U.S. shotputters have long been trying to get over a hump. Although nine of them have thrown 70 feet or more since Randy Matson first reached that mark in 1965—nine non-Americans have also—American putters haven't won an Olympic gold medal since Matson did in 1968. They've been particularly stymied by East Germany's Udo Beyer, the 1976 Olympic champion at Montreal. Beyer, who is still only 27, has been the world's No. 1-ranked putter for the last six years. His 1978 heave of 72'8" stands as the world record. Beyer himself stands 6'4¼" and weighs 287 pounds. Clearly, he's a considerable hump.
But not, it now seems, an insurmountable one. With the '84 Games just 14 months away, no fewer than six Americans are approaching Beyer's range, among them Brian Oldfield and Dave Laut, co-holders of the U.S. record at 72'3". "It's more thrilling than the shot's ever been in this country," says Oldfield, 38, who has seen or caused every thrill, controversy and technical advancement in the event since Matson.
The U.S. resurgence continued last Saturday at the Bruce Jenner/Michelob Light Classic in San Jose, Calif., where Laut, Oldfield and rapidly improving Mike Lehmann pounded the chalk dust out of the 70-foot line. The competition had hardly begun when the 26-year-old Laut, spinning his 6'4", 250-pound frame through a 540-degree turn, punched out the year's longest throw, a 71'2" effort that eclipsed a 70'10¾" heave by Ohio State graduate Kevin Akins two weeks earlier in Modesto, Calif. Laut, the world's second-ranked putter in 1982, was an all-too-solid, muscle-bound 280-pounder until 1980, when Oldfield taught him the rotation technique that he had perfected in 1974. Choosing style over substance, Laut shed 30 pounds and cut back his weightlifting in favor of speed and flexibility drills. "Brian has proved that size isn't that important," Laut says. "When he was back in pro track he could high-jump, what, 6'6"? I wish I could tell all the younger throwers, 'Hey, don't get caught up in that weight-room stuff.' "
Laut doesn't fit the Oldfield-inspired image of the snarling, wild-eyed shotputter. He's clean-cut and congenial and lives quietly with his wife, Jane, and his German shepherd, Kelsey, in Santa Barbara. He grew up faithfully putting the shot in Oxnard, Calif. with his father, Jim, a high school science teacher who took up the event right along with his son and became a 40-foot masters-division thrower. "It was kind of neat," says Dave. "We'd be out there together, each cursing at the shot."
Laut's main worry on Saturday afternoon was the 6'1", 270-pound Lehmann, whose mighty samurai screams shook the stadium at San Jose City College on each attempt. Lehmann, who recently graduated from Illinois, does fit the snarling, wild-eyed image. He works himself into such a competitive fury that when he comes out of it, he can't recall any of his histrionics.
Feeling fully rested after intentionally skipping most of the 1983 indoor season, Lehmann sent his second throw 70'3¾" on Saturday—a personal best by more than a foot—and his third 70'1½". The worst of his five legal tosses was 67'9¾". Yet he was still disappointed. "My goal here was to win," he said glumly, and he seemed depressed by his continuing lack of recognition. "There are people in Champaign who still don't know me," he said.
"Count your blessings," said Oldfield.
Oldfield's throws stayed just shy of Laut's and Lehmann's on Saturday, not bad for a 38-year-old who smokes, has just recovered from a groin pull and was complaining that his long hair was causing the shot to slip off his neck. "Gonna get me a preppie haircut," he growled, glancing at Laut. Oldfield still likes to think that shotputters are chasing his world record, and well he should. No one has yet matched any of the three marks (75', 73'8", 73'1") he established in the mid-1970s while competing in the International Track Association. Because the now-defunct ITA was a pro circuit, however, those records are not officially recognized by the amateur track world.
Oldfield's longest put at San Jose, 69'7½", turned out to be the best third-place throw in history. Yet it might well have been a best sixth-place effort if Akins, SMU's Michael Carter and Oregon's Dean Crouser (SI, May 30), the world's fourth-ranked thrower in 1982, had been present. At 6'5" and 290, Akins is Beyer's equal in strength. "If he ever gets his technique even 80 percent right he'll throw 75 feet," says Laut. To psych himself up, Akins has recently tried roaring at the crowd like an enraged lion. It must work: He has improved his PR by five feet over the last two years. The 22-year-old Carter, in contrast, doesn't say much of anything to anybody. He came out of Dallas' Jefferson High in 1979, having thrown the 12-pound shot 81'3½", a national record that no other schoolboy has come within 10 feet of. A knee injury he incurred as the starting noseguard for SMU's football team kept him from throwing in 1982. Carter, a 275-pounder with 34-inch thighs—shotputting power comes from the legs—has a style that Laut calls "smooth as glass." Laut adds, "Carter knows the feeling of throwing a shot a long way. He's the one that's going to be dangerous."
Laut showed how dangerous he can be when he settled Saturday's competition for good with a 71'11¾" effort equaling history's sixth-best by an amateur. But all of America's top six throwers have both world-record and gold-medal potential. Says Oldfield, "I'll tell you this, anyone who's coming out from behind that [Iron] Curtain better pack a lunch, 'cause they're going to have a hard time beating us."
Caveat Udo. Let Beyer beware.