Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sixty's Sixtieth: Parry O'Brien

Sixty years ago - May 8, 1954 - Parry O’Brien, the greatest male shot putter in history, broke the 60’ barrier. If ever he made a mistake, it was shattering 60’ two days after Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4:00 minute mile. While the world was understandably focused on Bannister, O’Brien did little to call attention to his own momentous achievement.

Certainly, breaking the 4:00 barrier was to confer legendary status on the athlete first to accomplish it. Roger Bannister, who had a relatively brief career, is rightly accorded that status for his singular achievement. But while Bannister held his world record for 46 days, O’Brien held the shot put world record for over 1,400 more.

O’Brien set world records a staggering 17 times. Interestingly, the IAAF ratified only 10 of these. When O’Brien set multiple world records in the same meet - the most famous of these when he broke the WR three times on June 11, 1954 - IAAF ratified his best world record of the day.
 
Olympic gold medalist in ‘52 and ‘56, O’Brien won silver in ‘60 and finished 4th in ’64. He improved the shot put world record by over four feet, from 59’ ¾” to 63’4”, a remarkable record rewrite of 7.23%. His personal best of 64’ 7 ¼” came when he was 34; the world record had by then been claimed by Randy Matson.

During his peak, O’Brien won 116 meets in a row, one of the greatest winning streaks in the history of track and field. O’Brien earned the highest accolade an American amateur athlete can win when he was recognized with the 1959 Sullivan Award. Perhaps the greatest appreciation of all came when his 1964 Olympic teammates elected him flag bearer for Opening Ceremonies in Tokyo.

Most of all, O’Brien was one of the very few athletes to permanently alter his event. He pioneered “The Glide” and was the first shot putter in history to make use of the entire ring. In a 1955 Sports Illustrated article, Herman Hickman called O’Brien’s Glide “completely revolutionary.”

I met O’Brien at the Legends of Gold Banquet, held in conjunction with the 10th World Athletics Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2001.

As I sat down at my table, I was thrilled to see a placard with his name on it. I was considerably less thrilled when, moments later, someone plucked it off our table and moved it to an adjacent one. In a hall filled with 26 of the most notable track and field gold medalists, ours was, sadly, a table without a legend.

Each legend was given a rousing introduction by the emcee, Canadian television broadcaster, Brian Williams. When he introduced Dick Fosbury, he said that Fosbury held the singular distinction of being the only athlete in the room to have transformed an event.

After dinner I went downstairs and stood in long lines to have my moment with at least a few of these legends.

O’Brien sat leaning forward at his table; it gave him a hunched effect: shoulders forward, head down.

O’Brien struck me as a shy man of great depth.

Humble, certainly.

We exchanged greetings, and as he signed my program, I said, “Mr. O’Brien, many of us cringed tonight when the announcer said that there was one person in the building who transformed an event. Everyone knows there are two."

I had not anticipated how deeply this would touch him; I think I had given voice to what he thought but could not say.

With great emphasis, he said, “Thank you.”

He looked down quickly and then up again.
 
“Thank you.”

He was trying to tell me something important.
 
“Thank you very much.”

Parry O’Brien, an athlete dedicated to his fitness for his entire life, passed away eight years later at 75 while competing in a masters swimming event in his native California.

 



 


 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 


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