Skip to main content
Original Issue

A Big, Shy Man Who Likes to think

Discus Thrower Al Oerter is a strong bundle of contradictions, except when he is on the field

If they ever expanded the discus thrower's circle to 9 feet or 10, the records would really soar," Al Oerter said. "Then the larger, heavier athletes could compete." The athletes larger and heavier, that is, than World Champion Oerter, who stands a big-boned 6 feet 4 and carries around, unobtrusively, some 250 pounds. "As it is," Oerter went on, "you can be too tall. Wilt Chamberlain is so tall he got dizzy. He's a big, strong man, but he's 7 feet, and to try to turn around in an 8-foot circle—it was like a top spinning. There was no lateral movement, or no forward movement; he was just spinning around, like a top. Oh, they wouldn't do it—expand the circle. Though—well, perhaps, someday they might, since the whole race seems to be getting bigger."

Oerter's statistics are standard for modern discus throwers, a breed football coaches have been known to look over covetously. Tall, strong, rangy and quick, they come in linebacker sizes, with good eyes, a particular balance and exceptional reflexes. Throwing the discus demands a large man, for height and length of arm, for maximum leverage and plain power, to heave the disc past the point coordination alone could account for. In addition to this heavy equipment, the discus thrower needs balance, to whirl effectively in a circle, and good reflexes.

"In spinning, a lot of things can go wrong," Oerter says. "If you don't have to think about them to correct them, if your natural reflexes act, you're a lot better off." The circles are quickly chewed into bad shape by track shoes; foot placement is crucial, and once you commit yourself to it you are stuck with it; moving in a circle has its own problems of balance and proper release. And improper release can be pretty spectacular. "I almost killed the world record holder that way," Al contributes. "Fortune Gordien was standing right beside me, inside a cage. I thought I had thrown it the right way, but it bounced off the net right behind his head. He kind of turned white," Al added pensively.

Achieving a maximum power and thrust, maintaining balance in an accelerating whirl, coming out of it precisely and releasing a disc with the maximum spin at the optimum angle off your forefinger with a nice calculation of wind direction and speed—there's a good deal going on when you throw a discus. "You hit a dynamic balance," Oerter says. "You do it from a one and three-quarter turn, and the release of the discus spins it clockwise from your right hand. It's a matter of maximum spinning efficiency—a maximum effect with a minimum of strain. The more you strain, the less distance. It has to be a very relaxed type of motion.

"The spin on the discus works the same way as the rifling on a bullet. Because it will spin, it will go on a fairly even trajectory, and the greater the spin the greater the distance. The wind—it's more than a preference to have it coming right to left. Dick Ganslen, out at the University of Arkansas, has gone through tests with a computer, with various angles on the discus, and there are all kinds of charts and things. There's a stall speed where there's too great an angle, and the vacuum on top of the discus is lost. If we can just retain it, the discus will go much farther. The vacuum makes it lift, like the wing of a plane. Well, you can talk until you're blue in the face, and throwers can throw until their arms are hanging down but, until they do it right once, they don't know what it is."

Al Oerter, who does know what it is, brought home the gold medals from Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960, and on April 27 of this year he threw a world record 205 feet 5½ inches. He has been playing leapfrog for this record with Jay Silvester and Vladimir Tru-senyev of Russia (Rink Babka of California occasionally got to play, too). In 1962 Al threw 198 feet 6 in April and then in M ay 200 feet 5½. Trusenyev threw 202 feet 2½ on June 4, Al fell short with 199 feet 7½ on June 10 but charged ahead in July with 204 feet 10½. And all the time the official record was held by Jay Silvester. It was a mere 199 feet 2½, but Silvester had also thrown a disqualified 210 feet 2 l/2 and was thus not exactly to be dismissed. He is probably not to be dismissed next week at the AAU championships in St. Louis, either, since last week at Compton, Calif., he hopped over Al again with 204 feet 4 to 202 feet 8½."When you throw against Oerter you don't expect to win," Silvester said afterwards. "You just hope. He's the toughest man to beat in track and field."

The first 200-plus throws suffered frequent and arbitrary disqualifications. When many fields were laid out years ago, the men who laid them out still rejoiced in the thought that you could be certain of your impossibilities and a 200-foot discus throw was among them. Thus in 1958 Rink Babka's 201 feet passed the boundaries to land in a ditch, and the field where Silvester threw his 210 feet 2½ fell off 27 inches at that distance. Still, it was inarguably a mighty throw, and Al, for one, doesn't argue it. "That was under ideal conditions," he does murmur. "Wind, weather, attitude...."

