windshield and the glass left a deep gash in his neck. See "A Preponderance of Angels"
While he had survived the accident, the continuation of his athletic career was in doubt. The rest of that fall, Al spent his time healing and trying to rehab for the spring track and field season.
Towards the end of the year, the AAU announced that it was indeed attempting to put together the first-ever men’s and women’s USA-USSR track and field meet in Moscow the following summer. The U.S. team would be selected from the best performers in the 1958 AAU national meet and compete against the Soviet National Team.
On June 13th-14th, at the 1958 NCAA Championships held at Edwards Stadium at Cal-Berkeley, Al competed in his final collegiate competition as a Kansas Jayhawk. Rink Babka would be wrapping up his USC career at the same time.
Oerter would continue to take courses at KU in the fall to make up for the academic semester lost at the ’56 Olympic Games in Melbourne.
At the NCAA’s, Oerter led early with a 186’-2” throw that would be his best.
On Babka’s next-to-last throw, he incredibly tied Oerter for the championship with the identical distance.
Later, Al posed, ”I wonder what the odds are against a tie in the discus?” He added, “It’s nice for both of us to end our college careers in a tie.”
A week later, the AAU National Championships were held at Memorial Stadium in Bakersfield, CA. In the discus, Rink Babka placed first with a personal best of 187’-10” and led second-place Oerter by more than 6 feet. Expecting a more heated competition between the two, Track & Field News reported, ”Much of the (discus) fireworks were provided by erratic throwers who imperiled the lives of officials near the finish line.”
Soon after, the selections were made for the U.S. men’s and women’s teams that would be the first ever to compete against the Soviet National Team in Moscow a month later. The top two finishers in each event were selected. Rink Babka and Al Oerter were chosen to represent the USA in the men’s discus competition.
Then, the AAU announced that the trip would be lengthened to include dual meets and travel to Poland (Warsaw), Czechoslovakia (Prague) and Greece (Athens).
Oerter was pretty stoked to compete against the Soviets, but was not planning on an extended trip to include three additional countries. He went to the AAU and informed them that he could only participate in the U.S.S.R. meet, as he had to be back home in New York by August 1st to start a new job.
Al had gotten married earlier in the year and he and his wife were expecting a baby in December. He needed to make some money.
At first, the AAU said, “No,” and demanded that Oerter partake in the entire month-long commitment required for the scheduled competitions.
Al was hell-bent on going up against the Russians, but his only leverage was to give the AAU an ultimatum to allow him to compete in Moscow only, or drop him from the team.
For the AAU, it probably would have been embarrassing if it had gotten out that the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the discus could not be accommodated around the impending birth of his first child. Besides, this trip was about the US – USSR first-ever, head-to-head competition, and the rest of the schedule paled in comparison.
The final decision came down as the AAU agreed that Oerter had to only compete against the Russians and did not have to go along on the rest of the trip.
The AAU arranged for all U.S. team members who would not be already competing in Europe to assemble at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point beginning July 13th. This would allow for five days of training and end with a simulated meet on July 19th.
On July 20th, the team boarded their flight out of Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York and arrived in Moscow by way of Helsinki one day later. The cold reception they expected upon landing was just the opposite.
The American team was greeted by about 200 Russians led by discus thrower Nina Ponomareva, even though it was well after midnight. Sports Illustrated reported that “the American team was greeted with flowers, not rocks;” and received “a cheerfully noisy demonstration.”
SI also noted that “The Americans were hustled through customs in world-record time for Russia, where the simplest things are difficult and the difficult, impossible.”
For five days, the US team practiced at the central stadium and, to their enjoyment, the Soviets piped in American jazz music through the loudspeaker system. Some of the athletes even jitter-bugged to the sounds.
The Russian athletes and coaches arrived from their national championships in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, and attended the USA practice sessions. They were very organized by events and closely observed the Americans in how they warmed up and the techniques they used for preparation. Some Soviet coaches had movie cameras to capture all of the activity.
This didn’t faze some veteran U.S. athletes like Parry O’Brien, the world record holder in the shot put. “They’ve got a dossier on me going back to 1952,” Parry proclaimed to SI’s Tex Maule. Still, other athletes invented never-used exercises and drills to lead the Russians astray.
As the week wore on, a good number of the 60 U.S. athletes came down with sore throats and respiratory infections. The trainers discovered that there were only five or six community glasses to drink from in the visitor’s dressing room “petri dish.” This resulted in curtailment of exercising and training in the two days before the meet by those affected.
Heading in to the historic competition, both sides had agreed that the men’s and women’s teams scoring would be kept separate. It was generally acknowledged that the American men would be favored over their Soviet counterparts, but not to the degree that the Soviet women would best the U.S. women.
Sunday, July 27th, was the first day of competition in the beautiful two-year-old Lenin Stadium that resembled the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. It was a clear, sunny day with a high of 70°F and the deep green field was perfectly manicured. A less than capacity crowd of 75,000 spectators seemed to exhibit a friendly attitude towards the American athletes.
Some of the good vibes originally exhibited by the host country started to evaporate during the afternoon session. Radio Moscow carried the first three events, but the Soviets failed to win any of them. The broadcast was abruptly halted and Radio Moscow dropped their coverage. The Moscow TV network did the same.
The agreement to keep men’s and women’s meets scoring separate was also abandoned. When the scores were flashed on the giant screens at each end of the stadium, they were a composite of the two divisions.
