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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

The Impossible (Pt 4): To Die For

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Even though he had suffered through his sixth night without sleep, Al Oerter felt he was emerging from the fog and haze that had enveloped him since the terrible injury to his rib cage.

He knew that the odds were drastically against him that he could even compete. The torquing and rotation required in the discus throw made torn rib cartilage the worst possible scenario. Yet, he considered it would be a victory if he could just get out there for the qualifying round, set for 10:00am, to see what he could do.

Oerter arrived in the trainer’s room a little after 8am and began the agreed-upon treatment discussed the day before with Doc Hanley and head trainer, Jim Emmerich. First, he laid down on a table while they placed multiple bags of ice on the right side of his abdomen for 45 minutes to freeze the area completely.

Next, they taped him heavily from armpit to hip, as if he were in a cocoon, or being mummified. Al couldn’t keep up with the number of boxes and rolls of adhesive tape that they used. He remembers saying to himself, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to throw; I can’t move.”

The last step was a needle inserted directly into his right ribcage and through the injury. The medical team left the needle port in him while pumping three separate vials of Novocain in an attempt to numb the area.

Al said, “It never touched the injury because they could not get the needle anywhere near it.” Now, the entire right side of his torso and some of his organs had the sensation that they were either frozen or had gone dead. The stabbing pain remained.

The morning of Thursday, October 15th, was the warmest day of the Tokyo Games, but still with very pleasant temperatures in the low 70’s.

The discus competition was in a two-round format, first introduced in 1936, with the qualifying round separate from the divided final. In qualifying, each athlete received three attempts, with those reaching a mark of at least 55m/180’- 5”, advancing to the finals. If fewer than 12 athletes achieved that distance, then the top 12 would advance.

National Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, 1964
National Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, 1964

Al Oerter walked stiffly into the stadium with the other throwers for warm-ups prior to the qualifying round. Most of the competitors were unaware of the severity of Al’s rib injury. They were used to the white neck brace Oerter wore, but as he got ready for his practice throw, a few of them thought something was peculiar.

His first warm-up effort was a gentle 20-foot toss. Al was encouraged because he felt no ill-effects. On the next throw, a 40-footer, it hurt. He was concerned with the resulting moderate pain.

He went with a somewhat stronger effort on his third toss of 60-feet, but the burning in his ribs intensified. Oerter then threw caution to the wind, stepped into the ring, and took a full-speed throw.

Everything in his body that had healed was now completely undone. The sensation and intensity of the pain he had when he went down six days before came roaring back.

Undeterred, and trying to deny the existence of the injury, Al calculated that he was probably going to be able to throw in the 160’s or 170’s, far short of the minimum distance required, yet would not be embarrassed in the competition. “But who knows?” he questioned himself. “Maybe I can get one.”

With three chances to get past the 55-meter mark, Al knew he would only be able to withstand the pain of one attempt. There were so many unknowns due to his injury, he really couldn’t gauge how much force to put into the throw to reach the qualifying distance, which was a daunting number to begin with.

Discus Rack, 1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo
Discus Rack, 1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo

The qualifying round commenced and Oerter was one of the first up. He entered the ring, flipping the discus from hand to hand. He began his spin and, utilizing more arm strength than body torque, somehow sent the implement flying high and far.

The discus sailed past the 55-meter line that was clearly marked, and landed almost 4½ feet beyond another indicated milestone, the Olympic record (OR), which Al had set in 1960.

In winning the gold medal in Rome, Oerter threw for his second consecutive OR, as well: 59.18m/194’- 2”. For the moment, his distance of 60.54m/198’-7½” was a third straight Olympic record.

Ludvik Danek (2nd) easily qualified for the finals on his first throw, as did Dave Weill, who finished fifth. Jay Silvester fouled on his first attempt but made it count on his next one to finish third.

Rounding out the top 12 were 1960 Olympians from the Soviet Union, Viktor Kompaniyets, Kim Bukhantsey, and Vladimir Trusenyov, who had surpassed Oerter’s first world record back in June, 1962.

Other 1960 Olympic alums included Zenon Begier and Edmund Piatkowski of Poland, and Josef Szecsenyi of Hungary. Finally, Hartmut Losch (United Team of Germany) and Roy Hollingsworth (Great Britain) completed the top 12 that would compete in the finals starting at 2:30pm that afternoon.

