• Andrew Pettit

The Impossible (Pt 2): The Best in the World

Missed Part 1? Find it here


Al Oerter remembers when L. Jay Silvester from Utah showed up at a meet one day in the blazing heat of Bakersfield, California. The top of his head was shaved to about a quarter of an inch and his long sideburns were slicked back into a ducktail, Al thought he looked like a throwback to the guys he knew from his New York high school days.


“But this guy could throw,” Al said, ”and he told you he could throw and, in no-uncertain terms, that your days were over; that this was now the L. Jay Silvester era!” Silvester backed up his words by winning a lot of competitions. Oerter observed that Jay had modified and improved upon the traditional way of throwing.


Silvester had placed fourth in the 1960 U.S. Trials, and then took center stage with two world records set within nine days of each other in August, 1961. He now held the new record of 199’-2½”, just 9½ inches short of the magical 200-foot barrier.

Olympian Jay Silvester discus thrower Utah State
Jay Silvester, Utah State '59

By spring,1962, as Oerter threw more comfortably with the “neck brace,” he still kept a low profile. It was reported that he had lost interest in competition. Actually, after recovering from his neck injury, the “bear” had been roused from his den by Silvester’s world record performances and an unofficial 210-foot throw that was disallowed due to the downward sloping deficiency of the discus range.


In late April, Al arrived on the west coast for about 3 to 4 weeks of competitions. His first appearance was at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, CA. He showed up wearing a light ski jacket to keep the heat contained close to his body, particularly around the neck. With the towel and belt collar added to his ensemble, the other athletes and officials thought that this was one of the strangest throwing uniforms they had ever seen.


Al Oerter in ski jacket to protect neck injury, 1962
Al Oerter's new throwing attire helped to keep heat close to neck injury

At Mt. SAC, the 6’- 4” Oerter weighed 250 lbs.,15 pounds more than what he was in Rome and a whole lot stronger. He made it clear that he was aiming to become a triple-Olympic-winner in Tokyo.


Jay Silvester threw 195’-7” at Mt. SAC, which was good enough to win nearly anytime, anywhere; but not that day. Oerter launched the third best discus throw ever of 198’- 6”, behind Silvester’s two ‘61 world record heaves. Yet, he was disappointed not to have surpassed the elusive 200’-line.


Three weeks later, it was on to the Los Angeles Coliseum Relays, which was shaping up to be the premier track and field competition of the season. It was late on the evening before the event when Al tried to check into the Sheraton-West Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, where the athletes were staying. He was told that the hotel was completely sold out. Passing through the lobby was a young Colorado grad whose event was the 400-intermediate. He overheard Al’s predicament and introduced himself at the same time.


“Al, I have this room with an extra rollaway bed and you are welcomed to share it,” the younger athlete said. A grateful Oerter took him up on it and got a good night’s sleep. Al’s host was future Olympic decathlon champion, Bill Toomey.


It was a cool and somewhat still night at the Coliseum Relays, May 18th,1962. A lineup of discus royalty featured Rink Babka, who took silver in 1960, Jay Silvester, Al Oerter, Dave Weill, the 6’-7”, 265lb., two-time NCAA champ from Stanford, and Parry O’Brien, 3-time Olympic medalist in the shot put. Babka and Oerter had also “unofficially” surpassed 200-feet in competition, but were disallowed due to the downward sloping throwing sectors they competed on.


On a slippery surface, Oerter launched his fourth throw just past the chalk line to exceed 200 feet. It was measured at 200’-5½” and a new world record, his first.


Babka's 193’-9” edged Silvester for second by 5 inches, but few in the crowd noticed.


Oerter’s throw was witnessed by three former record holders: Sylvester, who instantly gained that status, Babka and Fortune Gordien, who was the discus official that evening.


Al Oerter breaks the 200 foot barrier and sets his first world record May 18, 1962
Al Oerter breaks the 200-foot barrier (5/18/62)

Al Oerter’s record would last 27 days, when the USSR’s Vladimir Trusenyov broke through 202 feet in Leningrad in June. As in a tennis match, Oerter served notice and recaptured the record with a throw of 204’-10½", also 27 days after the Russian’s mark, on July 1, 1962, in Chicago.


Al enjoyed throwing at the Mt. SAC Relays, and in April, 1963, would surpass his former record with a 205’- 5” toss.


Almost exactly a year later, on April 26,1964, again at Mt. SAC’s Hilmer Lodge Stadium, Track & News reported, “Al Oerter led the greatest personal and mass assault on the discus ever achieved. Competing in only his third meet of the season and wearing a light ski jacket, Oerter broke his own world record with a 206’-6” effort on his very first throw.” It was Al’s fourth WR in two years.


Monument at Hilmer Lodge Stadium at Mt. SAC
Entrance to Hilmer Lodge Stadium Mt. SAC

Dave Weill threw a personal best 197’-6½” to take second place over Jay Sylvester’s 195’-0”. The Payton Jordan-coached Weill followed that with a win at the West Coast Relays, without Oerter, and was second to Rink Babka at the Coliseum Relays (again, no Oerter) a week later.


On May 23rd, at the California Relays in Modesto, Oerter returned with a winning throw of 203’-6½”. Weill again threw for a new personal best and broke the 200-foot mark, finishing in second ahead of Babka and Silvester. Dave Weill had solidified his place among the best.


Olympian Dave Weill, Stanford '63, throwing discus in competition
Dave Weill, Stanford '63, 2-time NCAA Champion

For Al and his fellow competitors, it was now time to focus on the U.S. Olympic Trials coming in six weeks. This would be Oerter’s third trials and his first as the reigning world record holder, as of July.


