By Greater Astoria Historical Society
In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the Times/Ledger newspaper presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history
Astoria native Al Oerter is best known as a four-time Olympic gold medal winner in the discus throw. Winning his first gold in the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics while still a student athlete at the University of Kansas, Oerter was also a champion in the Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games.
After retiring from international competition, the gold medalist worked in the private sector and became an accomplished artist before dying in 2007 at age 71. He was the first athlete to win a gold medal in the same event in four consecutive Olympics and has been inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.
Born in Astoria, on Sept. 19, 1936, to parents of German and Czech extraction, Alfred Adolph Oerter, Jr. first threw a discus while a student at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, NY. While a high schooler, the Queens native set a national prep record of 184 feet, 2 inches, which attracted the attention of college track and field programs. Oerter chose to take his sporting talents to the University of Kansas, and the stage was set for record-setting athletic greatness.
Standing nearly 6-foot-4 and tipping the scales at close to 280 pounds, the hulking discus thrower soon began to turn heads on a national level and was selected for the 1956 US Olympic Team. While not considered a favorite for gold, the Queens product made a career long throw of some 184 feet, besting the rest of the field in Melbourne by at least 5 inches. After returning stateside, Oerter only added to his rapidly expanding trophy case by becoming a two time NCAA discus champion in 1957 and 1958.
The discus thrower from New York City had only begun his reign of Olympic dominance. Making his second appearance in the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, Oerter earned his second gold with an Olympic record throw of over 194 feet. Two years later, he went on to set a world record with the first ever throw of over 200 feet. A heavy favorite in 1964 in Tokyo, the champion battled painful injuries to take home another gold and make another personal record throw.
Although many thought the sun was beginning to set on his record-setting athletic career, the 32-year old Oerter took home his fourth and final gold in 1968 in Mexico City with an Olympic record throw of over 212 feet. Although 1968 marked his final appearance in the Olympic Games, at age 43 the discus champion from Queens won silver in the 1980 Olympic Boycott Games in Philadelphia. Soon after, Oerter unofficially threw for 245 feet on a television show, which would have set a still-standing world record had it taken place in official competition. The sports great made one final triumphant Olympic appearance in 1996, carrying the flame into the stadium for the Atlanta Summer Games.
Later in life, Al Oerter became an abstract painter, employing a technique in which he poured paint onto a tarp and flung a discus into the resulting puddle to create splashes of color on a canvas. He also worked in information technology for Grumman Aircraft Corporation for 26 years as well as for Reebok before dying of heart failure in Florida in October 2007. Looking back on his four consecutive gold medals in the discus, Oerter once reflected that “the first would be the most surprising, the second the most difficult, the third the most painful, the fourth the most satisfying.”
For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit its website at www.astor