With only half of his body healthy, Al Oerter did not know how he was able to attain the qualifying distance. He had thrown more than twenty feet past his expectations and got into the final round. Years later, it would be revealed that he did not realize he had also set a new OR on that qual throw, temporarily.

Al considered it another unexpected victory to have made it this far. How much further could he go and still contend with the throbbing pain in his side that hampered his strength, sapped his energy and clouded his mind? The barrier to even performing in the finals seemed to be too high and impassable.

To put things into perspective, back in August, Track & Field News reported, “Ludwig Danek of Czechoslovakia astounded all as he obliterated Al Oerter’s discus standard of 206’-6½” with a sensational 211’-9½!” T&F News referred to Danek’s performance as “bordering on the fantastic.”

A few days before the discus event at the Tokyo Games, T&F News followed up with the fact that Danek “had a training throw of 216’-4½ inches.” This was ten feet further than a fully-healthy Oerter’s personal best.

Danek was the overwhelming favorite to win gold. And, Jay Silvester was being billed as the top American thrower and the only one that may have a chance to medal and give Danek a run for his money.

Ludvik Danek (Czechoslovakia) World Record Holder, Olympic Favorite
Ludvik Danek, Olympic Favorite

What Ludvik Danek or Jay Silvester or any other thrower was capable of achieving never entered Al Oerter’s psyche. Now that he had gotten past the qualifier, he focused on the next step in the 2-part final: three throws to earn a spot in the top six, where each competitor would get another three tosses.

Oerter left the field and went directly into the training room to get treatment ahead of the afternoon’s final round. The training staff had to cut away all of the tape from the morning session, then, again, put bags and bags of ice on him while he remained motionless for over an hour.

They repeated the massive taping job they had done earlier. Al held his arms straight up over his head for almost a half hour so they could apply maximum pressure while they wrapped him tightly. Oerter then decided to go ahead with the Novocain injections again, as three more vials were pumped in, hoping to hit the nerves scattered around the injury.

The clock was ticking down towards the 2:30pm start of the discus event. Oerter finished up his prep, put on his neck brace, gathered his bag and started to head out of the trainer’s room. Doc Hanley stopped him and handed him a small, white box.

“Al, this is going to get bad,” Hanley cautioned. “Take these ammonia capsules with you. When you start to feel nauseous or your head starts to spin from the pain, pop open a capsule and take a whiff.”

The training staff watched as the wounded athlete shuffled out towards the door, clutching the white box in his right hand and his bag over his shoulder. The crew remained silent, but made eye contact with each other. None of them had ever seen anything like this before.

Dave Weill explained that prior to the discus finals, the throwers gathered at a nearby practice area just outside of the Olympic Stadium. When given the signal, they were instructed to enter through a narrow tunnel that led upwards to the floor of the stadium. From there, they would pass through a turnstile and check in before the officials closed the gate.

The tunnel beneath the floor of the stadium was hailed by most of the athletes who went through it. Ollan Cassell, lead runner on the US 4X400 men’s team that won gold in Tokyo, wrote in his book Inside the Five Ring Circus: “The Japanese thought of everything. They even built a tunnel under the stadium track so athletes and officials going to their events on the infield did not cross the track.”

Blueprint for the National Olympic Stadium for the 1964 Olympics, including underground tunnel.
Stadium blueprint including underground tunnel, '64 Olympics

Not long after Oerter got out to the practice area, the finalists lined up to be ushered through the tunnel into the stadium. Al remembers getting in line right behind a posturing Jay Silvester.

Jay exhibited an overly confident swagger; that this was his competition to lose. Silvester knew Oerter was hurt from the way he threw in the morning session and was aware of the severity of the injury from six days before.

Al figured that Parry O’Brien had also been telling Silvester that none of them were sleeping because of the injury and that his roommate was driving him nuts!

So, Silvester, walking just ahead of Oerter, was strutting in an animated way, and looking down as the line made its way through the darkened passageway. Al said, “There were a lot of large people walking through this narrow tunnel and Jay was swaggering, with an exaggerated tilting of his head from side to side. You could tell this guy was ready to compete. He was really into it.”

