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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

The Impossible (Pt 3): Dreams That Are Torn Asunder

Missed Part 1? Find it here

Missed Part 2? Find it here

Officially named The Games of the XVIII Olympiad, the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were the first to be held in Asia. Japan was originally awarded the 1940 Games, but they were cancelled as a result of the world war. These would be the first Olympic Games to be telecast internationally, with some local programming in color.

The Games were scheduled for mid-October to avoid Tokyo’s high mid-summer heat and humidity and the September typhoon season. The I.O.C. had learned its lesson at the previous Olympics in Rome (1960), which started in late August and athletes experienced severely high temperatures.

The site utilized to create the Yoyogi Olympic Village for the Tokyo Games had been used to house the occupying U.S. Air Force soldiers and their families for nearly two decades following the end of the war. Dubbed “Washington Heights,” it originally consisted of 827 homes, theaters, churches, schools, stores and more. Over 2,000 Americans lived there and called it home.

Part of the former military housing complex was torn down in order to build the Olympic Gymnasium and swimming pool. The rest was repurposed to house some of the 7,200 athletes and officials who would be participating in the Games. Other athletes were housed in newly constructed dorm facilities.

Newly constructed Olympic venues on the former "Washington Heights"

Al Oerter first arrived at the Olympic Village early the week of October 5th. When he toured the new gymnasium, he chuckled to himself when he spotted the amount and quality of free weights that were available for lifting. Back in 1961-62, the Japanese Athletic Association sent several groups over to the U.S. to observe American Olympic athletes in training and how they were preparing for the Tokyo Games. Al Oerter was one of them. This was at a time when Al started to greatly increase his lifting and strength training.

Weighing above 260lbs, his ability to move weight approached record levels. He would work out a bit more than an hour a day, often during lunchtime at a gym in Bethpage, Long Island, across the street from the Grumman Corp., where he worked.

Al remembered, “The Japanese groups would come into the gyms in Bethpage and sit back and, with their mouths wide open, watch the huge amount of cast iron that was being thrown about. I guess they didn’t do such things at that time in Japan.”

Al met up with his roommates, Parry O’Brien and Hal Connolly, at their quarters in the Olympic Village. The American trio was a “Who’s Who” of Olympic throwing achievements.

Shot putter O’Brien won gold in ’52 and ’56, and took silver in ’60. Parry also had set 17 world records. Like Oerter, this was hammer-thrower Connolly’s third Olympics, with a gold medal in ’56 and six world records. The big men were teammates for the third time, but challenged by the tight living arrangements.

Dave Weill was elated when he made the U.S. team and upon arriving at the Olympic Village, found the former military-style accommodations to be “a little bit rustic.” With three big athletes to a room, “It wasn't like one of those five-star hotels, but it was comfortable, adequate, and all you needed,” Weill remembered.

Dave’s roommates were decathlete Dick Emberger and 19-year-old 6’-7” shot putter Randy Matson, who was also a very good discus thrower. Emberger was a Roanoke College legend and his athletic versatility included hurdles, cross country and swimming. He placed first in Decathlon at the U.S. Trials, but he and Russ Hodge, who placed second, were not initially picked for the U.S. team. After two days of deliberations, the committee finally decided to go with the three top finishers in the trials.

Placing 4th in the decathlon at the trials was 25-year-old Bill Toomey, who, two years earlier, had provided Al Oerter a place to sleep the night before Al threw for his first world record at the Coliseum Relays.

Covering the Tokyo Games for the NY World-Telegram and Sun was a 31- year-old sportswriter named Paul Zimmerman from New York. The Olympics were to be the first big assignment he covered by himself as a newspaperman. Zimmerman started in sports reporting in 1960, and had gotten to know Al Oerter well from covering local track meets in the New York area.

Zimmerman wrote, ”I always enjoyed talking to him (Oerter), a blond giant with a boyish shock of hair in front. Intelligent, introspective, always edgy when competition approached, he was a good guy to go to when you wanted something put into perspective.”

Payton Jordan was a world-class athlete and now throws coach for the 1964 U.S. Olympic track & field team. He was a champion sprinter out of USC, where he also played halfback on the Trojans’ football team. For ten years, he coached track and football at Occidental College in LA to national prominence before taking the track and field coaching job at Stanford in 1957.

Jordan had been an Olympics assistant coach in ’56 and ’60, when Al won his two gold medals, and was Weill’s coach at Stanford. “He was as enthusiastic a coach as I’ve ever seen in my life. He was like my high school coach, Jim Fraley. If you wanted to work he was there for you day or night. He was in sync with you mentally and physically. If you didn’t feel like working he didn’t walk away from you. He’d remind you that the Games were at hand and now was the time to accelerate.”

Al added, “He just loved being in competition and getting the best out of himself and his athletes.” Dave Weill felt the same way about his college and Olympic coach. “He taught me all I knew about the discus,” the Stanford grad offered. “He was a very good coach; inspirational.”

