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 (227’10¾”) 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.

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October 1, 2007

5 Responses

  1. Francis Schiro - October 1, 2007

    I had the incredible privledge of meeting Al Oerter a few years ago when I was working at the Armory and he attended the opening of the Track And Field Hall of Fame. I may not be a thrower but i sure as hell knew exactly who he was and what he had accomplished. I knew i was in the presence of a TRUE legend in Olympic aand track and field history.
    I finally got up the nerve to introduce myself and he was incredibly kind and open. He wanted to talk about MY running accomplishments rather than his own small achievement of 4 Olympic GOLD medals…WOW…i was honestly astounded.He told me when he was a kid he had lived for a period of time in the lower east side of manhattan where i now live.
    He was just so open and willing to share himself. I was told about Al Oerter when i was maybe 12 years old…. my brother in law said he was one of the greatest Olympians of all time..and he was right. God Bless Al Oerter…he was a truely acceptional human being…an astounding athlete..and most of all a VERY kind man.

  2. peter van aken - October 1, 2007

    At an All-Comers meet at St. Johns University in Queens, NY, probably 1978-79, I threw around 120′ to 125′ and Al Oerter also competed, just like us. Those blue Hollowood discuses…
    My sympathy to his family. Al Oerter was a legend in the entire sport, and an inspiration to all throwers.

  3. Ken Effler - October 2, 2007

    My condolences to Mrs. Oerter and Al’s daughters. He was truly one of the greats of track and field. I once had the privilege of watching him compete at a meet held in the New Jersey shore area in the late 1970’s. He was training for the 1980 Olympics at the time, and Al and Art Swarts of the Shore AC, put on a throwing exhibition that I’ll never forget. I wound up dropping out of my event to watch them throw the discus. I was awestruck watching these two giants repeatedly pass the 200′ mark. But even more so, I was watching the greatest discus performer of all time, someone who was a four time Olympic champion, and someone who could still perform at an Olympian level, 10 plus years after his last gold medal.
    Rest in peace Al, we’ll never forget you and your outstanding accomplishments, both in and out of the discus circle.

  4. Ralph Fruguglietti - October 2, 2007

    We have lost a legend, an inspiration to me and the entire Track and Field World family. In these days where some athletes are quick to tell the world how great they are, I suggest to them to handle their success in the same manner as Al Oerter…if you really are the best in the World, you don’t have to remind people. Al thank you for being such an inspiration to me and even in your passing you will continue to be a driving force in my master’s carreer. My sympathy goes out to Al’s family.

  5. Milton Girouard - October 3, 2007

    I was just watching video two nights ago, of Al throwing the discus during ther late 70’s and early 80’s. He was a hell of a competitor. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Al never won an US Olympic trials , but won the gold at the Olympics. He showed up when it counted… This should be a reminder to all of us athletes that our time here is short. We should acheive our goals with vigor and contentment, enjoying our everday lives and loved ones while we’re still able to do so… Take care big Al…You’ll always be in my thoughts.

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