The death of Al Oerter this week at the age of 71 passed with relatively little notice, a sign of how much things have changed in our sporting culture the past 25 years.
Oerter, for those who don't know their history, is an Olympic legend whose feats in the discus were awe-inspiring even for those who were not aficionados of the sport.
His death from heart failure garnered little attention in the media, but there was at least one Utahn who noted it. L.J. Silvester — the 70-year-old former world record holder, four-time Olympian and Olympic silver medalist — received a phone call at his home in Pleasant Grove from a friend informing him that his old rival had passed away.
"Al was a remarkable Olympic competitor," said Silvester. "I have every respect for his ability to compete in that environment. He was just superb."
As fate would have it, the great careers of Oerter and Silvester overlapped. They traded world records and headlines and victories at the U.S. championships and U.S. Olympic trials, but not at the Olympics. Between Olympics, Oerter was relatively quiet. Silvester, meanwhile, set seven world records, won six national championships and often outshone Oerter. Where fate and the Olympic gods seemed to shine on Oerter on the Olympic stage, they did something else to Silvester.
At the 1956 games in Melbourne, Oerter won the discus with an Olympic-record throw of 184 feet. He was 20 years old. At the '60 Games in Rome, he uncorked an Olympic-record of 194 feet to win again.
At the '64 Games in Tokyo, he faced the great Czech, Ludvik Danek, winner of 45 straight competitions and world record holder, as well as Silvester, who had beaten Oerter by 6 feet at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
After failing to make the Olympic team by one place in '60, Silvester had finally reached sports' biggest stage. But shortly before the competition began, Silvester struck his head on a heating duct in a tunnel under the stadium, leaving a gash on his head and blood running down his face. Minutes later he passed out. After having his head stitched, he was revived with smelling salts and immediately led onto the field for the competition.
Oerter had his own problems. He had been suffering from a back injury and torn cartilage in his ribs, but fate lent him a hand. When Oerter stepped up for his fifth throw, the wind, which had been still all evening, suddenly began blowing into the throwers' faces (a headwind is favorable because it keeps the discus aloft longer). Oerter unleashed an Olympic-record throw 200 feet, one inch, to win the gold, leaving Silvester fourth.
At the '68 Games in Mexico City, Silvester, the world record holder, threw an Olympic record of 207 feet in the qualifying round, farther than anything Oerter had ever thrown. Enter fate again. A rain storm forced an hourlong delay and, as he would recall years later, Silvester felt the strength and energy and momentum drain out of his body. Oerter threw 212 feet 6 inches to win again, leaving Silvester fifth.
There it was: Four Olympics, four gold medals, four Olympic records. Only Carl Lewis has matched his feat of winning the same Olympic event four times.
A year later, Silvester beat Oerter in three straight competitions, and Oerter retired. Silvester returned to the Olympics in 1972. He was in first place until Danek surpassed him on his last throw. Afterward, Danek, Silvester, among other throwers, huddled in a long embrace.
"Nothing was said," he says. "It was very emotional."
It marked the end of an era in many ways. Track and field began a long fade from the American consciousness, and throwing would suffer numerous setbacks in the coming steroid revelations, from which it has never recovered.
Throwers form a tight fraternity within their sport, but Silvester and Oerter weren't particularly close. Silvester was close to the other throwers, but not Oerter. Oerter once made some unkind comments about Silvester's competitiveness, which Silvester didn't like, but he was too much the gentleman to mention it whenever they met.
"There was never any dislike; we just weren't friends," recalls Silvester. "We respected each other. I just didn't feel the camaraderie and warmth that I felt with the others."
Oerter is just the latest of the old guard from Silvester's youth to pass away. Danek and many others are long gone.
"As we all know, life goes through many different stages," says Silvester. "I see it as the passing of life."