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Golden Olympic Great Oerter Dies


And talk about winning mindset - Melbourne, 1956; Rome, 1960; Tokyo, 1964; Mexico City, 1968. In four, straight Olympic Games, an American won the gold medal in the discus. Each time, it was the same American: Al Oerter. He was the first track and field athlete to win gold four consecutive times. And Al Oerter died today in Florida.

NPR's Tom Goldman has this remembrance.

TOM GOLDMAN: Al Oerter won modern-day fame in a sport linked directly to the ancient Olympic Games. Indeed, there was an almost mythical beginning to his career. Oerter was running on a track in high school, when an errant discus landed in his feet. He picked it up, threw it back so far, that the coach convinced Oerter that the little four and a half pound object that looked like two dinner plates stuck together was his future. He got better and better and in 1956, made the U.S. Olympic team. In Melbourne, Oerter hardly was the favorite. But on his first throw, he set an Olympic record and won the gold medal. He would repeat that performance at the next three Summer Olympics.

Mac Wilkins, who won the Olympic discus gold in 1976, says one of the keys to Oerter's success was that Oerter loved Olympic competition. And, says Wilkins, Oerter always talked about competing with people rather than against them.

Mr. MAC WILKINS (Olympic Gold Medalist 1976, Discus): Maybe that made it easier for him to enjoy the competition and a little less stress. If, oh, I got to worry about this guy and what he's doing and that guy what he is doing, and they're not your enemies. They're your comrades.

GOLDMAN: That was certainly the case in the 1960 Olympics, when Oerter's teammate and world record holder, Rink Babka, helped Oerter win the gold medal. Babka was leading the competition early on and Oerter was throwing poorly. Babka pulled Oerter aside and gave him some advice. Oerter's next throw set the Olympic record and beat Babka, who years later said he was proud it was Al who beat him.

Unidentified Man: The Olympic torch is about to be extinguished in a blaze of glory by the U.S. track team.

GOLDMAN: Four years later in Tokyo, Oerter won on his own in perhaps his most memorably Olympic moment. He was wearing a neck brace because of a chronic cervical disc injury. He had a torn cartilage in his ribcage from a training accident. Doctors told him not to compete, but Oerter wrapped his side with ice packs, injected Novocain and set another Olympic record. Asked why he went ahead and competed, Oerter said, these are the Olympics and you die before you don't compete in the Olympics.

In a 1986 interview on NPR's MORNING EDITION, Oerter talked about his apparent mastery of the discus as an endless quest.

Mr. AL OERTER (Olympic Gold Medalist, Discus): I don't think there's ever been a discus thrower in any throw that they've ever had - and that's millions and millions of throws - who's ever said, that's the best that I can do. Because it's the nature of the sport to say, if I had changed this a little bit, I would've been a better.

GOLDMAN: After his athletic career ended, Oerter dove into the world of abstract painting with a similar love and devotion. He once said, never having an athletic coach or a teacher or a mentor in art, everything I create comes from within. Al Oerter battled high blood pressure his entire life. He died of heart failure today in a Florida hospital. His wife Cathy said in a statement, Al always said he would leave this world content and with no regrets.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.