Halfway through the tunnel, Silvester’s head collided hard with a low hanging piece of duct work or an angle iron, and he went down to the ground. Oerter, laser-focused on the competition to come, thought Jay had just slipped and was okay. Al stepped over and around him and kept heading towards the stadium.

Dave Weill, who was already on the field and had checked in, soon heard about the severity of Silvester’s accident. “Jay had gashed his head on a piece of hanging metal and was bleeding. He walked back to the training room and, while they were stitching him up, he fainted,” Weill said.

Stadium tunnel used by athletes and officials, 1964 Olympics, Tokyo
Stadium tunnel used by athletes and officials

When the time had run out to check in, Sylvester was still being tended to. And with all that was swirling around about whether or not Oerter was going to compete, the other competitors peppered Weill, “Where’s Sylvester? Where’s Oerter?” As the only U.S. team member ready to go, Dave Weill remarked, “We were losing them like crazy out there!”

Oerter made it onto the stadium floor not having seen Sylvester’s wound or any blood. “I had problems of my own,” he said. Eventually, medical personnel escorted Sylvester out and he approached Al. “Do you know what I did to myself?” he asked.

Al answered, “Well, I saw you walk into that ductwork; what happened?” “I sliced my head; a lot of stitches,” Sylvester muttered. Al noticed that Jay was ashen-faced and that the concentration and swagger he had been exhibiting had evaporated. “That big psych that he had going, disappeared,” Oerter remembered.

Dave Weill acknowledged what had happened to Silvester, but remained focused on his first Olympic competition. “You have to do what you came to do. You’re concentrating on what you need to do, not how someone else is going to do.”

As the throwers were preparing for their warmups, Weill observed that Ludvik Danek had brought some bottles of Czech beer, PIVO, onto the field in his bag. It was reported that Danek was very vocal about how he was going to celebrate his expected gold medal triumph right there on the floor of Olympic Stadium.

Danek brought his favorite Czech beer PIVO to the discus competition
Danek brought his favorite PIVO to the finals

Meanwhile, Al Oerter was hell-bent on focusing on what he needed to do on his first three throws to advance to the final six spots and a second set of three tosses, if he could last that long. Then, almost without thinking, he removed his neck brace. Only a few of his competitors noticed.

He had worn the brace for two and a half years. It alleviated the symptoms caused by a cervical disk injury by keeping his head from snapping back, preventing his left arm from going dead and alleviating a burning pain in his neck. However, the head snap was the way he created the height in his throw. Without it, he had to transform his way of throwing; which he did, successfully, and set four world records.

While Oerter never mentioned why he removed the brace, it was probably because he lost strength and torque due to the ribcage injury. With those attributes lessened, perhaps he had to make up for them by increasing the height of his throw. He needed to utilize the head-snap again. Pain and nerve damage didn’t matter. It all came down to the next three throws.

The 6’- 4”, 230lb, Ludvik Danek, went right out in front with his first throw of the finals, a strong 59.73m/195’- 11½” effort. His long, rangy arms and smooth technique fit well with the power and ability that made him the world record holder.

Jay Silvester seemed to be showing the effects of his earlier accident with a throw of 56.99m/186’-11½”, and was fourth at the end of round one.

Wearing No.749 pinned to a blue uniform shirt with red USA lettering and white shorts, Al Oerter took a huge rip on his first throw, and doubled over in terrible pain. He didn’t see where the discus landed and went immediately to the box of ammonia capsules Doc Hanley had given him. He broke out the first one and waved it under his nose.

“That was the best thing they did for me,” Al recounted about the training staff. “Anyone who has ever popped an ammonia capsule knows that for those few seconds it hurts more than the injury. It deflected the pain for just a few seconds.” Oerter’s throw of 57.65m/189’-1½” put him second to Danek.

Oerter trying to handle the pain after his first throw
Oerter trying to handle the pain after his first throw

Zenon Begier (Poland) had his best throw in round 1 and was sitting in third by the end of it. Dave Weill fouled on his first attempt but more than made up for it in round 2.

