Al Oerter dies at 71 — a stunning loss for track
Al Oerter once said: “These are the Olympics. You die for them.”
Al Oerter died today. I learned this, thankfully, from a T&FN link to his alma mater’s Web site. It’s like a family member’s passing. You’d rather hear it from a loved one than a stranger. Al, of course, is legendary for lots of reasons — winning four straight Olympic golds despite being an underdog every time, with injuries that would cripple a mere mortal. Garry Hill, editor of Track & Field News, is among many posting their appreciations. His most incredible performances came at age 43, however — as he trained for the 1980 Olympic Trials. The New York Times obituary says he competed as recently as age 61.
His Wikipeda entry reminds us:
Oerter retired from athletics after the 1968 Olympics. He did make an attempt to qualify for the American team in 1980 but he finished fourth. He nonetheless set his overall personal record of 69.46 meters (227’10Вѕ”) that year at the age of 43. When filming for a TV segment, he unofficially threw about 245 feet (74.67 meters), which would have set a still-standing world record. In later years, Oerter carried the Olympic flame into the stadium in the 1996 Olympic Games.
Al entered masters track at age 40, when he set a then masters world record in beating old rival Ludvik Danek at the 1977 world masters championships in Sweden.
In 1980, I interviewed Al for a Track & Field News Q&A — later printed in its anthology called “Talking Track.” (Mine was the only interview included by a non-staff member.)
Al was kind and courteous to all journalists, but since I was a fellow Jayhawk, I think he took extra pains to give me some good answers. I didn’t toss him all softballs, either. I even asked him if his current weight was natural and wanted to know if he’d ever done steroids. He told me he could gain weight eating salads. True or not, it was a great quote.
Even though Al hadn’t competed in masters track since age 52, one always hoped he’d return to the ring. But that idea died only recently, as Frank Litsky of The New York Times told us a year ago.
USATF has noted his passing with a modest obituary. USATF CEO Craig Masback says in it: “Al Oerter is one of the greatest track and field athletes, and one of the greatest Olympic athletes, of all time. What made him even more special was his excellence off the track, in pursuits ranging from community outreach to art. The track world has lost a legend, a Hall of Famer, and a true gentleman. USATF extends our deepest sympathy to Al’s family.”
My last contact with Al came in an email exchange about two years ago. He politely asked if I could add a link to his Web site, which served as a home page focused on his art career. Of course I did immediately.
Al once said: “These are the Olympics. You die for them.”
To which I add: “This is Al Oerter. You bow to him.”
We love you, Al. Throw 300 in Heaven.