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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

Three Seats to the Wind

Monday (07/27/1981) was a warm morning in New York, when Al Oerter, and his partner and future wife, Cathy Carroll, ambled down the jetway at JFK Airport for their flight to London. It was the beginning of a sojourn barnstorming across Europe in the waning days of true amateurism for track and field. Oerter was using his 2-week summer vacation from Grumman Aerospace to participate in discus events, a few speaking engagements, some sight-seeing, and catch-up time with friends across the ocean.

Europeans were rabid for the Olympic track and field stars of the era and would come out in the tens of thousands to see them compete in their home countries. Much of this adulation and interest in the 1970’s and 80's was due to the efforts of Andy Norman, the Promotions officer of the British Athletic Federation, the predecessor of UK Athletics.

A controversial figure, Norman’s sphere of influence went far beyond the Cliffs of Dover. Larry Eder wrote in RunBlogRun, “In the 1980s, when star power in athletics was legendary and the sport was at its zenith in Europe, Andy Norman was agent, meet director, friend and foe, all rolled up into one. Many federations and meet directors and agents for that matter believed that Andy Norman ruled the world.”

Norman organized major track and field events in the UK and delivered a slew of athletes to meets and related activities across the continent. He handled all of the details of booking flights, hotels, arranging speaking engagements and meet appearances, but not always perfectly, as we shall soon see.

Andy Norman, agent, meet director, friend and foe
Andy Norman, organizer of many major T&F events

Al and Cathy, who was a former world class long jumper and pioneer of the Iowa State women’s track dynasty, originally had met in 1979, but then a more meaningful encounter ensued at the 1980 TFA/USA Championships. Over the following year, the relationship flourished, and in the spring of 1981, Cathy left her Seattle home to live with Al on Long Island. She had garnered a high school teaching position and would start her new position at the end of August.

Art Swarts, from the Shore Athletic Club of New Jersey, was a former Univ. of South Carolina discus star and long-time training partner, competitor and close friend of Al’s. He would be the third wheel and accompanying Al and Cathy on the same itinerary. His summer time off would end on Labor Day, when he had to begin the new semester as a teacher in the North Plainfield, NJ, school district.

As Al and Cathy entered the plane, they saw that John Powell, two-time Olympic medalist who was at the very top of all throwers, was also on the flight, and would be at most of the meets Al and Art were scheduled for. The men had voted Cathy “social director” in charge of tickets, since they all admitted not having any patience at airports. The flight out of JFK was cleared for takeoff as Al Oerter and company were soon on their way to London before connecting the next day to Budapest for the first meet on their schedule.

Wednesday (07/29), found the athletes at the Budapest International meet in Hungary. It most likely took place at the originally named Népstadion, or “Peoples Stadium,” which had opened 28 years earlier in 1953. It was renamed Ferenc Puskás Stadium in 2002.

Wolfgang Schmidt of East Germany, silver medalist in the ’76 games, took first place that day. Imrich Bugár, representing Czechoslovakia, who won the silver in Moscow (1980), placed second. He was a crowd favorite being an ethnic Hungarian. John Powell settled in at third place while Olympian Knut Hjeltnes (Norway) was fourth. Art Swarts and Al Oerter gained 5th and 7th respectively.

After the competition, Al, Cathy and Art did a lot of sightseeing and picture taking before heading back to London the next day.

Népstadion, renamed Ferenc Puskás Stadium in 2002, Budapest
Népstadion, renamed Ferenc Puskás Stadium

Friday (07/31), was a challenging evening at the British Games, sponsored by Talbot (now re-named the London Athletics Grand Prix). The venue was the National Sports Centre Crystal Palace and the rain was torrential and steamy hot. Regarding the discus competition, UPI wrote: “Powell led the U.S. to a 1-2-3 in the men's discus, heading Art Burns and three-time Olympic champion Al Oerter with a first-round throw of 66.62m, which broke the U.K. all-comers record of 66.52m set by American Mac Wilkins in 1976.” The only thing UPI got wrong was that Oerter was a four-time Olympic champion, not three. The winning recap was Powell (218-7), Burns (207-10), Oerter (204-9).

Saturday (08/01), the next stop on the tour was Bergen, Norway. Al, Cathy and Art bought their train tickets at Victoria Station and departed for the grueling two-and-a-half-day trip by rail. While no one can reconstruct the actual route, it was most likely London-Brussels-Hamburg-Gothenburg (Sweden)–Oslo-Bergen.

Cathy remembered that the sleeping berths were not as wide as Al’s shoulder-width and only about six feet long. Al had to remain in a 45-degree angle resting position just to fit. With two nights of consecutive cramped quarters, sleep was at a minimum.