The 6’-7” Weill showed that he deserved to be on the world stage with a 2nd round throw of 59.49m/195’-2”. He moved into 2nd , now only 9 inches behind Danek, who threw 3 feet less than he did in round 1.

Dave Weill (here with Payton Jordan) was in 2nd after 2 rounds
Dave Weill (here with Payton Jordan) was in 2nd after 2 rounds

Al Oerter was in obvious distress after his first throw, and was seen walking around slowly, sometimes stopping to bend over or shielding his eyes from the sun. Then, he began to pace back and forth, like a foraging grizzly, to build himself up to throw again. On his second attempt, he bettered the first one at 58.34m/191’- 5”. He went right back to an ammonia capsule.

Oerter doubled-over after his third throw
Oerter doubled-over after his second throw

Danek fouled in the third round and Oerter’s throw was a painful 11 feet less than his round 2 best. He put on his blue USA warm-up jacket and sweat pants to try and keep warm and loose. At one point, he sat down on the ground with his knees up and buried his face in his forearms. Then, again, he slowly rose and began to pace.

The 3rd round saw Sylvester hit 57.54m/188’- 9½” after a 2nd round foul. The top 6 placeholders, Danek, Weill, Oerter, Silvester, Begier and Szecsenyi would all qualify for three more throws. Even though this was another self-victory for Al, to make it into the top 6, due to the pain he could no longer concentrate on such milestones.

It seemed that Danek put an end to things in the 4th, when he got off his best throw of 60.52m/198’- 6½”, upping his mark by 2 feet. Oerter appeared to be totally spent when he got off a 54.37m/178’- 4½” toss. He was now throwing more than 20 feet less than the leader, Danek. The order of the top six remained the same, except for Szecsenyl and Begier, who swapped 5th and 6th, respectively.

Oerter put his tracksuit back on and sat down again with his head pressed against his folded arms. He opened another capsule to dull the pain and clear his head. He had come to the end of the line. The pain was at its peak; at a threshold he could not get beyond. He concluded that he could withstand only one more throw, his upcoming 5th. There would be no 6th throw.

After his 4th attempt, Oerter knew he could only bear the agony of one more throw
After his 4th attempt, Oerter knew he could only bear the agony of one more throw

Al sat alone, away from the other competitors, trying to recover some strength while entering a deep, reflective state. He remembered, “I thought about all of those training sessions over the past 1,454 days. In about 700 of them, I had simulated competitive environments in the Games where things were not going well for me. How do you get around that? What do you do to change in the midst of a competition that isn’t working out as you had planned? By simulating, I mean you expose yourself to all kinds of things during practice sessions.

“You throw in wet weather; in slippery rings caused by snow on the fields. You throw with different kinds of shoes and with different forms of technique because of some injury that might occur in a leg or body or whatever. By simulating every conceivable condition that could exist in the Games, chances are one of those scenarios pops up.

“You can go from plan A to plan B to plan C or D, fluidly, because you have done that before. If you put in that kind of work, it becomes part of your muscle memory and your psyche.”

Oerter then described his contingency plan: “I decided to call on something I had simulated many times in training. I was going to slow the turn down as much as I possibly could. My body wouldn’t react any longer, so I had to reach some kind of torqued position where my upper half trailed my lower half. Then, I would just hammer this discus thing with whatever power remained in my arm.

“That’s what I planned to do before the fifth throw, because it was going to be my last one.”

Oerter shed his warm-ups and then began to peel off the miles of adhesive tape that wrapped him up “from armpit to hip.” Sweat made the tape stick and cling to his skin as he pulled on it, creating a new kind of pain from his discolored torso. Then, the bear began to pace.

The first two up in the 5th round, Begier and Szecsenyi, both fouled. Oerter headed over to the discus rack when Jay Silvester entered the circle. Starting to get more life back in himself, Silvester followed with a best 193’-10½”.

He bumped Oerter down to 4th, put himself in the driver’s seat for a bronze medal, and still had his eyes on the silver if he could pass Weill on his last throw.

