Winning Fortune's Gold
“Al, you got a second?” The locker room was clearing out and Al Oerter stopped and turned to coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake, the U.S. Olympic team trainer and assistant track and field coach. It was November 27th, 1956, and the final round of the Men’s Discus event at the Melbourne Olympics was about to commence.
Drake looked to make sure no one else was in the room. He approached Oerter and, in a quiet, firm voice, spoke with conviction. “Al, I don’t want you to talk to anybody out there. I don’t want anybody to talk to you. Just stay the hell away from people. You can observe all you want; throw all you want; but I don’t want you talking to anybody.”
Oerter paused for a moment, and while looking directly at Drake, said, “Okay.” Al later recalled, “I never asked him, ‘Why?’”
The 1956 Summer Olympics, the Games of the XVI Olympiad in Melbourne, Australia, were the first held in the Southern Hemisphere and the first ever held outside of Europe and North America. As a result, the “summer” games in Australia meant that they were actually late autumn/winter for the Northern Hemisphere participants. For the U.S. Olympians, Thanksgiving Day coincided with the Opening Ceremonies, “Down Under.”
This was Al Oerter’s first Olympic Games, having made the team by a sudden, fortunate gust of wind that miraculously blew his discus back inbounds at the U.S. Trials. He had just turned twenty years old in September. Teammate Fortune Gordien, the world record holder, was the heavy favorite in his third Olympic Games. During practice, five days before the competition, Al saw Gordien throw 199 feet, five further than his world record. Oerter remarked, “If he just holds his stuff together, nobody on earth is going to get near him.”
Gordien was a very talkative, animated, in-your-face competitor who made sure everyone knew how far he was throwing and that the gold medal was already his. On plane and bus rides, when everyone else was trying to sleep, Gordien would be doing card tricks and pulling coins out of people’s ears.
During a practice session three days before the discus event, Al described that, “It had been raining and the ring was a bit slippery from guys dragging mud into it. There were about two dozen throwers, fairly large people, working with great intensity. You get into a rhythm of throwing, going out and retrieving your discus, getting back in the line, and then into the ring and throwing again.
“Gordien was right behind me the entire time and constantly saying, ‘Come on, come on, get in the ring, move it, let’s go, let’s go;’ just a constant chatterbox. Until, one time, I got in the ring a bit too hurried and was in the act of throwing. Unknown to me, Gordien had entered the cage area behind me, so intent on his next throw.
“I was turning and about to release when I slipped on the wet surface, causing me to launch the discus rearward with great force. It bounced off the cage right behind Gordien’s head. The man’s blood drained out of his body. I don’t know how the discus missed him. He got out of the cage and, from then on, he didn’t push me anymore.”
The format for the discus event at the Melbourne Games included a Qualifying Round in the morning followed by a two-part Final Round in the afternoon. In the Qualifying, 22 throwers had 3 attempts to throw past a line at the 47-meter (154’-2”) mark in order to make the finals. This was a way of culling out those that had made their country’s Olympic team but had no capability to reach the top throwers.
Al recalled, “You try to relax and just get one inch over that 47-meter line that is clearly marked. You just want to qualify and conserve energy for the finals.” Oerter threw only once, like most of those who got past the qualifying distance, but actually went 4 meters past the minimum. Still, he felt very much at ease. That wasn’t true of everyone.
“You can tell which ones are going to have a difficult time in the finals by how they behave in the qualifying round. Those are the ones screaming and cranking as hard as they possibly can. They are trying to establish themselves among their peers at that moment. Any experienced competitor knows that those types do not have a great sense of themselves. There’s no reason to throw that far; one inch past the line is all you need.”
Sixteen throwers qualified for the finals, made up of a total of six rounds. After the first three rounds, the field is reduced to the top six competitors and each gets three more throws. All six throws of the finals count, with each thrower taking their best result.
The finals in the Men’s Discus were scheduled to begin at 3:25pm. After getting his last-minute advice from Ducky Drake, Al Oerter was one of the last to move down the ramp to the Melbourne Cricket Ground where all of the competitors were bunched up, waiting to go out onto the lawn. It was a sunny spring day, with the sky crystal blue and the air perfectly warm.