Arriving in Bergen, our travelers were met with overcast skies and stunning landscape. The city, on Norway’s southwestern coast, is surrounded by mountains and fjords, including Sognefjord, the country’s deepest and longest.

Monday (08/03), was rainy with strong winds at the Norway Meet in Bergen. The 15,000 spectators made sure Fana Stadion was filled to capacity. The Norwegians were really thrilled to see the Olympians, and Al Oerter addressed the crowd before the discus event. UPI reported “John Powell of the United States won the discus with a throw of 66.30 meters, with compatriots Al Oerter, 60.24, and Arthur Swarts, 60.04, third and fourth.” Second place went to Norwegian Knut Hjeltnes, already a 2-time Olympian and beloved by his home country.

Fana Stadion, Bergen, Norway
Fana Stadion in Bergen, Norway

Steve Ovett and Steve Cram of the UK battled it out in the 1500m race, with Ovett winning. UPI wrote, “Steve Ovett of Britain failed to set a new mark in a world record attempt over 1,500 meters at the windswept Fana Stadium, outside Bergen, Monday, winning in 3:34.63.

The next day, Al, Cathy and Art went to tour the local sites with Steve Cram. The highlight was the Old Wharf section of the town with its colorful wooden houses and a boat ride to one of the fjords.

"Old Wharf" in Bergen, Norway
"Old Wharf" in Bergen, Norway
Art Swarts (r.) jokingly gives Al Oerter (l.) a nudge in Bergen, Norway
Art Swarts (r.) jokingly gives Al Oerter (l.) a nudge in Bergen

Meanwhile, there was also a dramatic event that happened on Monday 08/03 back in the United States. At 7am (EDT), the air traffic controllers union, known as PATCO, and employed by the FAA, went on strike. When President Ronald Reagan ordered the controllers back to work, only 10% of the 13,000 returned. Reagan then fired 11,345 strikers and banned them from federal service for life. Instantly, global air traffic to the U.S. was severely curtailed.

Due to their hectic schedule, Al, Cathy and Art did not hear of this until days later, with dramatic ramifications.

PATCO strike August, 1981
U.S. Air Traffic Controllers Go On Strike!

Tuesday (08/04), found our wandering trio on a flight to Milan, Italy, to attend the Viareggio International Meet in Viareggio. After landing at Milan Malpensa Airport, and collecting their bags, they tried to arrange a car to take them to their destination more than three hours away.

Right then, an announcement came over the PA system “Would passenger Cathy Carroll come to the security office inside the terminal immediately!” Al heard the message first and alerted Cathy that her name was just announced and that they had to go back inside.

Upon approaching the terminal, suddenly three Italian policemen surrounded Cathy with their guns drawn. A police captain stepped in front of her and made the accusation that she had flown into Milan with a stolen ticket. He demanded the ticket from Cathy.

Utterly terrified, Cathy reached into her bag, withdrew the ticket and attempted to hand it to the captain while his men’s guns were still pointed at her.

Al quickly slapped Cathy’s hand down and with strength in his voice, said, “Don’t give that to him.” Incensed, the police captain and his armed squad hurried Al and Cathy into the terminal and brought them into a small office.

Al explained that they were the guests of the Italian Athletics Federation (IAF), had been invited to the Viareggio International Meet and all airline tickets were handled by Andy Norman’s group out of the UK. The captain was not swayed. Al told him to call the IAF; that they would vouch for him. The captain remained unmoved.

“I was a close friend of Adolpho Consolini!” Al blurted out. Quickly, things became quiet. “How did you know him?” the captain asked.

Adolpho Consolini was an Olympic discus legend, won 15 Italian titles and was a national treasure of Italy. Winning the discus gold medal in 1948 games, he appeared in three more Olympics and competed with Al in 1956 and 1960. Al and Adolpho became great friends, and the respect they had for each other was boundless. He died in 1969.

Al answered the captain’s question and urged him to call whoever he needed to, and verify that he was an Olympic gold medalist and friend of the great Adolpho Consolini.

Ten minutes later, the police captain came back into the office gushing with apologies. Al, Cathy, and Art were soon headed by car to Viareggio.

Milan Malpensa Airport, Italy
The beauty of Milan Malpensa Airport, where things took an ugly turn

Cathy, a strict vegetarian, remembered making the big men go to eat at a vegetarian café at some point during their European excursion. Much to Al’s and Art’s chagrin, it probably happened that night in Viareggio.

Wednesday (08/05) was the Viareggio International Meet in northern Tuscany on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The crowd was overflowing at the Stadio Torquato Bresciani, also known as Stadio dei Pini.

In the discus, John Powell (208-4), Alwin Wagner (West Germany) (202-6) and Al Oerter (195-4) finished 1-2-3. Wagner won his country’s national championship in 1981, and would come out on top the next four years as well.

