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American discus great Oerter dies at age 71
The thrower won gold medals in four consecutive Olympics.
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Al Oerter, the discus great who won gold medals in four straight Olympics to become one of track and field's biggest stars in the 1950s and '60s, died Monday of heart failure. He was 71.
Oerter died at a hospital near his Fort Myers Beach home, wife Cathy Oerter said. He dealt with high blood pressure since he was young and struggled with heart problems, she said.
"He was a gentle giant," she said. "He was bigger than life."
Oerter won gold medals in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968. Oerter and Carl Lewis are the only track and field stars to capture the same event in four consecutive Olympics. Oerter, however, is the only one to set an Olympic record in each of his victories.
"His legacy is one of an athlete who embodied all of the positive attributes associated with being an Olympian," said Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "He performed on the field of play with distinction and transferred that excellence to the role of advocate for the Olympic movement and its ideals."
Born in New York City, Oerter was 6-foot-4 and once competed at nearly 300 pounds. He dispensed with coaching and conventional training methods, molding himself into a fierce competitor who performed his best when the stakes were highest.
In Melbourne in 1956, Oerter threw 184 feet, 11 inches on his first toss and watched in amazement when nobody else, including teammate and world-record holder Fortune Gordien, came close to beating him.
He came from behind to win again in Rome, and overcame torn rib cartilage and other injuries to make it three in a row at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
At 32, he was a long shot in the 1968 field headed by world-record holder Jay Silvester. However, Oerter responded with a personal-best of 212-6 to leave Mexico City with the gold.
He came out of retirement and won a spot as an alternate on the 1980 team that didn't compete because of the boycott ordered by President Carter.
Later in life, Oerter discovered a new passion and took up abstract painting.
Oerter maintained his Olympic ties through Art of the Olympians, a program he founded to give him and other former Olympians who have taken up art to showcase their work.
"Al approached the art world the same way he approached the sports world," friend and former Olympian Liston Bochette said. "He studied it. He analyzed it. And he sought excellence in the arts."
Funeral arrangements are pending.