Fortune Gordien was doing card tricks. Adolfo Consolini of Italy, who was in his third Olympics, was outwardly talkative and friendly. He won the gold medal in1948, the silver in 1952 and couldn’t wait to start the competition. Des Koch of the U.S was enjoying the moment as well. He made the Olympic team as an alternate, but replaced Ron Drummond who had committed to dental school and had to drop from the team, a casualty of the late-in-the-year Melbourne Games.
Al had vibrant memories of his experience: “I walked out into the sunlight of that beautiful stadium packed with more than 100,000 people. Large flags of all the countries of the world waved from poles lining the back of the top tier. I am just trying to keep my cool, if that is even possible in that type of setting. I wanted to keep from fainting and collapsing in the damn ring. I prayed at that moment, ‘Don’t make me get into the ring…I’ll make a fool out of myself.’
“I had never thrown in front of a crowd that size, and with this great movement of people on the field, and the fact that it was the Olympics, well, it was intimidating.
“I didn’t talk to anybody. And nobody talked to me. I gave off a vibe, or something like that, so people would know to stay the hell away from me. I didn’t diffuse any energy, which was Coach Drake’s main goal. He wanted me to think about myself solely, given that environment where sometimes thought is scattered.
“I didn’t try to become too friendly with anyone because we were about to lock horns in this seemingly intense competition. Nor did I allow myself to be persuaded by those who tried to talk to me to think that they were really “on” that day.
“Then, I started looking at all of the people, the competitors, and the way they were conducting themselves; how they appeared, because we were about to get into a wonderful experience with one another. There were some really odd things going on.
“I looked over to the throwing area and there is this lanky Swede flipping a discus. His head was huge. He looked just like a fair-haired Frankenstein monster. There was this tall Russian, and I couldn’t get over how big his nose was. You could stick apples in his nostrils. I then saw another guy wearing a pair of tattered brown shoes. How is he going to throw in them? I approached another thrower with his uniform shirt hanging out, nothing tucked in, and wearing black socks. Doesn’t he have any pride?
“I soaked in everything that was going on. It was great. Maybe I was trying to mask that I would be in the same competition as these folks. The experience of seeing people on the floor of a stadium in an Olympic competition was so interesting because they were just not themselves. Those that I had been involved with in training sessions were not the same people that showed up that day.
“There were exceptions. People like Consolini and Des Koch remained normal and at ease, and those were the ones I tried to emulate. Consolini was conversational and absolutely enjoying every moment. You knew that he was capable because he could not wait to get into the ring. Des was gregarious, slapping guys on the back. I thought he would have a good day.”
One thing common in Olympic discus events is that the discs are supplied by the host city and throwers do not bring their own. That sets up a mild competitive frenzy in itself for the implements in the discus rack that are offered just prior to warm-ups. Al never played that game, surmising that expending energy fighting for a preferred discus would take focus away from the competition that was just moments away.
The warm-up period ended and the throwers, most who were happy with their preferred discs, prepared for the start of the competition. The discus landing sector included a clearly marked white line in an arc at 55.03m (180’-7”). This was the standing Olympic record distance, set by the USA’s Sam Innes in Helsinki, four years earlier.
The competition began and Gordien threw ahead of Oerter. It was the only time that day that Al saw Fortune throw. When Gordien entered the circle, Al said, “You could tell something was wrong. He looked ashen; whiter than white. He was herky-jerky, over-animated, impatient.” Still, Gordien hurled a respectable 54.75m (179’- 7½”) on his first attempt. However, this was 20 feet less than what he had done in practice a few days before. Each thrower’s distance was indicated by a marker with their jersey number.
Al’s name was announced. He slowly entered the ring and thought to himself, “Look at this..I’ve worked hard to get here…I’m on the floor of the Olympic stadium…I’m with the best of the best in something we have chosen to do.” All of his worries went away and his confidence was peaking.
Oerter’s USA uniform was pearly white with a pair of red and blue stripes on the front running diagonally from his right shoulder to left hip. His number, 438, was emblazoned across the front and back. He looked crisp, with near-crew cut hair that appeared golden in the moment. “When I walked into the ring in Melbourne, it was like that very first throw back in high school. It was like coming home.”
