After four straight Olympic triumphs, eight years in retirement, and a comeback attempt shattered by the Moscow boycott, you'd think Al Oerter might finally leave the competitive arena to the younger set. But no, the Methuselah of the discus says he fully intends to be going after a fifth gold medal at Los Angeles in 1984 even though he will have passed his 47th birthday by then.
"The whole thing is fascinating to me," Oerter says of his assault on the myth that an athlete at his stage of life has no choice but to step gracefully out of the picture. "I have no idea how far I can go, or how long I can keep improving. It might be 20 more years or it might end tomorrow. But there's only one way to find out."
Incredibly, Oerter threw the discus farther last year than he had in any of his four Olympic victories. But as in virtually all sports, the standards of performance have also increased since then, and there are others around now who can toss it even farther. Thus Al has to be considered an underdog -- for the moment, at least -- in his new quest.
"I'm used to that, though," he says, referring to the fact that he wasn't the favorite in any of his four Olympic appearances. "Being the underdog is like old home week to me."
Indeed, Oerter's entire saga is one of those classic "truth is stranger than fiction" stories. It started in high school when Al, then a sprinter, picked up an errant discus, casually tossed it back far over the thrower's head, and was immediately recruited into a new career. He eventually wound up at the University of Kansas, where as a relatively unknown sophomore he made the 1956 Olympic team -- then beat out a host of more experienced rivals, including heavily favored teammate Fortune Gordien, to win the gold medal.
Four years later at Rome, the favorite was another teammate, Rink Babka, who had been throwing better in pre-Olympic events. But Al uncorked a 194 ft., 1 1/ 2 in. heave to beat out Babka and a tough contingent of Soviets for his second gold medal.
By the time the next Olympics rolled around at Tokyo in 1964, people were getting the idea that Oerter had a knack for coming through at the right moment, but this time there were other adverse factors. Already bothered by an old neck problem, he injured his rib area severely in practice just six days before the competition. Team doctors virtually insisted he drop out, but al wanted to give it a try anyway. His first throw was as poor as expected, but then, putting everything he had left into his second attempt, he threw it 200 ft., 1 1/2 inches -- a mark that stood up all day and forced the favored Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia to settle for second place.
At Mexico City in 1968, Oerter was again battling an assortment of injuries, and this along with the fact that he had a full-time job and a family (daughters Chrystiana and Gabrielle, then 10 and 7 respectively), made the experts count him out again. Teammate Jay Silvester was the favorite, while Danek and a host of other Eastern Europeans were also top threats. But again it was Oerter who came through when it counted, getting off a prodigious 212-6 1/2 heave to outdistance everyone and become the only athlete ever to win the same event in four consecutive Olympics.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the saga, though, was Oerter's uncanny ability to rise to the occasion. Every time he competed in the games, he threw the discus farther than he ever had before.
"I really get charged up in the Olympics," Al said while here to accept an award at the US Olympic Committee's quadrennial meeting. "It's something very special -- athletes from all over the world, the fact that it's just every four years. If you enjoy competition, you have to respond to that atmosphere."
Al's ability to come through so consistently gave rise to the idea that he somehow "psyched out" his opponents. In truth, however, he just had the perfect temperament for this tension-packed event and was able to sit back in detached amusement and watch his foes worry themselves out of contention without any assistance.
"Some guys were really intimidated by the whole atmosphere," he said. "It was fascinating to see the personalities emerge in competition -- because you can't hide anything out there in that ring.
"Guys would be trying to psych each other out, talking about who was throwing how far and all that. I just tried to concentrate on my own throwing. I really enjoyed it."
So why did he quit after 1968? And what made him come back after sitting out both the Munich and Montreal games?
"I quit primarily because of my family," he said. "My daughters were growing up, and I wanted to spend more time with them. Training at the world class level takes an enormous amount of time.
"When I returned it was different. Chrystiana was going away to college, and Gabrielle was in high school. I still wouldn't have come back if they hadn't wanted me to.But they both encouraged me to try it."
Oerter, a computer executive with the Grumman Corporation in Bethpage, Long Island, admits that the excitement leading up to Montreal piqued his interest, and it was a couple of months before those 1976 Olympics that he went back into training.
"I knew it would be a four-year effort," he said, "and last year I was right on target until the boycott talk. After that, it was hard to keep up my motivation. But still I threw my best ever."
Oerter is confident, moreover, that he can continue to improve. An impressive physical specimen at 6 ft., 4 in., and around 275 pounds, Al succeeded in the past primarily because of his massive physique and great strength.
"I never really had technique," he said. "I was always an arm thrower. But that won't get me out to the distances they're reaching now, so I'm working on developing better technique. If I can get it all together, who knows how far I can go?
"I'll make the 1984 trials for sure," he said with characteristic confidence. "And then anything can happen."
Just at this juncture, the conversation was interrupted by a visitor who wanted to introduce his youngster to this living legend.
"This is Al Oerter," the man explained. "He won four gold medals in the Olympics."
But Oerter, as usual, had the last word.
"So far!" he said.