Sylvester's 5th Round Throw Knocked Oerter Down to 4th
Sylvester's 5th Round Throw Knocked Oerter Down to 4th

It was Al Oerter’s turn for his fifth attempt. He opened an ammonia capsule and held it under his nose. It cleared his mind and, at the same time, muted the reverberating pain in his ribs for a few seconds. He entered the throwing ring…

From the back of the circle, holding the discus in his right hand, he looks out facing forward towards the field. He tosses the disc to his left hand, holding it and supported by the tips of his extended fingers, like a waiter with a tray. He takes two steps forward. He flips the discus from left hand to right and back to left. Then, another flip of the implement to right hand, back to left, takes a step, flips to right. Back to left again, and now he’s getting ready as the discus settles gently in his right hand…

Facing the back of the circle, he looks over his left shoulder towards the field and then glances at the back of the ring. He starts by swinging his right arm across his body and then back again, like a pendulum. The right arm extends, aligned with the middle of his back, as if starting a wind-up…

The turn starts, deliberate foot movement, arm extended, slowly, then a bit faster spin…one and a half rotations when he drops low…left arm pulls…right arm, by itself… rips thunderously…like an explosion…beyond human-capable force…there it goes…

He’s facing forward for an instant at the point of departure…continues hopping on his left toe for another full 360 degrees…holds it…again, facing forward for a second, he tries to watch it sail through the ether before his spin stops as he faces the back of the ring again, not knowing where what he had just launched came back down to earth.

When Oerter released the 2kg/4.4lb discus, his body shuddered with violent ripples of intense pain. At that moment, he realized he had put a great deal more effort into that throw than he had on all of the previous ones that day. There was nothing left.

Al remembered, “I didn’t see where the discus came down. I was hurting, and as I exited the back of the ring, Edmund Piatowski (Poland ) was there and I asked him ‘Where did it land?’ Piatowski smiled, ‘You got lucky.’

There were seven Japanese officials who raced to the spot to mark and measure Oerter's throw. Al thought his effort may have made it past the furthest line, but he wasn’t sure. There was a rotating scoreboard at the side of the ring that soon flashed 5_749_61.00” (5th throw No. 749_61.00 meters). Al knew he had thrown over 200 feet. That also meant he had set a new Olympic record.

Scoreboard Flashes 61.00 meter Throw for #749
Scoreboard Flashes 61.00 meter Throw for No.749

World record holder, Ludvik Danek, watched with stunned surprise as Al Oerter’s name appeared at the top of the board with his 61m/200’-1½” effort. Danek was now in 2nd position and no longer thinking about drinking the beer he had brought. He saw Oerter being helped off the field and then sitting on the turf, his head buried in his arms, once again.

Dave Weill, in third place, completed his fifth throw, with no change in the medal standings. He knew that Silvester still had a shot.

While Danek was prepping for his fifth throw, Oerter realized that if the Czech got beyond 200 feet, Al would not be able to get into the ring for a sixth attempt. “I was hurting so badly from my last throw that it was an impossibility to get the strength back together to hammer it once more,” he said. “It’s a good thing, too, because I was running out of ammonia capsules. I think I fried every nasal passage that I owned trying to mask that pain.”

With the last one to throw in the 5th, it was Danek’s chance to give a competitive response to Oerter’s now-leading effort. He executed his weakest toss to that point, only a 58.38m/191’- 6½.”

The drama started to play out as Danek was now chasing Oerter, Sylvester was improving, Weill was trying to hold his own, and all throwers, except for Al, had one last chance to make a difference.

Oerter had put his blue warm-up suit back on and stood up to watch the last set of throws. No one suspected that he would pass on his sixth attempt. Perhaps he wanted to make his looming presence felt. Szecsenyi and Begier got off good tosses, but remained in their respective 5th and 6th spots.

Jay Silvester was very animated before his final throw, feeling much better since incurring the self-inflicted gash on the head. He started to show his normal bravado and was talkative entering the ring. He settled in, began his spin, and launched! He fouled.

Dave Weill pretty much knew he was assured of the bronze medal and his last throw reflected that: 23 feet short of his 59.49m/195’-2” best of the day.

It was now the moment for Ludvik Danek’s final throw. He needed just 1½ feet beyond his best of the day to reclaim the top spot and inch past Oerter. With a 57.17m/187’- 6½” effort, it was not to be.

