Alfred A. Oerter is like any other Long Island noncommuter who has two children, a good-paying job outside of Manhattan, a healthy distrust of the Long Island Expressway and a few thousand pounds of lead available to him at a little gym near the office. The lead is for lifting, which increases his collar size and fills out his shirts in a manner that would set him apart on any commuter train west of Levittown. Otherwise the only distinguishing feature about noncommuter Oerter is that he can throw a discus farther than any other man, commuting or dead.
Getting distance throwing the discus is no more difficult than getting distance throwing a sausage pizza, once you get the hang of it. Some discus throwers, of course, never do and presumably go to a wobbly grave. Oerter has been throwing the discus all his adult life (he is 27) and a good portion of his youth, or a total of 12 years, and admirers of his technique say that if he cannot throw it to Connecticut on the fly he can certainly skip it across Long Island Sound. Oerter is content, however, to flash around the world on his days off—weekends and vacations—setting records with great sweeps of his arm.
Last weekend he was on vacation and back at Mt. San Antonio College Stadium in the scrubby San Jose Hills 40 minutes east of Los Angeles. The Mt. San Antonio Relays, the Drake Relays at Des Moines and the Penn Relays at Philadelphia, all on the same busy weekend, are the coming-out parties of the outdoor track and field season. They attract athletes of all ages and descriptions—5,000 this year at Penn and close to 3,000 at Mt. SAC—and though Olympic prospects are in definite abundance, so are the definite nonprospects. One skinny steeplechaser at Mt. SAC entertained the crowd by walking across the hurdles and jumping with both feet into the water hazard every time he brought his weary wet self around.
Notwithstanding the confusion of such carnival, Oerter a year ago threw the discus 205 feet 5½ inches, a world record and far better than he had done winning Olympic gold medals in 1956 and 1960. Soon thereafter, however, he suffered a slipped disc in his back and competed only three times more in 1963. Each time he threw, pain shot down his left arm. He is right-handed but the left leads away as the whip arm. "I began to anticipate the pain," said Oerter. "It became a mental block."
May 3, 1964
Oerter is a big man, 6 feet 3¾, 257 pounds ("I would like to be taller, and bigger, because there is still room in the circle for me to put size to good use"). He has rugged good looks, a bull's-eye dimple at the point of his chin and scars he earned when he put his head through a windshield five years ago. "I went through clean," he said, "but I got sliced up when my buddies pulled me out. My buddies." He is a systems analyst at Grumman Aircraft on Long Island and is very much a believer in precise analysis of his own problems.
Representing the New York Athletic Club, Oerter showed up last Saturday at Mt. SAC on a crisp, clear California day wearing a blue ski jacket over a turtleneck sweater over a T shirt over an ultrasonic massage over a shot of cortisone. No mental block on the market today could live under that kind of suffocation.
The chill wind was made to order for discus throwers, gusting in at about 10 mph and running diagonally to the line of fire. In his practice throws, however, Oerter could not get the lip of the disc up enough, and his line drives dug in far short of 200 feet. Then, on his first official throw, with jacket, turtleneck and T shirt still on, he whipped through perfectly—"balance is so important, and balance is where I have improved these last few years"—and the disc took off, low at first, and then soaring up with nary a wobble, peeling to the left to complete the arc and thudding down past the triangular colored flags that rimmed the 200-foot throwing area. A few more feet and it would have joined a jumper in the high-jump pit.
As Oerter paced up and down, flipping his retrieved disc nervously, the long steel measuring tape was stretched and the distance recorded: 206 feet 5¾ inches, a world record.
Subsequent throws were unsatisfactory, but on his last try of the day Oerter did 206 feet 4 inches in a fashion that nearly stunned him. He deliberately came out of his spin in a squat to compensate for having been leaning to the left and pulling his throws—"and everybody knows you're not supposed to squat. Maybe I'll have to look closer into these wrong methods."
Oerter long ago made up his mind that happiness was a 200-foot discus throw. Having passed his goal with such shattering regularity, he now feels he could stand the extravagance of winning a third straight Olympic championship next fall. He thinks it altogether possible that someone will eventually throw the discus 220 feet, "but it probably will be a bigger, taller man than me."
An ill wind, too
Whatever advantage the wind had for Oerter and the discus throwers, it was not unanimously loved by the winners at Mt. SAC. New Zealand's Doreen Porter, a long-long-legged girl in white short shorts, ran 100 yards in 10.4 seconds and 220 yards in 23.9, and both would have been American records had she not had a six-to-10-mile wind as escort. The same was true for Darel Newman of Fresno State, who hopped off the starting blocks as though he were out to beat the Greyhound Bus to San Francisco. He did 100 meters in 10.1, which would have tied the American record.
Otherwise the disappointments were not windblown so much as they were typical of what happens to arms and legs and generators after a winter indoors. Dallas Long, the world's best shotputter, did 63 feet 10¼ inches, two feet under his record and 2¾ inches behind Texas A&M freshman Randy Matson's superb winning toss at Des Moines, and came to the amiable conclusion that, despite how wonderful he felt, 1) the wind distracted him, 2) Mt. San Antonio has always been a tough bank for him to crack and 3) at 262 pounds he was just too much muscle—or too much something. Olympic Broad Jumper Ralph Boston won at 25 feet 10¼ inches and mumbled to himself, "You gotta get up in the air, man, you gotta get up in the air."
But nobody looked quite so unready for summer as C. K. Yang, the decathlon world record holder, whose country is Nationalist China and whose school is UCLA but whose training is lacking. Yang is now out of undergraduate competition and has been "taking it much easier, building up more slowly," he said before the first day of the decathlon. "It is better, because my legs do not hurt," he explained, gripping his thighs.
What hurt, eventually, were his eyes—at the sight of Russ Hodge, a self-trained track man and Air Force regular from New York, holding a big lead after five events. Yang ultimately won out, but he did not look good.
What did look good and made good sense—but passed unnoticed in the rush of 2,950 athletes, 106 officials, 12,000 fans and the usual general amazement that such a meet can be put on at all—was Meet Director Hilmer Lodge's installing the international 10-meter rule for the short-distance relay events. International rules allow an additional hand-off strip of 10 meters—a sort of early warning line—for the man accepting the hand-off, so that he may be going full tilt when he takes the baton in the allotted space. Fouls cost American teams victories in Rome and Moscow under international hand-off rules, and Lodge, like the directors of the Penn Relays, thought it would be wise to start educating.
Dramatically, the relay teams from Grambling (La.) College tied the world record of 40 seconds in the 440—though Australia has a 39.9 pending—and then missed by .8 second at 1:23.4 in the 880. In spite of all the athletes' problems, it was a good wind that blew in the outdoor season.