Entrance to Stadio Torquato Bresciani, also known as Stadio De Pini, Viareggio, Italy
Entrance to Stadio De Pini, Viareggio, Italy

Thursday (08/06) was a travel day for the trio back to London. The start of August had been very hot across England and, on the 6th, severe thunderstorms broke out due to the heat and instability. London was hit by a particularly severe storm which brought darkness to the late morning and caused flooding.

Friday (08/07) was the AAA Championships back at London’s fabled Crystal Palace National Sports Center. It was the pre-eminent meet of the British calendar. Organized by the Amateur Athletic Association of England, it was the foremost domestic athletics event in the United Kingdom. It eventually was succeeded by the British Athletics Championships.

On a dry, pleasant evening, it was a top 4 discus sweep by Americans Powell (1), Oerter (2) Burns (3) and Swarts (4).

Crystal Palace National Sports Center, London
Crystal Palace National Sports Center, London

Note: Al and Cathy went to Finland during the trip, but not to compete. Al had a speaking engagement at a Finnish track meet. Details and memories have faded, but it may have been wrapped around visiting Norway or, later, to the city of Oulu during the Finnish National Championships (August 8 – 9).

Cathy recalls that Al addressed a very large crowd at a stadium and then they went on a tour to see reindeer and other local sites (since Al did not compete, there were no meet records to validate his attendance).

At some earlier point in the trip (Art Swarts says it was after Norway), Al received a call from the Icelandic Athletic Federation, inviting his party to Reykjavik for a one-day competition scheduled for Tuesday, 08/11. Al, Art and Cathy all agreed to go since it was sort of on the way home to New York.

Upon landing at Keflavik International Airport on Monday, 08/10, they decided to book their flight back to JFK. It was then that they first learned about the air traffic controllers strike in the U.S. The FAA had announced that “By prioritizing and cutting over 7,000 flights, and adopting better practices (that the union was lobbying for), 50% of all flights remained available.” That seemed to be an overly optimistic statement for our displaced travelers, as they were unable to book their return to JFK.

It was dreary in Reykjavik with cold, hard rain and gray skies. Upon arriving at the hotel, the trio ran into Olympic shot put legend, Brian Oldfield, who had just arrived from the U.S., and was there for the same meet. It was his first stop on the way over for several meets across Europe.

L to R: Swarts, Oerter, Oldfield, 1981 Iceland News Clipping (courtesy Art Swarts)
L to R: Swarts, Oerter, Oldfield, 1981 Iceland News Clipping

Tuesday 08/11 was the scheduled date for the one-day competition at Laugardalsvöllur, the stadium which served as the home venue of the Icelandic national football team and site of major track and field events.

The meet began that afternoon, but due to the intermittent rain, cold wind and sloppy conditions, it had to be interrupted and postponed until the next day. Our three travelers were all concerned about how long they would be stuck in Iceland, since they had similar deadlines of when they had to be back at work.

Laugardalsvöllur stadium, Reykjavik, Iceland
Laugardalsvöllur stadium, Reykjavik, Iceland
L to R: Art Swarts, Cathy Carroll, Al Oerter clowning at Iceland meet
L to R: Art Swarts, Cathy Carroll, Al Oerter clowning at Iceland meet

Al, Cathy and Art went out to grab some dinner in downtown Reykjavik that evening. Now, in this land of the midnight sun, by August the sun was setting around 10pm, so it was still very light out, very late at night. Probably because of this, the local populace, already big drinkers per capita, tended to imbibe for longer periods of time and would get quite sloshed.

Yet, Iceland’s history with alcohol was complicated. There was actually a ban on beer with more than 2.25% alcohol since 1921. However, over the decades there were lots of clever and high-content work-arounds. When referring back to the 1980’s, Conde Nast Traveler wrote, “If anything, it is tamer now than before [before the beer ban was lifted], all the bars downtown closed at the same time, the streets got filled with drunk people beating each other up. So, getting drunk in the city was relatively easy even before the ban was lifted.”

As our trio went for an after-dinner stroll through the downtown pub scene, they encountered this very phenomenon. Al, at 6’4” 290 lbs, and Art, at 6-4, 258 lbs, two huge guys, were both heckled and challenged to fight by some very drunk inhabitants. It could have gotten ugly, but the big men somehow kept the peace.

Downtown Reykjavik today
Downtown Reykjavik today

Wednesday (08/12) the meet continued with Art throwing a strong 213-11 and Al with a 208-7. That evening, Al and company were invited to a very nice reception and dinner by the mayor of Reykjavik, Egill Ingibergsson. Al used the opportunity to express to the mayor that he was concerned that, due to the side trip to Iceland, he might not be able to make it back to New York in the midst of the controllers’ strike.