Most spectators were unaware of the incredible discus competition that had just concluded on the grounds of the Olympic Stadium. Emerson Chapin of The New York Times, wrote: “Many spectators were too far away even to discern the discus thrower’s numbers and peered across the field in their direction only when a burst of applause from those seated nearer signaled an unusually good throw. Oerter’s record heave went almost unnoticed.”

On the first day of the Olympic track and field competition, sports reporter Paul Zimmerman wrote that he had come early and done some scouting through Tokyo's Olympic Stadium and the press areas. He discovered a little room in which the medalists were brought after their competition and before they took the victory stand.

The room was supposed to be off limits to the press but, “The natural politeness of the Japanese officials overcame their suspicion,” he reported, “And for at least a few days I got to see some incredible things. I saw Bob Hayes, singing a little song and doing a victory dance, all by himself, after his triumph in the 100 meters.

“And I got a raw look at Oerter, whom I had seen pacing the discus area like some kind of animal before each of his throws, and then finally ripping the tape off his side and coming from behind to beat Danek on his final heave. After his throw he doubled over in pain.

“He was still wired when he got to that little room. He smashed the side of his hand against the wall and then, and I'll never forget this, threw back his head and let out this one, wild, ear-shattering roar that caused a few worried officials to pop their heads in, fearing someone was being murdered. Of course, the beer might have had something to do with it, too. Danek had brought a case of Czech beer onto the field. Oerter helped him drink it.”

There were a fair amount of press people who swarmed the three medalists, but most congregated around Oerter. Dave Weill remembered, “I was fairly satisfied to get a medal, and it didn’t bother me that the reporters were all talking with Al. He deserved every bit of the attention One guy did say, ‘You know, if you had a couple of more feet you could have taken second.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but if the guy in fourth had a couple of more feet, he could have been in third.”

It was twilight in the crowded stadium when the spotlights shown down on Al Oerter, Ludvik Danek, and Dave Weill, as they were awarded their Olympic medals in the men’s discus event. Oerter became the fourth man to win three gold medals in the same event, and the first to do it in 28 years.

1964 Olympics Men's Discus Medal Ceremony (L to R) Ludvik Danek, Al Oerter, Dave Weill
Medal Ceremony (L to R) Danek, Oerter, Weill

After the medal ceremony, Al headed directly to the trainer’s facility where he received many congratulations but no slaps on the back. He was feeling better having just won a third gold medal. Yet, when he removed his jacket and shirt, he couldn’t believe the amount of damage he had done to himself.

On his right side there was a 10-inch circle of various colors from the blood that had pooled just under the surface of the skin. On the edges of that were reds fading to pinks, blues, purples, shades of green; really ugly, painful bruising.

As he lay on the training table with bags of ice freezing his injuries again, it started to sink in that, for a third consecutive time, he had won a gold medal, set an Olympic record, defeated the reigning world record holder, and had not come out on top in the U.S. Trials.

Of course, he realized that his most difficult Games of the three came in Tokyo. “A bunch of ammonia capsules, 1454 days of work, a certain amount of luck and the kind of preparation for the Games that at the final moment proved to be of great value,” is how he summarized his experience. Al started to understand the degree to which he had been tested that day and what he learned about himself.

Two days later, Al’s roommates, Parry O’Brien and Hal Connolly, who had suffered through fitful nights due to Al’s injury, both participated in their respective events. The 3-time medalist O’Brien finished 4th in the shot put, with Americans Dallas Long and Randy Matson taking gold and silver. Connolly, the hammer throw gold medalist in ’56, finished up in the 6th spot. Neither one attributed any negative effect on their performance due to a lack of sleep related to Al’s injuries.

In fact, O’Brien talked about Oerter’s feat: “So here you have the tremendous ability of a man to overcome pain and let his brain and his mind take over for a body that was not one hundred percent.”

Ludvik Danek reflected on his fellow competitor, Oerter, in an interview with Olympic filmmaker, Bud Greenspan: “I was the world record holder and, of course, expected to win. Before the competition began, there was no indication Al Oerter was injured. He never complained or said anything about the injury. Only after he won did I learn about it. To throw with such pain was amazing! To win the gold medal was incredible!