In 1964, the U.S. Olympic Committee ruled to change the format of the track and field trials by adding an additional qualification stage. With the Olympics scheduled for October, officials considered it to be too long a gap between the end of the U.S. season and the Tokyo Games for the normal selection process. The result was a two-part U.S. Olympic Trials format. The semi-final event would be held at Randall’s Island in New York City (July 3–4), with the finals scheduled for Los Angeles (Sept. 12-13).


The winner of each semi-finals event would become a member of the Olympic team, provided that the athlete demonstrated that he was still in “reasonable form” during the September final. The next five semi-final placeholders would qualify for the finals.

Many athletes thought that the new format allowed officials leeway to exhibit arbitrary control on team member selection. Al Oerter was vocal about advocating that Olympic team trials should be settled in just one meet. There was no change imposed on the women’s trials, which were to be a one-stage event in New York (August 6-8).


Randall’s Island sits in the East River neatly surrounded by the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. Welcoming visitors to the venue is the towering sculpture on a pedestal, “Discus Thrower,” created by Greek artist Dimitriadis Constantinos in 1924 and donated to Randall’s Island in 1936 to commemorate the opening of the new stadium where the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials were held. A twin copy of the sculpture sits just outside the historic Panathinaic Stadium in Athens, home to the first modern Olympics (1896).


Statue "The Discus Thrower" at entrance to Randall's Island NYC
"The Discus Thrower," Randall's Island, NYC

So, it was on the 4th of July, 1964, a partly cloudy, humid day, with the temperatures in the low 80’s, that the semi-finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials in the men’s discus took place. Al Oerter competed many times at Randall’s Island and he felt very comfortable there. Just ten years earlier, at age 17, he set a new U.S. high school discus record with a throw of 184'-2 ¾".


Wearing his NYAC whites with the winged foot logo, Oerter fouled on his first attempt. His second throw, however, found the salty air to its liking, and cut the earth at the 201’-11” distance. It was to be the best throw of his series and Al would become the only thrower to break 200 feet.


Dave Weill (193’-3”) and Jay Silvester (187’- 9½”) took second and third, respectively, followed by, in order, Rink Babka, Glenn Passey, Bob Humphreys, and Larry Kennedy, who all qualified for the final round in Los Angeles.


Al had dominated the trials’ semi-final round by throwing nearly 9 feet further than the next closest competitor, Weill. Still, his throw was 4½ feet short of his standing world record, with three months to go until Tokyo.


Turnov is a picturesque town on the Jizera River in the Liberec Region of what is now the Czech Republic. On August 2nd, in-between the two rounds of the U.S. Trials, 27-year-old Ludvík Danek of Czechoslovakia staggered the track and field community with a world record discus throw of 64.55m/211’- 9¼” at a meet in Turnov.


Danek surpassed Oerter’s record by 5’-3½”, the biggest increase from the previous world mark since Eric Krenz’s (U.S.) feat in 1929. The Czech established himself as the clear favorite to win Olympic gold in Tokyo, just 74 days away.


Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia sets discus WR on 8/2/64 to become Olympic favorite
Ludvik Danek, sets world record and becomes gold medal favorite (8/2/64)

Meanwhile, on Monday, September 13th, the final round of the men’s U.S. Trials went on anti-climatically in Los Angeles, as scheduled. The men’s discus event saw Jay Silvester’s second throw as the best of the day at 198’-7½”. With Oerter already qualified from July (still, he threw 193’-4”), the only intrigue was who would take the third spot. It was the big Dave Weill who would outdistance Rink Babka, the 1960 trials winner, by a mere 4½ inches.


Al was sorry for Rink, who was his savior in the Rome Olympics. In those Games, Babka, who was leading the competition in the final round, offered a correction to Al in his form. Oerter employed the advice and, on his next throw, went on to win his second gold medal, with Rink taking silver. These were true, bonded teammates in an individual sport.


Of Dave Weill, Oerter welcomed him to his well-deserved spot on the team. Al described him as “just a 6’-7" giant of a person; arm span like a condor. I mean this huge, wrap-his-arms-around-a-building kind of athlete.”


After the trials, Al complained that he just “couldn’t get up for this event,” and maintained his position that they should be settled in just one meet. The results proved him right as the top 3 throwers in the semis were the same top three in the finals.


Even though Oerter had the best distance overall out of the semi and final rounds, only the final round counted for placement purposes. Thus, Jay Sylvester won the discus trials with Al Oerter finishing second, retaining his streak of never having won a U.S. Olympic Trials competition.


Oerter’s intense focus remained on the coming Games of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo. It was day 1,428 of his 4-year program, with 32 days to go until the discus competition. He was sticking to his plan, borne out of the hours, days, months and years of weight training, throwing, varying simulations, nagging injuries; all in a slow, rolling, increasing progression towards optimal readiness on the 15th of October, 1964.


He recognized that Ludvik Danek and Jay Sylvester had the capability to throw further than him, but how would they react in the Olympic environment? He didn’t dwell much on this, as he really didn’t pay attention to what other athletes were doing once the Games drew near.


Al admitted many years later that, “as Tokyo approached, for the first time I began to have a little bit of self-doubt. I had injured myself and had to wear that collar around my neck to keep the damage to a minimum. While I continued to enjoy the throw, I really was not getting the distances that I had hoped for.”

Olympic Rings in skywriting, Opening Ceremonies, Tokyo, 1964
Olympic Rings in the Sky (Tokyo 1964)

In the land of the rising sun, there would be no threat of winter cold to deter Al Oerter from his quest. Still, an ill wind was about to blow in from the east.


© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


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