Olympic discus great Al Oerter dies at 71

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Al Oerter was destined to become an
athlete, although he often wondered what he might have been if not
for a chance meeting with a discus.

"I could throw a baseball, a football or a golf ball a country
mile," Oerter told the Associated Press in an interview last year.
"It was just easy to throw anything."

The discus great who won gold medals in four straight Olympics
to become one of track and field's biggest stars in the 1950s and
'60s, died Monday of heart failure, less than two weeks after his
71st birthday.

His long love affair with the circular disk that would bring him
fame began one day when he was hanging around a track, watching
practice and gave it a try.

"I picked it and threw back to a guy further than he threw it
to me," Oerter recalled. "The coach walked over to me and said
you need to go over there with them."

Oerter died at a hospital near his Fort Myers Beach home, wife
Cathy Oerter said. He dealt with high blood pressure since he was
young and struggled with heart problems, she said.

"He was a gentle giant," she said. "He was bigger than

Oerter won gold medals in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968. Oerter and
Carl Lewis are the only track and field stars to capture the same
event in four consecutive Olympics. Oerter, however, is the only
one to set an Olympic record in each of his victories.

"His legacy is one of an athlete who embodied all of the
positive attributes associated with being an Olympian," said Peter
Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "He performed
on the field of play with distinction and transferred that
excellence to the role of advocate for the Olympic movement and its

Born in New York City, Oerter was 6-foot-4 and once competed at
nearly 300 pounds. He dispensed with coaching and conventional
training methods, molding himself into a fierce competitor who
performed his best when the stakes were highest.

"I can remember those games truly as if they were a week ago,"
Oerter told The AP.

In Melbourne in 1956, Oerter threw 184 feet, 11 inches on his
first toss and watched in amazement when nobody else, including
teammate and world-record holder Fortune Gordien, came close to
beating him.

He came from behind to win again in Rome, and overcame torn rib
cartilage and other injuries to make it three in a row at the Tokyo
Games in 1964.

At 32, he was a long shot in the 1968 field headed by
world-record holder Jay Silvester. However, Oerter responded with a
personal-best of 212-6 to leave Mexico City with the gold.

He came out of retirement and won a spot as an alternate on the
1980 team that didn't compete because of the boycott ordered by
President Carter.

"Al Oerter is one of the greatest track and field athletes, and
one of the greatest Olympic athletes, of all time," said USATF CEO
Craig A. Masback.

"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."

Later in life, Oerter discovered a new passion and took up
abstract painting. Much of his colorful work was created by
smashing a discus into puddles of paint on canvas.

"There are a thousand little things involved in painting," he
said. "To me it's wonder. I wonder what this would look like. ...
Sometimes I'll get up in the middle of the night because
something's bothering me about what I did that day, and I'll take a
razor and destroy the picture. Then I can sleep."

Oerter maintained his Olympic ties through Art of the Olympians,
a program he founded to give him and other former Olympians who
have taken up art to showcase their work.

"Al approached the art world the same way he approached the
sports world," friend and former Olympian Liston Bochette said.
"He studied it. He analyzed it. And he sought excellence in the

Funeral arrangements are pending.