Mayor Ingibergsson promised Al that he would get he and his party on a plane to JFK the next morning. “Get to the airport early,” he instructed.

Thursday (08/13) It was about a 45-minute drive from the hotel to Keflavik Airport. There were lines of people extending from inside the terminal to the outside misty, damp air. Confusion reigned and anxious passengers, who had been waiting for hours, silently cursed the American air traffic controllers strike.

More modern Keflavik International Airport, Iceland,  today
Keflavik International Airport today

Al, Cathy and Art managed to get through the crowds with their baggage, and stood in close proximity to where the flights to JFK typically boarded. A short time later, the boarding call to JFK-New York was made over the public address system, and a steady stream of mostly greatly-relieved Icelanders inched their way down the jetway.

Al and Cathy shrugged silently to each other, as if to say, “I guess we’ll get the next one,” not knowing when that next flight was scheduled. That moment, there appeared to be an animated discussion going on between the gate agents and an apparent Icelandair manager in a suit. The agents were shaking their heads, “No,” while the higher-up gave them one last directive and pointed to the microphone.

“Would Al Oerter and party please report to Gate 5 for the Icelandair flight to JFK International Airport, New York!” blared loudly throughout the terminal so all could hear. Heads snapped around in the direction of the gate, as Al, Cathy and Art shuffled towards the boarding area.

The airline manager welcomed them and gestured for them to stay in place for just a few more minutes. “We have a full flight today,” he explained.

Just a few minutes later, three distraught, deplaning, Icelander passengers exited the boarding ramp and made their way past the three obvious American replacements. The gate agents, and others in the area, glared at Al and company for the terrible transgression.

The man in the suit nodded and urged the trio forward. The travelers headed down the ramp feeling very badly and embarrassed, to the point that they almost turned around to go back to the terminal.

Upon entering the plane, they were first met by the flight attendants with similar judgmental stares, who motioned them to continue heading rearward down the aisle. The “walk of shame” seemed endless, as the mostly male, Icelander passengers shook their heads in disgust to see the three Americans who had replaced their fellow countrymen and women.

Cathy led the way to the very last row of the plane, which had a 2-2-2 seat configuration. She and Al took the 2 seats on the left side of the aircraft with Art settling in across the aisle.

After making the required safety checks and readying things for takeoff, one of the flight attendants announced that “due to the long delay on the ground, Icelandair will be providing free cocktails, wine and beer for the estimated 6-hour flight to New York.” There was a mild, rumbling reaction of pleased and satisfied voices throughout the cabin.

A pair of Douglas DC-8's (early 80's) probably same plane flown by Al Oerter & Company
Pair of Douglas DC-8's (early 80's) probably same planes as flown by Al & Co.

Being in the last row, Al, Cathy and Art could not recline their next-to-the-lavatory seats, and for the men, with their size, it made for a very uncomfortable ride. As the flight progressed, they and Cathy started to notice a good number of male passengers becoming very loud due to the free booze, much like the behavior they encountered in Reykjavik two evenings before.

Finally, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the plane would be landing in approximately a half hour. It was then that Cathy realized the majority of passengers had grown quiet, save for some deep snorers who were also a part of two handfuls of heavy imbibers.

And then, touchdown! The extended 17-day trip was over. It had been…an adventure.

As the Icelandair plane slowly emptied, Al, Cathy and Art had to wait until they could gather their belongings from the overhead bins. The two flight attendants, started to move down the aisle towards them. Upon approach, Cathy slipped past them and headed for the exit at the front of the plane. The flight attendants then appeared to align themselves as if to block Al and Art.

While acknowledging the athletes’ uncommon strength and size, one of the attendants said, “We were hoping that you two strong guys could help us to vacate these…um…men.” With that, the attendants looked over their shoulders, and directed Al and Art with their eyes to about a dozen passed-out gentlemen, still in their seats, scattered throughout the plane. “We’re begging you to keep this hush-hush, please? It would mean our jobs if anyone found out,” she added.

One by one, two of the top discus throwers in the world, and one a 4-time Olympic gold medalist, proceeded to haul off each one of the motionless forms and deposited them onto the jetway connected to the terminal. Each time it was either Al hoisting with his hands under the armpits and Art at the ankles, or vice-versa. It was grueling work, and even though they were “strong guys,” the exertion resulted in them dripping sweat.

As they got to the second-to-last passed-out passenger, Art wiped his brow and said, “This is a load of bullshit.” Al chuckled, placed his hand on Art’s shoulder, and in his natural eloquence, with keen reasoning, replied, “No Art. We crashed the flight line. This is Poetic Justice.”

© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


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