Dave Weill (L) with coaching legend Payton Jordan (R)
Dave Weill (L) with coaching legend Payton Jordan (R)

With a little more than a week to go until his event, Al Oerter was as intense, well-focused and anticipatory of the Olympic competition as any athlete in the Games. He relished being in the Olympic Village and could not wait to get out on the floor of the stadium and start competing.

He knew, however, that he still had a ways to go to keep building towards his planned peak on the day of the final. He recognized that world record holder Ludvik Danek, who had won 45 consecutive meets coming in to the Games, had thrown more than five feet past his personal best. And, Al considered himself the third most capable thrower on the U.S. team, behind Silvester and Weill.

Since arriving in Tokyo, Oerter remembers Jay Silvester’s constant banter about how good he was. Payton Jordan had arranged for all of the U.S. throwing teams to work out together, but sometimes there were individual training competitions going on in different parts of the Olympic Village.

One day, the throwers were running up about one hundred steps in a hilly area and being timed by Coach Jordan. Parry O’Brien, who was pretty quick, ran the steps, followed by Silvester, who had a better time.

“L. Jay would beat Parry and just start lauding it all over him,” Oerter recounted. “Now, I was really good at running stadium steps, and I would beat Jay’s time and he just shut up, turn on his heels and walk away. He could not take that kind of thing.”

On Friday, October 9th, six days before the discus event, Payton Jordan had his throwers working out in one of the parks where there were poured cement rings. Al was serious and amped up and throwing hard, trying to close the gap between his, Danek’s and Silvester’s best distances.

It seemed to always be misting in Tokyo, and on that day there was a light rain. The athletes tracked mud into the circle and it made for slick and terrible conditions. Al slipped on every one of his first few throws, so he put some towels in the ring and hopped from one towel to another on subsequent heaves.

On one of those tosses, he attempted to throw hard when he slipped again and went down to the ground. He immediately felt a twinge, and then a burning pain along his rib cage on the right side. He said to himself, “I don’t know what the hell that was.”

Al later explained, “When athletes are so close in time to their events in the Olympic Games, their philosophy is to ignore minor injuries as if they don’t hurt or, better yet, never happened. For me, the fall was not debilitating in any way, and so, I didn’t even think about it. I was on auto-pilot.”

Al got back into the ring. His Olympic mindset was transforming into one of building capability and high, yet controlled, aggression. It was time to take a really heavy rip at the throw; not a time to be timid or complacent. “I was ready to throw harder than I ever had before.” He did.

Payton Jordan was right there. “I heard him bellow 'Oohhh!' and he grabbed his ribs and practically went to his knees, and a big man like this, doesn't go to his knees unless he is in pain. And I looked at him and I said, 'Al, what happened?' He says, ‘I don't know. I feel like the whole side is caved in.’ And he reached down, and it was just so painful he could hardly touch it.”

Al remembers collapsing violently in a heap. “Payton came running over yelling, ‘What the hell happened?’ I muttered, ‘I don’t know; something bad.’” It was the most searing, deep agony he had ever experienced, as if his abdominal structure had exploded on one side.

Jordan got Al over to the training facility where Dr. Daniel Hanley, Chief Physician, U.S. Olympic Team, and, Jim Emmerich, Head Trainer, examined him. They pushed and probed the injury and took a set of X-rays.

“Is it a hip pointer or something like that?” Al asked. Emmerich answered, “No Al, this might feel like a hip pointer, but it ain’t no hip pointer.”

Doc Hanley, then lowered the boom. “Al, you’ve torn cartilage off of your ribcage. You’re bleeding internally. This is serious.”

"Can I throw?" was Al’s question. Doc Haney answered, "No, you can't throw. You can’t even move, right? This is cartilage that has separated from your rib cage.

There was a long silence as Al’s eyes met with Jordan’s.

Doc Haney continued, “You've just injured yourself pretty severely, so sit back and enjoy this competition because you're not competing with this thing. This is a two or three month heal, if not more. You've already won two gold medals, Al…"

Oerter asked Emmerich and Hanley if there was anything they could do to get him to the floor of the stadium in six days. Hanley reiterated the negative and that this was a massive internal injury.

Jim Emmerich, sensing the crushing disappointment, offered, “We're going to start freezing the area immediately, just to keep out all the extra fluid that's going to build up because of the tears. So, lots of ice, we’ll give you ultrasound, but we're not going to be able to do anything else for you. You’re not throwing. We're going to tape you all around so you can try to get some rest."

Oerter went back to his room and attempted to lay down. It made things worse. In that position, the ribcage expands a bit and that worked directly against his injury. Sleep was an impossibility.

As he stared out the window in the early morning hours of October 10th, Al recalls reflecting on his four-year quest. “I was so close to the Games that I had worked 1,454 out of 1,460 days for. My body and mind were still on that same progressing calendar; still working at elevated levels each and every one of those 1,454 days. I could not give up at the last moment. I just wanted to find a way to get out on the floor of the stadium to see what I could do.

