Let us inquire into a curiosity. Discus throwers don't decline at the same rate that other athletes do. Their rivalries outlast generations of mayfly sprinters and dog's-age javelinists. The only track and field athlete who has won a gold medal in a still-existing event in four successive Olympics is a discus thrower, Al Oerter, who ruled from 1956, in Melbourne, through 1968, in Mexico City. He took an eight-year break, starting in 1969, then returned to competition better than ever.
It is part of the Oerter mystique that he was never favored to win an Olympics. Especially not his first, in 1956, when he was a 20-year-old sophomore at Kansas and faced world-record holder Fortune Gordien, also of the U.S. Yet Oerter won, and the old master took it hard. Gordien went home and raised up a son, Marcus. Trained him to be better than his father. Twenty-two years later, at the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA, he sent Marcus, then 23, out to throw against Al Oerter, then 43.
Oerter beat him.
Nor is Oerter's longevity all that unusual. Unless somebody proves otherwise at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials this week in Indianapolis, the two best American discus men right now are John Powell, who turned 41 on June 25, and Mac Wilkins, 37. Wilkins won at the 1976 Olympics and was second in 1984. He also won the national championship in June. Powell, who finished second to Wilkins this year, had won the previous five nationals and was second in the 1987 World Championships in Rome. The American-record holder is Ben Plucknett, a 6'7�", 300-pound stripling of 34.
"In a sense, the longevity [of Wilkins and Powell] is quite by accident," says Stanford coach Brooks Johnson, who has known both men for more than a decade. "They've tried to retire, but no one has really displaced them, so they've come right back. That has been possible because developing good discus technique is a matter of X number of productive repetitions. X is a very high number. These guys were and are willing to live the event. They're showing that age and aging are not the same thing."
All three are, fittingly, inhabitants of the peninsula south of San Francisco, that sorcerer's region of sequoias and elegantly joined semiconductors. Here the land's famous instability seems to jolt the collective unconscious in unexpected ways.
"There is a time warp to the discus," says Plucknett, in his log cabin in the hills above Woodside. He is a mountain man, bearded and standing half a head taller than his doorways. He has animal hides draped over the rafters, and elk, rattlesnake and alligator meat in the freezer. "I might have been born in ancient Greece and am only now working out what I began then. The discus is graceful ballet, magical and absorbing, and so hard for me to put down."
Plucknett has unfinished business in his current incarnation. He was boycotted out of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and tore four muscle groups in his left leg before the 1984 Games. "I weighed 324 then," he says. "My form has so much radius and torque that after a certain level of strength, the technique just tears the body apart."
So there seems nothing in the act of discus throwing itself that preserves its devotees. It's less a question of biophysics than of character.
Plucknett, squeezed into his tiny Honda Civic or perched on a chair with his cats in his cabin, emits a jaunty serenity. He is from Beatrice, Neb., and was an individualist from the start.