The U.S. had swept all three medals in the men’s discus in ’56 and ’60, and took the gold and bronze in ’52 and now ’64. The American dominance in the sport brought international focus on U.S. throwers, training methods and domestic meets. After the Tokyo Games, Danek’s coach contacted Dave Weill about getting information on how Danek could get into more U.S. competitions. The following year, Weill helped to get Danek into the Fresno and Modesto Relays and introduced him to organizers of other U.S. meets.

Ludvik Danek went on to set more world records and medal in two more Olympics. In 1968, he would meet up with Al Oerter again in Mexico City.

Jay Silvester would compete in three more Olympics before finally medaling in 1972, after Al Oerter retired. He would set two more world records in 1968 and go into the Mexico City Games as the heavy favorite.

Regarding Silvester’s accident in Tokyo, Oerter was very clear about the mindset it took to become an Olympic champion; attention to detail. “The least damn little thing can take four years-worth of work and flush it. Jay walked into that ductwork; you cannot allow that to happen to yourself. Keep your eyes up. Stay under control when you’re walking into an Olympic Stadium. Simple, right?”

In a 1998 Deseret News story about Silvester, the article blamed his head-banging on “tunnels made for shorter Japanese people.” There were 28 discus competitors that day walking through the stadium tunnel. 27 made it through unscathed.

Al Oerter continued to heap praise on Stanford coach Payton Jordan, who was the Assistant U.S. Track & Field coach in Tokyo. “This was as good of a relationship between an athlete and a spirited coach. Payton, for all of my life was one of the guys that’s acted as an inspiration to me because of that enthusiasm,” Al remembered.

Jordan would be with Al again four years later in Mexico City as the Head Track & Field Coach for Team USA.

Dr. Daniel Hanley, who did all he could to prepare Oerter for his competition in Tokyo, was the chief physician of the United States Olympic team from 1964 through 1972. Beginning in 1946 and until his retirement in 1980, he was also the head physician for his alma mater, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me. and a pioneer in developing Olympic drug-testing programs.

Hanley’s niece was a former ski racer who broke her right leg in a ski accident in high school. He recommended that she rehabilitate it by running on the roads. She did, and in time she quit ski racing and became a distance runner. In 1984, the niece, Joan Benoit Samuelson, won the first Olympic marathon for women.

David Lawson Weill, who, like Al Oerter, attended college on an academic scholarship. Graduating Stanford in 1963, Dave enrolled in a one-year master’s degree program where he also got a teaching assistant position to pay his way. He worked through the summer of ’64 so he could take off the fall quarter and attend the Olympics.

After the Tokyo Games, and completing his graduate studies, Weill began a long career with IBM. Over the next few years, he continued to compete in the discus in a handful of California meets, but with the work demands, found very little time to train.

Dave said, ”By 1968, I was not that far up in terms of the distances I was throwing at that point.” After his incredible experiences in Tokyo, winning a bronze medal, and lack of time due to a heavy workload, Weill found it hard to get out to all-comers meets on weekends. He put away his discus for good.

Dave never attended any U.S. Olympic function, reunion, anniversary, or event of any kind after the Tokyo Games of 1964. In the early 1990’s, after almost 30 years at IBM, Weill accepted a downsizing package from Big Blue and then began a new technology planning position with VISA, in northern California.

One day, probably in 1994, Dave’s manager told him about an event taking place at their offices that afternoon. She said that she had arranged for a motivational speaker to come to VISA and address the work force. “I booked Al Oerter, the Olympic gold medal champion!” she exclaimed.

Dave, surprised, muttered, ”Oerter?” He had not seen Al since their last day in Tokyo thirty years earlier. Weill noticed that his boss had misspelled “Oerter” on the posters announcing the event.

VISA staff members filled the auditorium as Weill sat towards the back when the guest speaker came to the podium. After introductions, Al Oerter said to the crowd, “It is a pleasure to be here to talk about my Olympic experiences…but you already have someone here who was an Olympic discus thrower and he got the silver medal.”

Al nodded towards Dave Weill. At 6’-7”, he wasn’t hard to miss. Heads turned with mouths agape. There was no report of Weill’s manager’s reaction.