On Saturday, Parry O’Brien and Hal Connolly went off to attend the Opening Ceremonies. O’Brien was selected as the American flag bearer and would have the honor of leading the U.S. team into the Olympic Stadium.

Flag bearer Parry OBrien leads U.S. Olympic Team
Flag bearer Parry OBrien leads the U.S. Olympic Team

Al was in no shape to attend. Even if he had been healthy, he would have skipped the long ritual. He learned in Melbourne in ’56, that, for him, marching and standing out in the hot sun for hours depleted the built-up energy he needed to perform at his most optimal. He didn’t attend the ceremonies in 1960 (Rome) and came away with the gold medal. He had planned to repeat the behavior in Tokyo, but now it was a moot point.

Lighting the Olympic Flame
Lighting the Olympic Flame

Oerter was sure that the USOC had considered replacing him on the Olympic team with an alternate from the trials. With only five days to go, however, there wasn’t any way to get a thrower over to Japan and give him enough time to train before the event. The clock was against them.

So Oerter continued his daily therapy with Jim Emmerich of freezing the injury, getting ultrasound and then wrapping his side. And, swallowing a ton of aspirin. None of it worked.

Al couldn’t walk comfortably and had no appetite. Even eating and drinking hurt. There was nothing he could do to get away from the pain and agony.

Damaging to Oerter was that he never slept. Neither did Parry O’Brien or Hal Connolly. Al said, “I went without sleep for six days and I’m sure that impacted their performances. They were competing in the Games and here was this roommate of theirs flopping around and sharing his misery. I kept those guys up all night and felt very badly about that.”

Hal Connolly (L) and Parry O'Brien (R) catch up on their rest in the Olympic Village
Hal Connolly (L) and Parry O'Brien (R) catch up on their rest in the Olympic Village

O’Brien never mentioned Al being a disturbance to his preparation. He observed, “I remember looking at the right side of his body and it was all colors of the rainbow: yellow, blue, parts were green, and what have you. So, consequently, I knew that throwing the discus would be a very painful matter for Al, and sleeping was painful for him too, because he couldn't get into a comfortable position.

The sleep deprivation caused Oerter to be in a constant fog, like a thick haze enveloping him. Just walking to the athletes' dining room was difficult. Every so often he would have brief moments of clarity, but for most of the time he was dazed and confused and sleepless in Tokyo. Al resigned himself to the fact that his third Olympic Games were over before they started.

On Tuesday, October 13th, two days before the discus competition was to begin, reporter Paul Zimmerman went to Oerter’s room in the Olympic Village. He wrote, “I was watching him staring endlessly out the window at the groups of athletes coming and going. He was the kind of person who didn’t appreciate chit-chat, certainly no questions about his physical state. I knew that anything that began, ‘How do you feel…’ would be met by an icy stare. I saw it in his press conferences. Besides, I didn’t have to ask. I could see for myself.

“I asked Oerter how much he knew about Danek. He shrugged.

“’Tall guy,’ he said. ‘Kind of narrow-shouldered. I still don’t know what kind of a competitor his is.

“I mentioned that, in practice, he was supposedly throwing well above his world record. He looked annoyed.

“’After two Olympics you get used to these stories about the fabulous practice throws these guys are making. Most of the time they foul when they get them off, and that brings the distance up, but nobody’s calling fouls in practice. And the people who spread these rumors never mention that.’”

Sportswriter Paul Zimmerman
Sportswriter Paul Zimmerman

It was in the afternoon of Wednesday, October 14th, that Al Oerter, gingerly walked in on Doc Hanley and the trainers. “I want to give this a shot. I'm going to go out on the field for tomorrow morning's qualifying round and see what I can do,” he stated. Well, there it was. The Impossible.

Hanley cautioned, “I don’t know about this.”

“Am I going to hurt myself any further?” Oerter asked. “Probably not, because you are hurt,” Jim Emmerich interjected. “If anything is healed, you will take that apart in the first movement. I mean, not the first throw; in the first little turn across the ring.”

“Is there anything you can do for me?” Al petitioned.

Doc Hanley summarized, “We can tape you from armpit to hip, but that's an external thing. We can't dig deep inside your body to put your ribcage back together. We can continue to freeze it to keep the fluid out of the injury.”

Al thought about it for a few seconds.

Hanley wasn’t done. “One last thing, and it’s your decision. We could inject some Novocain right into the area, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Oh, and when you walk out onto the field, we can give you a box of ammonia capsules.”

Al slowly looked at each of the trainers and Hanley directly, nodding his head as he met their gazes. “Agreed. See you in the morning.”

As he stood looking out the window of his room in the early hours of the 1,460th day since his last gold medal, Al Oerter pondered what the day would bring:

“I am in Tokyo and these are the Olympic Games. If I am able, I am going to compete. This is not about overcoming pain or being a hero. It is simply a matter of not cheating myself out of the chance to see what I can do under very difficult circumstances, and doing the best I can.”

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© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


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