"Ideal conditions" are Al's particular will-o'-the-wisp. "I'm not in very good shape," he said when he threw the 205 feet 5½-"The wind wasn't really the way I like it," after the 204 feet 10½-"The ring was so slippery I nearly fell," after the 200 feet 5 l/2. Cheerful and sheepish, he admits, "I'm a constant complainer. Nothing is ever right. But I do know realistically: How much difference a few pounds make, or a wind coming slightly from a wrong direction? But I have to complain about something."

As to attitude, Al does believe that some athletes have days when they perform spectacularly beyond their own capacities. He himself has never had such an unexpected day, but he has said, "I expect to throw it 210 feet. Farther, eventually. I just hope before I quit this that I get one day with everything right, and that I'm lucky, and I'll just push that world record so far out it will be years before they break it, and then I'll quit." He paused. "No, I won't," he said.

Alfred A. Oerter Jr. is a sandy-haired, sea-eyed bundle of paradoxes. "I suppose you can see all kinds of conflicts," he says thoughtfully. "I'm a complete introvert, but an extrovert when it comes to athletics." He is also shy and forthright; deeply concerned about young people but too impatient to enjoy teaching them; nervous and calm. He calls himself lazy, but if he allows himself to watch television for a few hours he feels he deserves to be kicked—TV is a waste of time, and so are movies.

Al was born on September 19, 1936 in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., of German descent on his father's side and Czech descent on his mother's. His father is a big man, too, about 6 feet, interested in sports and apparently a man of tact. "He'd come to a meet," Al's high school coach, Jim Fraley, says, "and hide be-hind a tree." Al recalls it, saying, "I'm a highly nervous person. So when I'm throwing, I like complete quiet and everything, and I guess he knew that."

Al went to Sewanhaka High School in New Hyde Park out on Long Island, where he got taller and taller and thinner and thinner, but played football and baseball, ran sprints and, in his sophomore year, began throwing the discus. "He had a natural aptitude for it," Fraley says. "And he always worked. Most people won't work from day to day; they want to do things in spurts. Not Al. And he had to wait for his maturity, and that's very hard to do. He was very shy, but shy in a way that teen-agers ought to be."

"I don't even want to talk about that," Al says abruptly. "It was painful when I was young. And later in the business world, it's a liability...."

In his junior year Al learned that his mother had cancer, and in his senior year she died. Fraley, a native of Kansas, got him a scholarship to the university and encouraged an uncertain Al to go. "I really didn't care for college," he says. "Even now, I look back and think it might have been a waste. At the time I wanted to go into the Army—get everything that was an obligation out of the way—and come back and go into my father's contract plumbing business."

Al fought back his desire to go into the Army and in 1955 went off to Kansas to study business and to throw the discus. He graduated in 1959 and came on home to marry Connie Benedetto, from nearby Franklin Square, N.Y. "She's normal—108 pounds, dripping wet." They have two daughters, Crystiana, 4, and Gabrielle, about 18 months. "Now if I were 110 pounds, a 5-foot-7 runner, I'd have about a 7-foot son. Oh, but I'm delighted to have girls. Crystiana's already looking out for Gabrielle, and she'll be able to. They're going to be big girls. Crystiana's—well, I know she's as tall as a 5-year-old—3 feet something?"

Al went to the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation straight from college. At first in the purchasing department, he is now a systems analyst in elec-tronic data processing. "We don't actually prepare the data. We prepare the logic upon which the computers will act, using the data. It's interesting, to master the machine. Or more likely, to have it master you. The machine will just stop. You feel very stupid, the thing's just sitting there looking at you. The job is a little time-consuming. It involved eight weeks at IBM school and quite a bit of homework."

Al does two hours of weight-training one night and one hour of throwing the discus the next. Not throwing he considers to be one secret of his success. As a pitcher can wreck his arm working it too hard, so, he thinks, can a discus thrower. It isn't easy to go from a sedentary day into practice. "Your body slips into a relaxed state," Oerter says. "Actually, I really have a very poor attitude toward it right now. It's just before an Olympic year and just after a good year, and this job is new. Right after the season you can turn sour. I'm not tired of competing so much, but the traveling. Back and forth to the Coast, where you have the good meets, the good weather, the good competition. If 1 could compete on the Island here, or on the East Coast, it would be nice for a weekend out."

