Al Oerter is wearing flared jeans and a flowered shirt as he arrives for a workout at C. W. Post College on Long Island. The clothes look good on him, but even if they didn't, it might be well not to say so. Oerter is 6'4" and 275 pounds, not the sort of man you should anger. Fortunately, Oerter also is a gentle soul.
Yes, he's having a workout. Not merely a bit of exercise to keep a 40-year-old body from getting flabby, but a genuine, full-scale, Moscow-here-I-come workout. Having won four gold medals in the discus in four successive Olympics—1956 to 1968—Al Oerter has climbed down from Mount Olympus and is going for a fifth in 1980.
Considering the places in which he has competed—Melbourne, Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City, among them—C. W. Post seems a quiet spot to prepare for such an assault, but Oerter lives just a few miles down the road in West Islip with his two teen-age daughters. Changing into shorts, T shirt and running shoes, Oerter jams his jeans and flowered shirt into a canvas bag and heads for a distant field where members of the Post track team are unlimbering. The day is unseasonably hot, in the upper 80s. "Good for an old man," Oerter says. "You pull muscles when it's cold."
He makes a quick stop at his bright red Fiat, puts the canvas bag away and produces a pair of discuses. "I have to get these two at a time," he says. "After a year they begin to chip. Oh, I suppose if I were throwing on some nice soft grass in California they would last longer, but the frozen ground here in the East chips them."
Oerter casually scales one of the discuses 100 feet, then jogs after it. Walking back, he tosses it overhead several times, catching it as easily as most men would a silver dollar. After stretching exercises, he joins the Post athletes at a cage where they are tossing the hammer, shot and discus. If they are awed by the massive four-time gold-medal winner, they do not show it; but then Oerter has become a familiar figure on campus. For his part, Oerter tries not to impose himself upon the young weight men. Only once during his workout will he make a critical remark, and then it is done quietly to their coach, Al Dawson. "The kid is dissipating all that energy," Oerter says. "Scared or fouling or something."
When it is his turn to throw, Oerter stands for a few moments at the back of the cage, well behind the throwing circle. He is contemplating his motion. Ideally, if the soles of his shoes were painted, leaving footprints in the ring on his first throw, the second would produce exactly the same set of footprints. Entering the ring, Oerter turns his back to the field, then launches into a crouched windup, spinning 1� times and releasing the discus. Out it sails, twice as far as anybody else is throwing anything at C. W. Post this day.
And now, warmed up, Oerter takes a towel and places it on a chalk stripe 200 feet from the ring. "I like to have a goal," he says, "even in practice." His first toss lands just short, but the second carries over the towel by a couple of feet. On this warm day on Long Island, Al Oerter, age 40, has just thrown the discus farther than he did when he won gold medals in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo. It is a feat he attributes to improved technique and a carefully controlled diet that has replaced the piles of mashed potatoes he used to eat to build up his body. Still his throw is some 30 feet short of Mac Wilkins' world record, but Al Oerter has never cared about world records. He has always been an Olympics man.
Because Oerter has been out of competition since early 1969, a brief reminder of his heroics is in order. In none of his four Olympics was he the favorite, nor was he the reigning world-record holder, yet each time he set an Olympic record. His weight grew from 235 pounds in Melbourne in 1956 to 295 in Mexico City in 1968. He was the first man to throw the discus 200 feet. His winning throws in the Olympics ranged steadily upward from 184'11" in Melbourne to 212'6" in Mexico City. It is noteworthy that when Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia won the discus in 1972 in Munich, his distance was more than a foot short of Oerter's 1968 mark. (Danek was 35 at the time. The 1948 Olympic champion, Adolfo Consolini, got off his best throw when he was a month shy of 39. Former world-record holder Fortune Gordien was still a world-class competitor at 37, and Jay Silvester competed in the Montreal Olympics at 38. There is ample precedence for excelling in the discus at an advanced age.)
"There is something about the Games that gets in your blood," Oerter has said. "All those people from those various nations, all with the same purpose. The crowds, the training, the competition, the pressure. I know it may sound dumb, but I can really get charged up about the Olympics."
He also had the ability to psych out his opponents. In 1968 Silvester was the world-record holder (224'5") and he was exceeding 200 feet with almost every throw. One day in Mexico City, Silvester, who is from Utah, showed Oerter a good-luck telegram.