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A Big, Shy Man Who Likes to think
Barbara Heilman
June 17, 1963
Discus Thrower Al Oerter is a strong bundle of contradictions, except when he is on the field
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June 17, 1963

A Big, Shy Man Who Likes To Think

Discus Thrower Al Oerter is a strong bundle of contradictions, except when he is on the field

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If they ever expanded the discus thrower's circle to 9 feet or 10, the records would really soar," Al Oerter said. "Then the larger, heavier athletes could compete." The athletes larger and heavier, that is, than World Champion Oerter, who stands a big-boned 6 feet 4 and carries around, unobtrusively, some 250 pounds. "As it is," Oerter went on, "you can be too tall. Wilt Chamberlain is so tall he got dizzy. He's a big, strong man, but he's 7 feet, and to try to turn around in an 8-foot circle—it was like a top spinning. There was no lateral movement, or no forward movement; he was just spinning around, like a top. Oh, they wouldn't do it—expand the circle. Though—well, perhaps, someday they might, since the whole race seems to be getting bigger."

Oerter's statistics are standard for modern discus throwers, a breed football coaches have been known to look over covetously. Tall, strong, rangy and quick, they come in linebacker sizes, with good eyes, a particular balance and exceptional reflexes. Throwing the discus demands a large man, for height and length of arm, for maximum leverage and plain power, to heave the disc past the point coordination alone could account for. In addition to this heavy equipment, the discus thrower needs balance, to whirl effectively in a circle, and good reflexes.

"In spinning, a lot of things can go wrong," Oerter says. "If you don't have to think about them to correct them, if your natural reflexes act, you're a lot better off." The circles are quickly chewed into bad shape by track shoes; foot placement is crucial, and once you commit yourself to it you are stuck with it; moving in a circle has its own problems of balance and proper release. And improper release can be pretty spectacular. "I almost killed the world record holder that way," Al contributes. "Fortune Gordien was standing right beside me, inside a cage. I thought I had thrown it the right way, but it bounced off the net right behind his head. He kind of turned white," Al added pensively.

Achieving a maximum power and thrust, maintaining balance in an accelerating whirl, coming out of it precisely and releasing a disc with the maximum spin at the optimum angle off your forefinger with a nice calculation of wind direction and speed—there's a good deal going on when you throw a discus. "You hit a dynamic balance," Oerter says. "You do it from a one and three-quarter turn, and the release of the discus spins it clockwise from your right hand. It's a matter of maximum spinning efficiency—a maximum effect with a minimum of strain. The more you strain, the less distance. It has to be a very relaxed type of motion.

"The spin on the discus works the same way as the rifling on a bullet. Because it will spin, it will go on a fairly even trajectory, and the greater the spin the greater the distance. The wind—it's more than a preference to have it coming right to left. Dick Ganslen, out at the University of Arkansas, has gone through tests with a computer, with various angles on the discus, and there are all kinds of charts and things. There's a stall speed where there's too great an angle, and the vacuum on top of the discus is lost. If we can just retain it, the discus will go much farther. The vacuum makes it lift, like the wing of a plane. Well, you can talk until you're blue in the face, and throwers can throw until their arms are hanging down but, until they do it right once, they don't know what it is."

Al Oerter, who does know what it is, brought home the gold medals from Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960, and on April 27 of this year he threw a world record 205 feet 5� inches. He has been playing leapfrog for this record with Jay Silvester and Vladimir Tru-senyev of Russia (Rink Babka of California occasionally got to play, too). In 1962 Al threw 198 feet 6 in April and then in M ay 200 feet 5�. Trusenyev threw 202 feet 2� on June 4, Al fell short with 199 feet 7� on June 10 but charged ahead in July with 204 feet 10�. And all the time the official record was held by Jay Silvester. It was a mere 199 feet 2�, but Silvester had also thrown a disqualified 210 feet 2 l/2 and was thus not exactly to be dismissed. He is probably not to be dismissed next week at the AAU championships in St. Louis, either, since last week at Compton, Calif., he hopped over Al again with 204 feet 4 to 202 feet 8�."When you throw against Oerter you don't expect to win," Silvester said afterwards. "You just hope. He's the toughest man to beat in track and field."

The first 200-plus throws suffered frequent and arbitrary disqualifications. When many fields were laid out years ago, the men who laid them out still rejoiced in the thought that you could be certain of your impossibilities and a 200-foot discus throw was among them. Thus in 1958 Rink Babka's 201 feet passed the boundaries to land in a ditch, and the field where Silvester threw his 210 feet 2� fell off 27 inches at that distance. Still, it was inarguably a mighty throw, and Al, for one, doesn't argue it. "That was under ideal conditions," he does murmur. "Wind, weather, attitude...."

"Ideal conditions" are Al's particular will-o'-the-wisp. "I'm not in very good shape," he said when he threw the 205 feet 5�-"The wind wasn't really the way I like it," after the 204 feet 10�-"The ring was so slippery I nearly fell," after the 200 feet 5 l/2. Cheerful and sheepish, he admits, "I'm a constant complainer. Nothing is ever right. But I do know realistically: How much difference a few pounds make, or a wind coming slightly from a wrong direction? But I have to complain about something."

As to attitude, Al does believe that some athletes have days when they perform spectacularly beyond their own capacities. He himself has never had such an unexpected day, but he has said, "I expect to throw it 210 feet. Farther, eventually. I just hope before I quit this that I get one day with everything right, and that I'm lucky, and I'll just push that world record so far out it will be years before they break it, and then I'll quit." He paused. "No, I won't," he said.

Alfred A. Oerter Jr. is a sandy-haired, sea-eyed bundle of paradoxes. "I suppose you can see all kinds of conflicts," he says thoughtfully. "I'm a complete introvert, but an extrovert when it comes to athletics." He is also shy and forthright; deeply concerned about young people but too impatient to enjoy teaching them; nervous and calm. He calls himself lazy, but if he allows himself to watch television for a few hours he feels he deserves to be kicked—TV is a waste of time, and so are movies.

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