After Oerter’s talk, which focused mostly on his experience in 1964, the two Olympic teammates warmly shook hands. Dave said, "Al, you gave me more credit than I earned,” referring to the “silver versus bronze” mention. Al smiled, leaned in, and in a low voice, said, “Well, that's okay, they'll believe it."

30 years after the Tokyo Games, Al Oerter met up with Dave Weill at a VISA speaking engagement
30 years after the Tokyo Games, Al Oerter met up with Dave Weill at a VISA speaking engagement

Sportswriter Paul Zimmerman, whose specialty was football, would cover two more Olympics, including the hostage crisis at the 1972 Summer Games in Munch, Germany. He went over to Sports Illustrated where he became the legendary “Dr. Z,” for his writings and analyses of the NFL. In January, 2008, he correctly predicted the NY Giant Super Bowl victory over the previously undefeated New England Patriots. He had a thing for overwhelming underdogs.

As part of a tribute to Al upon his death in 2007, Zimmerman wrote: “I don't want to get into some kind of philosophical treatise on the meaning of the true competitive spirit, because somehow it might cheapen it. There have been great competitors in many sports. To me, Oerter was the greatest.”

"The Agony of Victory" Close-up from video of Al Oerter's Gold Medal Throw
"The Agony of Victory" Close-up from video of Al Oerter's Gold Medal Throw

Al Oerter reflected on what he took away from the Tokyo Games:

“I think about that competition every day. I still hurt when I think about it. I can still feel the difficulty I went through. There was every reason in the world to walk away from that competition due to my injury, without embarrassing myself. However, the only person on the face of the earth that would have been affected, was me. I would have cheated myself out of a chance to see what I could do under very dire circumstances; to show what I was made of.

“I learned a great deal about myself that day. I think anyone presented with that kind of circumstance must attack it. When a barrier comes up unexpectedly, in my case, just six days prior to the competition, it must be confronted. It was big, it was high and it was real. And when I touched it, it hurt. If you walk away from that, you learn nothing. If you address the boundary and walk up to it and say, ‘Yes, it’s big and it’s high and it’s wide and I am truly injured and perhaps I can't get beyond it.’

“Then, kick it as hard as you possibly can. Not that you heal yourself; not that you move back that boundary, but the very act of confronting that which is preventing progress teaches you something about who you are. From that point on in your life, whether it be career-related, family difficulties, health issues, or whatever, there is nothing you will not confront to get beyond that barrier.

“I did that on October 15th, 1964. I'm proud of that competition, but I never want to go through that pain ever again in my life. It's not about being a hero or any of that nonsense. It’s about acknowledging and then attacking that difficulty that was holding me back, whether you win a medal or not. If you can do that, and walk away from that kind of environment, then nothing can stop you for the rest of your life.”


Back on October 15th, 1964, in that rather small room in Olympic Stadium where sportswriters were clamoring to interview Al Oerter, someone shouted out,” Al, why did you do it? With all of the pain and injuries, why did you put yourself through that?

There was a long pause. The room quieted down. Then, in a low voice, drawing in his audience, and with a deeply serious tone, Oerter said, “These are the Olympics. You die before you quit.”

Closing Ceremony 1964 Olympic Games (10/24/64)
Closing Ceremony Tokyo Olympic Games (10/24/64)

© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


Oct 02, 2021

Bravo and thank you for sharing this stunning essay! I too, as a young track and field enthusiast, saw the peerless Al Oerter throw (in Pennsylvania, California, New York, and Virginia) in the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. He even very kindly spoke with me briefly in Modesto and Walnut. In the 1990s at the Arizona Senior Olympic Festival, he graciously spent the better part of an hour in shared conversation with me. I found him among the kindest and humblest people I have known, a gentleman of the first rank, an athlete of thoroughly commanding stature, an unexcelled exemplar of the scholar-athlete ideal, a great man. Bob Osterhoudt, Sun Lakes, Arizona


Sep 01, 2021

Thanks again, Andrew, for the change to relive the amazing journey of the hero of my youth.

Andrew Pettit
Sep 01, 2021
Replying to

Thank you, Doug, for your feedback and for supporting my efforts.


Sep 01, 2021

Awesome, inspiring piece.

Andrew Pettit
Sep 01, 2021
Replying to

Thanks for the feedback, Tom. Appreciate it.

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