FLORIDA - 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 1960s, died on Monday of heart failure. He was 71.
Oerter died at a hospital near his Fort Myers Beach home in Florida, US, his wife Cathy said.
He had dealt with high blood pressure since he was young, and also struggled with heart problems, she said.
"He was a gentle giant," she said. "He was bigger than life."
He 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 United States 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 eschewed coaching and conventional training methods to mould himself into a fierce competitor who performed his best when the stakes were highest.
"I can remember those games truly as if they were a week ago," Oerter told The Associated Press last year.
In Melbourne in 1956, he threw 56,36metres on his first toss and watched in amazement when nobody else, including team mate 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 64,78metres 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 Jimmy Carter.
Later in life, Oerter discovered a new passion and took up abstract painting.
"He studied it. He analysed it. And he sought excellence in the arts," said friend and former Olympian Liston Bochette. - Sapa