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Know Your KU History: Al Oerter

Everyone around Jayhawk nation knows the names Allen, Manning, Mangino, and Collins. But there is a sizeable chunk of names that we know in passing - we know of their greatness but not necessarily what made them great. KU track and field has produced many stars through the years. Today we feature Al Oerter.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos

"I don't think the discus will ever attract any interest until they let us start throwing them at each other."

-Al Oerter

Despite the fact that those words ring truer today than they did when Oerter uttered them, it should not diminish the brilliance of his career, a career that has few rivals in Olympic history. So accomplished is Oerter that trying to figure out what was most impressive about his athletic endeavors is difficult.

Was it the fact that he won NCAA individual championships in the discus in 1957 and 1958 while at Kansas? Although impressive, these two championships rank pretty low as far as major accomplishments go for Oerter. Perhaps it’s because he had already won an Olympic gold before he ever won anything significant at Kansas. Yep, that can kind of tarnish the shine on those NCAA medallions.

Winning a gold medal in your first Olympic games is an impressive feat, and Al Oerter did it as an unknown 20 year-old. In Melbourne in 1956, Oerter wasn’t even the favorite on his own team, but he threw the discus 56.36 meters (184 feet, 11 inches) on his final throw and took home his first gold medal. That distance set a new Olympic record and the legend of Al Oerter was born.

In addition to those two championships that he then won at Kansas, Oerter also won the gold at the 1959 Pan Am games in Chicago. By this time, he had established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the international scene.

Winning gold in back to back Olympics is even more impressive, but it happens pretty frequently as an athlete’s prime usually spans the cycle between Olympics.  Al Oerter did it with his win in Rome in 1960.  This time he hurled the discus 59.18 meters (194 feet, 2 inches), another Olympic record.  At this point, Oerter was the premier athlete in his field.

Winning gold three times in a row is rare, but Oerter accomplished it when he won gold again in 1964. After suffering a cartilage tear in his ribcage, he was advised by doctors to withdraw from the competition. Oerter didn’t listen. In the final round in Tokyo, he threw the discus 61 meters (200 feet) and set yet another Olympic record. Sensing a trend here?

When Oerter won the gold in the discus at the 1968 games in Mexico City, he accomplished something no one else in the history of the Olympic games had ever done: he had won gold in the same event at four consecutive Olympics. Amazingly though, this was not even his most impressive accomplishment. During that span, he set a new Olympic record each time, becoming the only person to set an Olympic record at four consecutive Olympics. When the discus sailed 64.78 meters (212 feet, 6 inches) in the final round, Oerter’s Olympic legacy was secure.

He retired after those Olympics in Mexico, but even as he aged, he continued to compete in track and field events. He even staged a comeback in 1980, and at age 43, recorded his longest throw in a competitive meet when he chucked the discus 69.47 meters (227 feet, 11 inches) at the 1980 Olympic trials. Oerter qualified for the team, but never got a chance to make it five gold medals due to the fact that the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

Up until his death in 2007 from heart failure, Oerter continued to have a positive spin on life, working at a computer software firm as his career but creating art as his passion. He later went on to found Art of the Olympians which features the artworks (in all media) from former Olympians. It started as a traveling exhibition, but has now found a permanent home in Fort Myers, Florida.

"It's exciting to show that there's not just one thing that you do in life."

-Al Oerter