Olympic great Oerter, 71, dies of heart failure

Few athletes have owned and defined their sport at an Olympic level the way Al Oerter did with the discus.

Even fewer did it as many times.

Oerter, a four-time Olympic gold medalist (1956-'60-'64-'68) and longtime competitor at the Modesto Relays, died Monday of heart failure. Oerter, who lived in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., turned 71 last month and had dealt with high blood pressure and heart troubles for many years while living in Fort Myers Beach, Fla.

Only Oerter and Carl Lewis, in the long jump, won the same track and field event in four consecutive Olympics. Oerter did Lewis one better, however, in setting Olympic records all four times.

Interestingly, though, Oerter really was never considered the "favorite" going into any of his Olympic competitions. First it was because, at age 20, he was considered too young. Then he had to make some critical technical adjustments the next time. His third trip, he was battling painful injuries. And, finally, he was thought to be too "old."

Yet each time Oerter went to the Games, he came out on top.

"Al Oerter is one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time," said USA Track and Field CEO Craig A. Masback in a statement. "What made him even more special was his excellence off the track, in pursuits ranging from community outreach to art. The track world has lost a legend, a Hall of Famer, and a true gentleman."

Oerter, a native of Astoria, N.Y., made the U.S. team for the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia. He was not favored there, but he threw 184 feet, 11 inches for his first gold medal.

The next year, however, Oerter was almost killed in a car accident in which he was thrown through the windshield. He recovered and won another gold at the 1960 Rome Games.

In 1964 at the Tokyo Games, Oerter overcame a neck injury and torn rib cartilage -- both of which caused him extreme pain while throwing -- to prevail as Olympic champion a third time. By 1968, Oerter was considered an "old man" in track and field, and he entered the Mexico City Games as a distinct underdog.

But once again, he took gold.

In recent years, art had become Oerter's primary passion, as he became an abstract painter. That included a series of works using a discus dipped in paint and thrown at a canvas.

Last year, Oerter went back home to the Big Apple to be saluted by the New York Athletic Club, which he had represented in competitions as a teen. In ceremonies there, he was called "an Olympian's Olympian."

A fitting title for a man who always found his best at the world's biggest sporting event.