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Al Oerter

Four times Olympic gold medallist

Alfred Adolf Oerter, athlete: born New York 19 August 1936; married first Corinne Benedetto (two daughters), second Cathy Carroll; died Fort Myers, Florida 1 October 2007.

The word "Olympian", according to some senior sports figures, has been misused in recent times to apply to anyone who competes at an Olympics, rather than only to those who attain the heights of Olympus. There can be no debate that Olympian is the right word to describe Al Oerter, the American who won the discus at the 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968 Games and whose very image – a 6ft 4in, 21-stone blond giant at full stretch, a disc in hand, about to be flung into the far distance – has become a sporting icon.

Only one other track and field athlete has managed to retain his Olympic title three times – Carl Lewis in the long jump between 1984 and 1996. But even the flamboyant sprinter-jumper failed to match Oerter's feat of winning with an Olympic record performance on each occasion.

Oerter was born in 1936, in the Astoria district of New York. His start in life hardly suggested one of the all-time greats of athletics, as childhood high blood pressure kept him off the playgrounds and training tracks. That Oerter ever became a discus thrower was an accident, and part of the legend around his career that he did nothing to discourage.

A teenaged sprinter at Sewanhaka High on Long Island, he was running on a track when a discus skipped into his path. Oerter, then 15, picked it up and threw it back from where it came, except that he heaved it past the team-mate who had originally thrown it. Oerter's coach got his charge to change events immediately and five years later, he was an Olympic gold medallist.

Kenny Moore, the former American runner and Sports Illustrated columnist, wrote: "It is part of the Oerter mystique that he was never favoured to win an Olympics. Especially not his first, in 1956, when he was a 20-year-old at Kansas [University] and faced world record-holder Fortune Gordien, also of the US. Yet Oerter won, and the old master took it hard. Gordien went home and raised a son, Marcus. Trained him to be better than his father. Twenty-two years later, at the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA, he sent Marcus, then 23, out to throw against Al Oerter, then 43. Oerter beat him."

Yet Oerter was never a totally composed and confident performer. Not once did he go into an Olympics even as the American champion, having never managed to win the notoriously tough US Trials. Certainly, with the discus regarded as an event that relies heavily on experience rather than youthful exuberance, when he made the long journey by ship across the Pacific to Australia for the 1956 Melbourne Games, he did so as the callow novice looking to gain experience from the likes of Gordien, who was 34, and the 39-year-old Italian veteran Adolfo Consolini.

Yet Oerter managed to break the Olympic record with his first-round 56.36m throw, a lifetime best and better than all his rivals by more than 5ft. Watched by around 100,000 in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, nerves now struck him. "I had a hard time even raising my arm after that," he said. "I never felt I had won until the last throw was made." Overwhelmed by his victory, Oerter nearly fainted on the medal podium.

A year later, Oerter survived a near-fatal car accident. Discus throwers are catapults in human form, their arms and spines enduring terrific forces in each competitive effort; the accident damaged Oerter's frame and he threw inconsistently over the next three years.

At the 1960 US Olympic Trials, Oerter suffered his first defeat in two years, to Rink Babka. Edmund Piatkowski, of Poland, arrived at the Rome Games as the world record-holder. Oerter struggled with nervousness in the early rounds, and only in the fifth, penultimate, round did he manage to throw 59.18m, winning the gold medal this time by a margin of nearly 4ft.

Two years later, Oerter set a world record for the first time, notably becoming the first man ever to throw beyond 200 feet (61.10m). But he went into the 1964 Olympic season suffering from a chronic cervical disc injury that forced him to wear a neck harness and, a week before the Tokyo Games, tore a cartilage in his lower ribs. Doctors advised six weeks' rest.

Oerter competed, using painkillers and ice-packs, and broke his own Olympic record in the qualifying round. Mindful of his injury, he knew he had limited chances to throw in the final. "If I don't do it on the first throw, I won't be able to do it at all," Oerter told a team-mate.

Yet after four rounds, Oerter was only third. He took another throw, and left the circle doubled up in agonising pain. "It felt like somebody was trying to tear out my ribs." When he looked up at the scoreboard, he saw the judges had measured his throw at 61.00m, an Olympic record to beat Ludwik Danek.

According to Cordner Nelson, writing for Track & Field News in 1968, Oerter confirmed his status as "one of the greatest pressure competitors in sports", beating the then world record-holder Jay Silvester to win a fourth Olympic gold in Mexico City. "You have to be better than whatever it is that keeps you from being your best," Oerter said. "Pressure is nothing more than opportunity. Why not embrace it?"

Retirement followed, but in 1980, despite President Jimmy Carter's declared US boycott of that year's Moscow Olympics, Oerter made a comeback to come fourth at the US Trials at the age of 43. He would later compete in events for the over-40s, using a lighter discus. "It feels like a potato chip," he joked.

Oerter, who worked as a computer specialist for Grumman Aircraft Corporation for 26 years, despised the idea of full-time, professional athletes. "That's their life. What happened to the rest of it?"

He later toured as a public speaker and his abstract paintings – first commissioned for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – were exhibited. He had suffered from a heart condition that nearly killed him four years ago, but he refused a transplant and attended a gala celebration of his life at the New York Athletic Club on his 70th birthday.

Steven Downes