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Lewis recalls relationship with Oerter

Source: www.wcsn.com

18 October 2007
By Dave Ungrady

When Carl Lewis won the first of his nine Olympic gold medals in 1984 at the age of 23, Ruth Owens, the wife of Jesse Owens, was in attendance. Before Lewis rose to great fame, Owens was the most renowned U.S. sprinter and long jumper in history.

"I had a relationship with them," Lewis said recently. "I would have given anything for Jesse to live four more years to be there." Owens, who won four Olympic gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, died in 1980. He and Lewis are the only athletes to win four gold medals in track and field at one Olympics.

When Lewis won the long jump at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he developed a bond of achievement with Al Oerter, another accomplished U.S. Olympian. Lewis and Oerter are the only two track and field athletes to win Olympic gold medals in the same event four times.

But this time, Lewis was able to share the accomplishment with his Olympic blood brother. Oerter was one of the first people to catch Lewis' eye following his win in the long jump in Atlanta.

"Al was right there," Lewis said. "He said congratulations. That's what it was all about. That's what I got out of it. Jesse's impact on society and track and field was more outside-in. Al's impact was from the inside-out."

Lewis joined hundreds of Olympians earlier this month in a collective mood of reflection after Orter died Oct. 1 at the age of 71 from a heart ailment. Oerter won gold medals in the discus in four successive Olympics beginning with Melbourne in 1956. Further, Oerter earned the undying admiration of the global Olympic community for his emphasis on sportsmanship and camaraderie over personal gain and competitive quest.

The first of two memorial services for Oerter takes place Friday in Fort Myers, Fla., where he last lived. The New York Athletic Club has planned another memorial service Nov. 29. Oerter was born in Queens, N.Y., and grew up in New Hyde Park on Long Island.

Oerter left a profound impact on Lewis. The legendary sprinter first met Oerter at the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials, when the 43-year-old Oerter nearly mastered a miraculous comeback by finishing fourth and missing selection to the team by one spot. He threw a personal best in the competition.

"Al was the oldest one at those trials and I was the youngest," Lewis said. "I remember looking up to him long before I won four in a row."

Cindy Stinger, the manager of the U.S. Olympians Association, said Lewis was the first member of the group to call her after Oerter passed away. "He doesn't call me that often," said Stinger. "Now Carl's got to hold that torch."

Stinger, a three-time Olympian in team handball, admits she did not know much about the job when she accepted the position. Oerter eased her transition. "Al taught me what the job meant," he said. "Al helped me organize reunions. The Olympics to Al was about the friends he made on the field of play. He never talked about his medals. He talked about the camaraderie."

Few Olympians developed as strong a bond with Oerter as Rink Babka. Oerter was born four days before Babka in 1936 and their close friendship was spawned when both were freshmen in college. Oerter attended the University of Kansas while Babka entered Menlo College in California. They competed against each other in NCAA and AAU meets.

Babka, battling an abscessed tooth at the 1956 U.S. Olympic trials, failed to make the U.S. team. "Al told me there would be a next time for me," Babka said.

The next time came at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Babka entered the competition with an NCAA championship and a world record in the discus, both attained in 1958. He won the silver medal behind Oerter despite having lost 11 pounds in Rome due to dysentery.

"I went in sicker than a puppy," Babka said by phone recently. "I couldn't hold anything in my gut. When I threw, that was all the energy I had. I had been in the infirmary the night before. It was just terrible."

Still, Babka led the competition through five throws with one remaining. Babka approached Oerter, who was struggling, and they started conversing. "We were talking about how badly I felt," Babka said. "And I said I can see what you're doing wrong. He was dragging his throwing arm a little too low, restricting the length of his pull at the end of the throw. I thought, 'well, I'm winning it. Hopefully, I'll continue to win, but if I could help him move up, that would be good. I just didn't think Al would beat me. I hoped he got a better throw, but not better than mine."

Injury prevented Babka from competing in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic games while his friend thrived at those competitions. Still, they remained close friends. "Al was very dear, like a brother," Babka said.

Oerter began an artistic career in 1980 when Anheuser Busch commissioned him to create works for the U.S. Olympic team. He formed his abstract pieces in part by tossing his discuss into puddles of paint, causing a splash of color on a canvas.

Babka, a business consultant who lives in California, worked with Oerter to develop the Art of the Olympians, which has showcased art by Olympic athletes such as Babka, Oerter, former long jump world record holder Bob Beamon of the USA and Shane Gould of Australia, a three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer, at shows throughout the world.

"He's the opposite of the type of athletes you have today," said Babka. "Today, they try and get the crowd stirred up, being cheerleaders, trying to make noise. He didn't showboat, up until the day he died. He had all his gold medals in a drawer. He didn't have to prove anything."

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