by George Gross, Jr.
Al Oerter may represent the United States in the discus event at the Pan American Games this summer in Puerto Rico.
Not Al Oerter Jr. …
The Al Oerter I’m talking about is the man who, at the age of 20, won his first Olympic gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. Oerter went on to win gold medals at the next three Olympics.
Now, at 43, Oerter is making a comeback and will try for a record fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal at Moscow in 1980.
After winning his fourth Olympic gold medal with a career best throw of 64.78 meters in Mexico City in 1968, the American discus giant retired. He found he was no longer able to create new goals for himself. He also had a career and family on which to concentrate.
However, a few months ago, the data computer executive tossed the discus an unbelievable 67.00 meters. That throw would have ranked him fifth in the world in 1978 behind two other Americans, a Bulgarian, and the world record holder from East Germany.
Despite this personal best throw, many questioned why Oerter would want to risk an almost perfect competition reputation by going for the gold in Moscow.
Oerter is quick to point out that he doesn’t give a damn about his reputation. He’s back because he enjoys the day-to-day aspect of competing. In his mind, his competitive career is no longer tied to that one day of Olympic competition every four years although his recent throw attests to at least the possibility of success in Moscow.
Oerter is just one example of the mature athlete continuing to succeed in an era of emphasis on youth in amateur sport.
Dawn Fraser, an Australian swimmer, kept astounding the experts in the ’60s by winning year after year until her late 20s. This was in a sport where girls are considered washed up at 19.
Countries successful in amateur sport reflect a history of mature veterans in various sports. Yet Canada appears to be singularly lacking in this area.
At the 1978 World Aquatic Championships in Berlin, the senior member of the Canadian contingent (made up of swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, and water polo teams) was only 26 years old.
But why worry that we don’t have a 43-year-old discus thrower, a 28-year-old female swimmer, or a 30-year-old water polo or basketball player?
For one thing, the successful team sport is always made up of a good percentage of veterans. The’ veterans are needed to help ease the transition from inexperienced rookie to experienced player.
The Canadian water polo team placed a respectable ninth in 1976 at the Olympics. The average age of that team was 21.8 years. If the majority of the team was still together (which it isn’t), their average age in 1980 would be 25.8, which is equal to that of the medal-winning countries at almost every Olympics.
In the individual sports, veterans can bring back that extra experience to the national championships. This enables up and coming athletes to compete in an international atmosphere and to learn from those who are more experienced.
And regardless of the type of sport, successful veterans give the young a chance to create idols. They also provide their sport with increased exposure since the media is able to relate to such a person fairly easily. Such is the case with Diane Jones Konihowski.
It isn’t easy to continue in amateur athletics in Canada. Societal pressures to get a job and “settle down” are relentlessly exerted on the individual.
Then too, perserverance against adversity does not seem to be a Canadian characteristic today. The example set to our young athletes is to get out after a big Olympic performance or after college graduation.
Yet it can be done.
Pole vaulter Bruce Simpson fought to get accepted into law school while still competing. Now established in a practice, he is making the effort to compete again.
Largely through media efforts and, to a certain extent, the Game Plan Lost Time Payments program, employers across the country are becoming aware, not only of the plight of the high level, experienced athlete, but also of the advantages of having such a person on their personnel list. Thus, it is up to the individuals to make the attempt to comeback or continue if that is their desire.
However, we in amateur athletics must reward those attempts, assist them, and praise them. We should not be derisive or patronizing.
Cathy Priestner, Abby Hoffman, Doug Rogers, Dave Steen, John Wood — what are you doing these days … ?
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