Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the men’s throws
Winning one Olympic title is an outstanding achievement in itself. But winning four consecutive Olympic golds across a space of 12 years is simply staggering.
American discus thrower Al Oerter did exactly that. Just weeks after turning 20, Oerter made his Olympic debut at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Up against world record-holder Fortune Gordien, Oerter surprised his US team-mate to take gold with a PB and Olympic record of 56.36.
But the following year Oerter’s career almost came to an abrupt end when he was involved in a car crash. He made a great recovery and made it back in time to defend his title at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Once again he was up against a world record-holder, this time fellow Rink Babka, and once again Oerter came out on top.
Babka led for the first four rounds, before passing on some advice to Oerter ahead of his fifth throw. The words of wisdom did the trick and Oerter sent the disc flying out to 59.18m – just 73cm short of Babka’s world record. It was another lifetime best and an improvement on the Olympic record he set four years prior.
Another American, Jay Silvester, beat Oerter to the accolade of becoming the first man to break 60 metres, but in 1962 Oerter became the first man to break 200 feet when he set his first of four world records in the event with 61.10m.
By the time of the next Olympics in 1964, Oerter had extended his world record to 62.94m. Despite suffering from injuries to his neck and ribs, such was his dominance in the event – especially at the Olympics – Oerter was still considered the favourite. He duly delivered and continued his streak of Olympic records, winning with 61.00m.
Oerter was 32 years old when it came time again to defend his Olympic title in 1968. Earlier that year Silvester had broken the world record with 66.54m, but Oerter’s competitive record at the Olympics was unmatched, making for a mouth-watering head-to-head in the discus at the Mexico City Games.
But that clash never materialised as Silvester finished down in fifth place. Oerter, meanwhile, once again struck gold – an unprecedented fourth consecutive title – and again bettered the Olympic record with his 64.78m throw.
Oerter retired at the end of that season, but made an incredible return 11 years later in an attempt to compete at the 1980 Olympics. Upon returning to the sport, Oerter produced the best throws of his career, culminating in a 69.46m lifetime best at the age of 43. But his return did not work out as planned and he finished an agonising fourth at the 1980 US Trials, missing out on making the team for the Games.
In those later years of his career, Oerter reportedly threw an unofficial 74.67m in training – farther than the current world record.
While in his late sixties, Oerter, who had struggled with high blood pressure all of his life, became terminally ill with cardiovascular disease and passed away in October 2007.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
The Czech javelin thrower came close to matching Oerter’s record of four consecutive Olympic golds. After taking the silver in 1988, Zelezny went on to win gold in 1992, 1996 and 2000. His world record of 98.48m, set in 1996, still stands today.
Winner of the Olympic hammer title in 1976 and 1980, the latter with a world record, the Soviet thrower would have been heavily favoured to win the 1984 title too had it not been for the boycott of the Los Angeles Games. Two years later he set the current world record of 86.74m when winning European gold and he followed it two years later with Olympic silver.
While Oerter dominated the discus in the Fifties and Sixties, fellow American O’Brien was the leading force in the shot. He won gold at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, following it with silver at the 1960 Games. Creator of the glide technique, O’Brien set 17 world records in the event.
Holder of the longest-standing current men’s world record with 74.08m, German discus thrower Schult won Olympic gold in 1988 and silver in 1992. Although he never came close to replicating his world record, he was very consistent when it mattered, and between 1983 and 2000 he finished in the top eight in all 14 major championship finals he contested.
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