"It is signed by almost everybody in my hometown of Orem," said Silvester. "All 400 of them."
"Four hundred?" said Oerter. "Can't be much of a town." Silvester finished fifth that year.
Tokyo may have been Oerter's most dramatic victory. Two years before, in 1962, he had pinched a nerve in his neck that immobilized his left side when he tried to throw. Three doctors told him to call it quits, but Oerter and another doctor had a horse collar built out of foam rubber and plastic, and Al went on throwing. In Tokyo, six days before he competed, Oerter slipped in a wet ring and tore cartilage loose from his rib cage. Again doctors advised him not to throw and again Oerter declined. Shot full of novocaine, taped like a mummy and unable to lie down between throws because of the pain, Oerter got off the winner on his next-to-last attempt, an effort that brought him to his knees in agony. "I thought my ribs would fall off," he said at the time. "The pain was so rough it destroyed all my feelings for competition for a long time afterward."
Mexico City was not much better. A week before his event, Oerter pulled the adductor muscle high on the inside of his right thigh. "It's the worst thing that can happen to a discus thrower," he says. "I couldn't make an involuntary left turn."
He also had to contend with a chronic cervical disc injury, but he refused to wear his collar because it hampered his throwing. The day of the discus competition dawned sunny, but a heavy rain postponed the event until late in the afternoon. After two throws Oerter was in third place. But on his next toss—with what Silvester once described as "that freight train right arm"—he blasted one out 212'6", more than five feet farther than he had ever thrown before. Oerter had won his event for an unprecedented fourth time.
Shortly after Mexico City he called it quits. Too much pain, too much pressure, most of it brought on by his own demands on himself. "I think the best thing for me to do is to slide out of this gracefully," he said. He was 33, he had a wife, two daughters and a job at Grumman Aircraft as data communications manager. He jogged, he skied, he went boating and he played tennis. His weight dropped to 240. Some people figured he would unretire just before the Munich Olympics, but he never gave it a thought. He even declined an invitation to attend the Games as the U.S. Olympic Committee's guest. "I'll watch the fool event on television," he said. "I'll probably get so wound up I'll start training for '76."
This year Oerter and his wife were divorced. "It was perfectly amicable," he says. "She's an artist and has her own studio. She wanted to get a better idea of her own self." Al's daughters, Crystiana, now 18, and Gabrielle, 15, remained with their father.
In late 1975 Oerter became involved with Bud Greenspan's televised series The Olympiad. One segment was "The Incredible Five," of which Al was one, along with distance runners Emil Zatopek and Paavo Nurmi, sprinter-hurdler Fanny Blankers-Koen and gymnast Vera Caslavska. Watching films of past Olympics—crowds cheering, flags waving, athletes performing—Oerter felt the juices bubbling.
Then one February evening in 1976, while having dinner in New York with Greenspan and members of his staff, Oerter said, "Bud, I'm very taken by what you're doing...."
"Well, we're very taken by what you're doing for us," Greenspan interrupted.