Again, on Ducky Drake’s advice, Al started to spin slowly, as easily as he possibly could, unsure of the circle’s surface. He took a monster rip with all arm and the discus launched as if shot from a cannon. He “banged it,” in throwers’ parlance. It seemed to float further and further and higher than he was used to. It landed well past the white line arc and five or six feet beyond what anyone else had thrown before him.
The knowledgeable and excited crowd erupted. In Al’s words, “They went nuts!” They could clearly see it was a new Olympic record and the result was announced immediately: “56.36 meters.” The distance was also put up on a revolving horizontal electronic sign, in meters only. Al said,” I knew it was an Olympic record because I saw it passed the line. But I didn’t know how far. I didn’t know meters from pancakes.”
Al could see most of the competitors turn around and look at the crowd. He termed that “the quiet moment.” The throwers then looked at the rotating sign and suddenly became very animated. There was a building, buzzing sound, like bees in a hive, as throwers tried to convince themselves that they must work at an even higher and more intense level. A sign with “438” was staked by an official where the discus landed. It was out there all by itself.
Des Koch and Aldofo Consolini were the only ones that did not change their behavior. Al observed, “Here were two guys that recognized where we were and were able to savor the moment and feel like themselves. I looked at Des and said to myself, ’Now this is the way it should be.’ This guy is having a hell of a good time, as was Consolini.
“Adolfo couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak Italian, but it was obvious that we had an immediate connection through this competitive environment we were now in. This is what we had all worked for, for long periods of time, and we were finally here, and wasn’t it wonderful?”
Someone told Al that his throw was 184’-11”, a lifetime best. Even though he had just set a new Olympic record, Oerter had no sense of his achievement, or that it may put him close to a medal. It did give him hope that he had a chance of making the final three rounds since Gordien, the man he considered to win it all, was not the person he had seen in the training sessions.
Gordien continued to have difficulty. He threw only 49.18m in the second round but, in the sixth, on his last throw, it was his best of the day at 54.81m (179’-10”) and earned him the silver medal. In the fifth round, Des Koch locked in the bronze with 54.40m (178’- 6”) after battling Mark Pharaoh of Great Britain throughout. Adolfo Consolini threw well, placing sixth, and would compete with Al again at the 1960 Games in Rome.
By the sixth round, Oerter’s “438” marker was still the furthest, and he was scheduled to throw last. When it was his turn, it was already assured that he would place first. With his final throw, which was his third best, he walked away with the top three distances of the competition. He had won the Gold Medal, set a new Olympic record, and surpassed the existing world record holder; all on his very first throw.
The discus competitors swarmed Al to congratulate him, even Gordien. Fortune had begun to return to his old self and got some color back in his face. Des Koch was beyond ecstatic with his and Al’s performances. He didn’t think he would be anywhere near a medal. After all, he was lucky to even be on the Olympic team, and now they had accomplished a three-medal sweep for the USA.
Al reflected on the moment: “I had won an Olympic Gold Medal, when just a few hours before I never really even considered it. All of a sudden, pulling this thing out, the feeling was overpowering. It doesn’t get a chance to sink in because they award you the medal right away, and I started to feel a little woozy on the top step of the stand.
“Then, they immediately take you from the medal ceremony into a press conference, and there is a bunch of sports writers from all over the world jammed in and everybody firing questions at you because it is the only event going on at that particular moment.
“All of the attention is focused on you, fortunately or unfortunately, and this was the first time I had been in front of a press conference like that. And I can remember sitting there and making the statement that, 'This gold medal feels so good, I want to win four more.' That became kind of something between me and the press, and people who remember that comment, from that day forward to the end of my career.”
Thus began the journey and the quest to win five Olympic gold medals. More importantly, Al Oerter did not want to ever give up on the Olympic experience. “We had all worked very hard for a long period of time in virtual isolation, thousands of miles apart from one another, had very elusive goals, and yet, here we were, at this incredible gathering on this one day.
“You realize who you are and where you are in that time and place. It was as perfect as things can become. Yet, for some of the other fellows, particularly the good ones like Gordien, it was a fearful place. It was a place not to be. It was something where failures, or lack of whatever it is in their lives, where they considered this to be far less than wonderful, where it was all exhibited to the world. They wanted to run away. That is something I will never understand.
© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved