Pain And Triumph
When the 1964 Olympics took place in October in Tokyo, Oerter, the two-time reigning Olympic discus champion, was once again not the favorite. Not only was Danek the world record holder, but he had won an incredible forty-five consecutive competitions. To make matters worse for Oerter he was forced to wear a neck brace because of what was described as a "chronic cervical disk injury." That injury was far from the extent of Oerter's physical woes that season. About a week before the start of the Olympics, Oerter slipped and fell while practicing on a wet field. He tore cartilage in his rib cage. As he recounted to Bud Greenspan in 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History, "I was bleeding internally, I couldn't move, I couldn't sleep and I consumed bottles of aspirin to alleviate the pain. I went through ice treatments to minimize the bleeding and the doctors ordered me not to compete. But these are the Olympics and you die before you don't compete in the Olympics."
Oerter competed with his rib cage heavily taped and packed with ice, and not even three shots of Novocain could dull the pain. After four rounds (each competitor gets six throws or rounds) Oerter was in third place-a remarkable enough achievement given the circumstances, but still more than seven feet short of Danek's best throw. Acknowledging he was in too much pain to try a sixth toss, Oerter decided to go for broke in the fifth round. His throw of sixty-one meters (200 feet, 11/3 inches) was a new Olympic record and nearly half a meter better than Danek's best toss. Oerter never saw the discus land. He was lying on the ground, doubled up in pain.
Oerter continued competing; for him the intervening years were primarily warm-ups for the Olympics. However he did win his sixth U.S. National championship in 1966 (besides the aforementioned three national championships, Oereter was also national champion in 1962, 1964).
By the time 1968 Olympics, held in Mexico City, rolled around, the world record holder was fellow American, Jay Sylvester, who had topped Danek's mark with a toss of 66.54 meters in May of that year. Sylvester extended his record in September with a throw of 68.4 meters.
But it was Oerter who once again made the Olympics his special stage. His throw of 64.78 (212 feet, 6 inches) was good enough to win his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal; Lothar Milde of the German Democratic Republic took the silver medal while Danek captured the bronze medal. Oerter's winning throw was a personal best, but more important, his four consecutive gold medals in the same event was a feat no other track and field athlete had ever duplicated. However, it was overshadowed by the controversial "black power salute" by African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos who were protesting against racism in the United States. Smith and Carlos took the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 meter event.