The second day was rainy and gloomy, with only a crowd of 30,000 in attendance. Despite the weather, the most memorable performance of the meet was Rafer Johnson’s shattering of the decathlon world record. He bested his Russian counterpart, Vasiliy Kuznyetsov by more than 400 points.
The American throwers dominated their events, and the men’s discus followed suit. Rink Babka’s 187’- 0” was enough to pass Al Oerter’s 184’-111/4",with both men getting beyond 180’ for their entire series. The best USSR throw was over 13 feet less.
In the end, the U.S. Men took a 126-109 victory while the U.S.S.R. Women outscored the USA 63–44. The Russians claimed the overall title with a composite score of 172 – 170.
Al Oerter headed back to the hotel to pack for his return trip to the U.S. scheduled for the following day. He went to the AAU suite to pick up his plane ticket.
“What do you mean your ticket back home?” he was asked. “You’re going with us to Warsaw!”
Al found out that the tour was going to extend even beyond the original time planned. The new schedule was now meets in Warsaw, Budapest, and Athens.
“No,” Al countered. “We had an agreement that I would be able to get home after the Soviet meet and I want my ticket. I have to get home!”
The argument went on for about half an hour to no avail. Al appealed to Dan Ferris, AAU honorary secretary, who ruled that anyone leaving earlier than the conclusion of the tour would have to provide their own transportation back to the U.S.
Early the next morning, July 29th, the U.S. team left Moscow on their flight to Warsaw, without Oerter. He was angry that the AAU had left him stranded and broke, back in the USSR!
The only positive note was that Al still had his passport and the papers necessary to be in Moscow.
Oerter was visited by a Soviet athletic official who informed him that they had heard about his predicament and wanted to help. The official offered to pay for a flight back to the USA on Aeroflot in 2 to 3 days.
He added that Al could stay in the hotel and they would pick up that expense and meals as well. Initially, Al was highly appreciative and thought that the Soviet officials had taken pity on him.
Oerter was then introduced to a woman in her early twenties who was assigned to him as an interpreter during his remaining days in Moscow.
Al learned that, as a child, she had once been in a state-run ballet training program, but was later transferred out to a gymnastics track based upon some structural anomaly that would negatively impact her pursuit as a prima ballerina.
Al was notified that the arrangements had been made for his Aeroflot flight departing on Thursday, August 1st. The day before departure, his interpreter visited briefly to say goodbye while requesting a favor.
She held out two envelopes and asked Al if he would mail the letters when he returned to America. She explained that U.S. stamps were hard to come by and that she didn’t want to use Soviet stamps. Al took the letters and agreed to mail them once he got home. They said their goodbyes and Oerter went up to his room to pack.
At the Moscow Airport the next morning, as the gate agent finished the inspection of Al’s bags, he looked towards the Russian official standing next to the American and seemed to shrug his shoulders.
Two more security personnel arrived and one said something in Russian to the official. Oerter was then whisked away to a nearby room where his bags were dumped over, emptying the contents.
With his belongings in a pile next to the bags, Al watched as another security agent went through the lining of his luggage and, again, came up empty.
Al knew that they were looking for those letters.
He was convinced that there was something incriminating in them that would prove he was a spy, or some other operative working covertly.
Perhaps there was a picture of some building or military base that was controversial, or something descriptive that could be construed as revealing state secrets.
The set-up had failed.
After some more whispering among the Russians gathered in the cramped office, the baggage inspectors began to put Oerter’s luggage back together. They handed Al his passport and directed him towards his flight, still accompanied by security personnel.
Al’s Immunization and Naturalization Service record indicates that he flew from Moscow to Stockholm, Sweden, on Aeroflot, and then to the U.S. on SAS (Scandinavian Airline Systems) flight SK911. He arrived at Idlewild Airport on Friday, August 2nd. He was relieved to be home.
He reported to his interim job on the following Monday. He was happy to be able to support his growing family and child-to-be.
Oerter realized that he had come very close to becoming a pawn in the Cold War. As soon as he was abandoned in Moscow, he knew he could be vulnerable to some trumped-up charge by the Russians.
He later recollected, ”There was something that that the Soviets were going to try to extract from me for them paying my way back to the United States.”
After receiving the letters from that Russian gymnast, Al went up to his hotel room and immediately burned them in a small waste basket.
Years later, Al wondered that perhaps the AAU made some arrangement with the Soviets to fly him back home. If that was the case, it was unknown to the Olympic champion.
The Russian experience focused Al on standing up for the needs of U.S. athletes. He remembered, ”That trip was typical of how the AAU and the athletes responded to one another during those years. The AAU considered the competitions to be of supreme importance and to hell with the needs of the individual athlete and any agreements that were made prior to that kind of trip.
“That refusal on the part of the AAU to give me a ticket back to New York cemented the feelings I had about them for a long period of time.”
Three years later, Al Oerter and Rink Babka were two of the nine athletes who reluctantly refused to attend the 1961 head-to-head meet with Russia in Moscow as part of a one-month tour. Their reasoning was similar to 1958: they could hardly afford to spend a week away from their jobs while AAU officials enjoyed the pleasures of junkets abroad.
Oerter was now focused on looking ahead to the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In 1959, he would start a full-time job with the Grumman Corporation on Long Island, a career that would last twenty years. Despite the difficulty, Al would thrive in balancing family life, a career and the extraordinary demands of training for another Olympiad.
However, those thoughts had to wait for more pressing and important matters.
“Congratulations on your baby daughter!” the doctor announced to Al in the hospital waiting room. It was a Sunday, December 14th, 1958, four months since the Russian episode. She was given the name, Crystiana.
© 2023 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved