jueves, 5 de enero de 2012

Al Oerter: the Last of the True Amateurs

"When you throw against Oerter you do not expect to win. You just hope... He is the toughest man to beat in track and field"  (Jay Silvester) (1)

            You do not hear much about him anymore, maybe because his sensational Olympic feat was eventually matched for another athlete. Even his death in 2007 passed almost unnoticed in the no-specialised press. Yet Al Oerter is the only track and field athlete, along with Carl Lewis, who has achieved a gold medal in four different Olympic Games. Besides, he did it in every occasion coming to the discus throw final as the underdog, to eventually beat the then world record holder, setting a new Olympic best in the process. Oerter’s life is inspirational, because of the way he overcame adversity to become a celebrated champion, (2) and it is not limited to sport: Al worked for many years as a computer engineer and was also an accomplished artist.
            Alfred Adolf Oerter Jr. was born the 19th September 1936 in Astoria, Queens, New York. His father was from German origin, while his mother’s family came from Czechoslovakia. As a child he was diagnosed high blood pressure, a hindrance he had to fight all his life against. Because of that problem he was not the typical dynamic boy you can find playing lively in a playground or a school sports facility. Instead his parents tried to encourage him to more contemplative activities such as visiting museums. Yet Al grew an impressing strong young man. He was 6ft 4in tall (1,93m) and by Mexico Olympic Games he would reach 295 pounds (135kg). In Sewanhaka High School he started practising sports as baseball and football, but he was often left out by coaches who used to play favourites, instead of the most talented guys in the team. Thus he soon moved to individual sports as track and field, first to sprints, later to the mile. One day Al was running on the track as a miscarriage discus came to his feet. He sent it back towards his mate, with the result the implement overcame largely the initial thrower. Immediately, he was switched to the discus event and progressed quickly until he reached a new national schoolboy record. 
            After finishing high school, Oerter attended a business career at University of Kansas, where he continued throwing. Millard Bill Easton, the Track and Field Head coach, always pointed out his immense natural talent: “Al Oerter would have thrown anything: a discus, a hammer, a base ball or a hand bomb.” (3) In his sophomore year he qualified fourth at the American trials for 1956 Melbourne Olympics but got finally a place in the Games, due to Ron Drummond’s injury. The favourite in Melbourne was US leader Fortune Gordien but, unexpectedly, 19-year-old Al Oerter in his first attempt delivered a 56.36 toss, a new Olympic record, good enough to win the competition. Overwhelmed by his victory, Al almost fainted on the podium. However, less than a year afterwards, Al was nearly killed in a car accident. After a miraculous physical recovery, the Olympic champion qualified to defend his title in Rome. Another compatriot, Rink Babka was favoured to win. Babka was clearly heading the contest until round five, while Oerter’s performance was not being quite solid. Then the leader pointed to his rival some technical mistakes he was having. Al corrected them immediately and thanks to the advice got a massive throw of 59.18, to win his second Olympic gold medal.
            The following years we could see Oerter in fine shape. He was the first man throwing beyond 200 feet (61,10m) in 1962. Yet soon injuries started to bother him. Prior to 1964 Olympic Games he suffered from cervical disc pain and just 6 days before going to Tokyo he also slipped from a wet concrete discus ring and tore rib cartilage from his lower right side. Doctors advised Al to withdraw from competition and take some weeks of rest, but he refused saying: “These are the Olympics. You die before you quit!”(2) Oerter, wearing a neck harness, faced Czech Ludvik Danek, the new record holder, trying to get a winning toss quickly, but after the fourth attempt was still third. In great pain and internally bleeding from his wound, he made a last effort, which brought him to his knees in agony: "I felt like somebody was trying to tear out my ribs." (4) When he looked up to the scoreboard realised he had produced 61.00m, which earned him a new Olympic victory. His cervical troubles would become chronic and age seemed also to have taken its toll in Oerter. He narrowly qualified for Mexico Games and his recent performances were really inferior to what the new leader of the event, Jay Silvester, was throwing. Besides, Oerter had also damaged the adductor muscle on the inside of his right thigh, soon after the crucial contest. Notwithstanding, as the decisive day came, just as Silvester had predicted, Al Oerter stood again as the mighty giant he had always been at the Olympic Games, going further than ever in his precedent career in his last three attempts. His 64.78m were unreachable for everybody else, thus grabbing his fourth straight title.

Legend Al Oerter at the Hall of Fame
            Shortly after Mexico’s victory, Al Oerter decided to quit discus throwing as he was 33, tired of pressure and injuries. He devoted himself to his job as engineer in electronic data processing at Grunman Aircraft and to his wife and two daughters. He relaxed, practising hobbies like tennis, ski or boat sailing and started losing weight quickly. He was invited by the US Olympic committee to assist to Munich as a guest but he declined stating he would watch the Games on TV.  Soon Al and her wife Corinne were divorced. The girls remained with their father.       
           In late 1975, Bud Greenspan envisioned a televised series about the Olympiad. Oerter became involved in the project and, after watching crowds cheering, flags waving and athletes performing, felt invaded by nostalgia. (5) Then he decided to resume his athletic career, to be the winner of five gold Olympic medals, as he had promised to journalists as he struck the first one in Melbourne. It was too late to be ready for Montreal but there was enough time for Moscow. He changed his old mashed-potatoes diet for a more scientific-guided nutrition and went back to the lifting room. Soon he was gaining weight again. Besides, Oerter changed several things in his training and devoted himself to correct imperfections of his technique. The passion of competing was also back. As a result, he improved progressively on his former PB, reaching a huge 69.46 in the Olympic year. Anyway, the President Jimmy Carter had boycotted the Games and he had finished just fourth at the trials, which never were his thing. After concluding his participation at this qualifying contest in Eugene, Oregon, Al Oerter, then 43, received a five minutes ovation from the crowd, in recognisance to his lifelong endeavours.
          By that time, Al got married again to Cathy, an elite long jumper. Al Oerter, who many considered the living representation of the classic Greek sculpture "The Discobulus", also began painting. Oerter had been familiar with Art since his childhood. He was described as coming from a bohemian and innovative family and his parents’ and grandparents’ houses had both a respectable collection of paintings, especially from the impressionists. Young Al enjoyed visiting museums as the Metropolitan or Soho, but, contrary to his parents, his favourite artists were the abstract contemporary painters. (3) Before Moscow Olympic Games, Oerter was invited, along with other sportsmen for a project sponsored by the foundation Anheuser-Buschen. They have to make a painting, where their sport was represented. Al watched Wilma Rudolph finish her work with a powerful footprint over the canvas. It inspired the quadruple Olympic champion, who drew some blue circles and then threw the discus over them six times, as many as the number of attempts in a competition. The blue paint splashed on the canvas and his face randomly, giving shape to unexpected and explosive combinations of colour: the Impact Art had been born. Oerter popularised and perfected his finding in the following years. He tried to develop an artistic expression which evoked the same energy and passion than his discus throwing activity and made with the same work-ethic. Having neither a coach in Track and Field nor a teacher in Art, all he created had to come from within. In the last years of his life, Al Oerter would also found the Art of the Olympians, an initiative featuring sportsmen from all over the world, including, besides Oerter, Bob Beamon and Shane Gould.        
            Still the four times Olympic champion tried to make the team for Los Angeles but he injured his Achilles tendon in the trials and was unable to compete. In spite not participating as an athlete, Al Oerter carried the US flag in the Games. By then he could still bench press 229kg, and reportedly threw 74.68m, while being recorded for a TV project, which is superior to the existing Jurgen Schult’s world record: “The film kept breaking and I had to take throw after throw to satisfy the camera man. Because of the technical problems I was getting more and more angry, so I pushed harder and harder.”(6) Being almost 50, Al decided to take a break from elite discus throwing, joining the Masters fields. There he would use a lighter implement which for him was like “a potato chip.” For the 1996 Atlanta Games, Al Oerter was chosen again, to enter the Olympic flame to the stadium. In his later years his blood pressure and cardiovascular problems which Al had carried all his life became more serious. Doctors recommended him a heart transplant but always true to himself he refused: “I have had an interesting life and I am going out with what I have.” (7)  Al Oerter left this world at he was 71, in his adopted Fort Mayers, Florida, in company of his beloved Cathy. 


          Al Oerter was a shy and introspective man who, at the same time, was able of a calmness and peaceful state of mind which marvelled all the people who knew him. In words of his surviving wife Cathy, in 25 years of relationship he was never angry or upset and they never argued. In the webpage devoted to Al Oerter’s memory, she has nice words about his fascinating personality: “Comfortable in his own skin, Al enjoyed the moment in front of him....watching a sun rise or birds floating in the sky. He was a big ship on the ocean of life never wobbling or unsure, content to steadily move forward enjoying every part of the voyage.” (8) This interesting aspect of Oerter’s personality would develop in capacity of focus and patient to carry all the work for a long term goal when talking about his studies and sportive career. Jim Fraley, his first discus coach in the times of Sewanhaka High school was quoted at the time: “he always worked. Most people would not work from day to day; they want to do things in spurts. Not Al. And he had to wait for his maturity, and that is very hard to do. He was very shy, but shy in a way that teen-agers ought to be." Al workouts were something special too. Always by himself, in every session he would enter in a contemplative spirit, as travelling with his mind, every time, to the moment and place of his most important competition. He would put a towel at let us say 200ft distance; then would try to throw the discus beyond it, moving the target further and further to the new distances he was reaching in his toss. If there was some spectators watching him, he would never realised until late in his training, when he started to lose some concentration because of tiredness. (9)
           No one was able to focus for an Olympic final the way Al Oerter used to do. No one either could be compared to him in rising to the occasion and holding the pressure when it mattered most: "You have to be better than whatever it is that keeps you from being your best," Oerter said. "Pressure is nothing more than opportunity. Why not embrace it?" (4) Harold Connolly, a US hammer thrower, also an Olympic champion, once made a fine statement, related to this topic: "In the opinion of many of us, Al Oerter is the greatest field-event athlete of the century. There is a magic about him when he is competing. He is nervous before the meet. He does not eat well and his hands shake. But once the event is about to start, a calmness settles over him. The other athletes see it, and it intimidates them. They watch him, and they are afraid of what he might do." (2)
            Al Oerter was also a perfectionist, someone who believed no matter how much you advance in something you can always do much better. In such tricky discipline as the discus event you need years to master every factor which contributes in the result of a single throw.  (1) This is why usually most of the best throwers are experienced veterans. Oerter tried with the discus in thousands and thousands of occasions but recognised he never achieved the perfect throw.  He never got tired either of speaking about the limitations created by rules and circumstances. Al believed it was possible to reach 80 metres, provided the officials would decide to increase the size of the circle. He always cited the example of his classmate, basketball legend, Wilt Chamberlain, who Oerter once invited to give a goal to the discus but was too tall for the ring. The champion was well known for not admitting the existence of barriers between him and any of his dreams. Al Oerter’s life is the story of his struggles for overcoming these obstacles let us call it congenital disease, accident, injury or physical capacity. Oerter always believed in his chances and this is the reason why he always surpassed on paper superior rivals; the reason why he always got to surpass his previous performances and own limits.
          Because eventually Oerter never felt he was challenging other throwers but himself, trying to beat his own history. He did not see his competitors as rivals but other people throwing along also to achieve the best of themselves. Oerter was not in track and field for money or to prove anything, just for the simple pleasure of throwing the discus and when he was back, after nearly a decade in retirement, was because he missed this same excitement experienced inside a discus circle. "This is not whether you get there. It is the journey." (2) Yet in the eighties the amateur spirit he had once known had disappeared. Oerter felt sad watching athletes training full time for money, doing nothing else in life. He was proud of being involved in many other activities apart from sport as a job, a family, and other hobbies. "That is what make a person whole." (2) Money had become the main ingredient and the athletes were now “severe and bulky” professionals, who did not talk to each other during competitions. Oerter had met good friends in the stadium, as Rink Babka who taught him good lessons about sportsmanship, and could not understand this rivalry: “We should just go out there and throw as far as we possibly could and then have a beer together. That is what it is all about.” (6) A lovely world long gone. Al Oerter was the last of the true amateurs.  

Impact Art: Discus 78

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