"I don't follow other discus throwers. I'd rather not know what they're doing. That way, every workout becomes a little bit of competition, and it's no fun." This is not another paradox, though Al says he misses competition around home. It is rather an indication of his competitiveness as such. It is enormous.

"As I become older it becomes more satisfying, to be able to maintain a world class condition while having a wife and family and a job that's rather demanding.

"There's one thing about athletics, though. It starts to get a hold on you, and if you don't maintain a world class condition you can start taking it out on your family. I hope that when I get to be too old I can give it up gracefully, and avoid taking it out on my family and friends and the people at work and everybody else.

"Diet is my primary concern right now, because I am a little bit old for a track athlete." Al displayed a vast reluctance to say what his diet consisted of. Reporters had asked him at the last Olympics, and "It was thrown all out of proportion. I said it was just good sense to take care of yourself—Rome in 1960 was pretty hot and miserable, as I remember it, and if you didn't take care of yourself, you were going to do badly. But all of a sudden it was just as if I were a narcotics fiend. A vitamin fiend. As if it was nothing but vitamins I used to keep in shape. The Long Island papers picked it up, and here I was, an addict. I was pretty embarrassed.

"It looks so silly in print, wheat bread instead of white, and having my meat broiled and all that stuff. I never have smoked, and I don't drink, but to be that simon-pure about it—you think, 'If somebody reads that, they're going to think he's a prude.' But why not, if it's going to help you? It's very hard to believe that people can destroy themselves, or the ways they do it. Like cigarettes. When you know how bad they are for you, why not stop smoking them? I can't stand anybody who has a natural ability dissipating it away, deliberately. So few people have such ability—why don't they take care of themselves?"

It is more often the professional athlete in the showier athletic professions who will be the high-living man, and Al's point about it may be very well taken. The individual amateur—the runner, the discus thrower—loves his sport. "You have to love it, or you wouldn't go near it," Al says flatly. Under those circumstances the sport constitutes a release and a satisfaction. But where a sport is your job, it's different. "Pro baseball and football no longer become a release. And if you can't have a release in physical exertion, you have to have it in drinking or something.

"Professional sport is just a big carnival. All that greasy-kid-stuff business. I could never do that. More stunts, more zanies, all to make more money—they should carry Actors' Equity cards.

"The only way you can stand baseball, as far as I'm concerned, is to play it. Football is a good game, but it's brutal. And the fans are brutal—at least you don't get that in baseball. Boxing? At least the athletes are well conditioned, and that's good. In football I don't think they're well conditioned, or in baseball. They come out and do a few wind sprints and that's it. That's not conditioning.

"I do deal quite a bit with children, and they say, 'If he has a beer, why can't I?' Though I wouldn't try to make them follow me." Al slowed down, perplexed, seeing himself mired in another conflict. "Well, but if they want to, fine. I'm not good at working with children. I'm very impatient when it comes to working with kids that are just learning stuff. If I had to, I might make myself learn to be patient, but I don't have to. One of these days I might try to put out a little pamphlet, with things I've learned. My wife wants me to. I've watched the kids here on the Island, and they're going to hell with themselves. No drive. Nothing they want to do except impress one another—with clothes. If I can help and still have it be comfortable, boy, I sure will." Oer-ter could probably popularize discus throwing as Parry O'Brien popularized putting the shot—if, like O'Brien, he was willing to get into feuds and carry on about it. But he isn't willing.

Another thing that is out is the banquet circuit. "I hate it. I refuse to do it any more. I did it the first year, when I got back from the Olympics, and I was only 20. Night in, night out at the temples and things—father-and-son dinners, boy scout dinners, everything you can think of. I had to make speeches, something that, because I'm an introvert, was very hard for me. Many of them, fortunately, were question-and-answer periods. That's easier."

For an introvert, Al Oerter speaks up loud and clear. He was among the first and firmest of the U.S. athletes to publicly criticize the AAU. "We were the first athletes that defected. We started hitting the AAU pretty hard, because they don't give us enough money—per diem expenses—and the accommodations are bad. But it looks now like a power grab by both the organizations. The NCAA has a foot in the door, and they're going to take all the apples." A plague on both their houses, Al has decided. And having decided, says so. If his honesty is stronger than his shyness, so is his discus throwing, and Al Oerter will still be the man to watch when the AAU moves into St. Louis.