Track Stats - Gerry Carr

“Oerter walked out to the ring, and everyone tied themselves up with nervousness”: a British discus-thrower in the USA in the 1960s

Gerry Carr was one of Britain’s outstanding field-event exponents. He set five British records for the discus between 1958 and 1965, taking the distance from 176ft 11in (54.54m) to 187ft 0in (57.00m), and succeeded Mark Pharaoh, who had placed 4th in the 1956 Olympics. Four of Carr’s five records dated from 1960 onwards when he was studying in California, and he took part in some of the finest discus events in history, competing against the greatest of American throwers – Gordien, Oerter, Silvester, O’Brien, Babka and Humphreys, among them. Carr went on to enjoy a distinguished academic career and now lives in retirement with his wife on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada. Here he answers questions put to him by the editor of “Track Stats” for the issue of March 2008.

Question. You were at Wanstead County Grammar School, in Essex, and you and Mike Lindsay, from Middlesex, were the finest junior discus-throwers in the country. How did you get introduced to the event and who were your early coaches?

Answer. Wanstead was a goal-oriented school. Getting as many students as possible into Oxford and Cambridge and winning as many sport competitions as possible were the two major goals. Wanstead had an excellent physical education program which I thoroughly enjoyed. The school house system helped in promoting the school sports programs. I soon found I could throw long distances. I began throwing stones as a kid across the local lake, then javelins at school, and later I concentrated on the discus. I worked with Tony Traill and then with John Le Masurier. Both were very supportive and helpful but very different in their approach. There was a track at Paddington where I met Mike Lindsay. Basically, there were only three of us at that time – Mark Pharaoh, myself and Mike. I also got to know Dennis Cullum and Don Anthony, who was a lecturer at Loughborough, and Mike Ellis, the great hammer-thrower of that period and later a firm friend.

Q. You studied at Loughborough and then went to the USA. Was the move to the USA your own initiative or were you invited?

A. I went into the RAF on National Service and into Fighter Command for a couple of years. Mike Ellis and Geoff Elliott, my hero at Wanstead, were also part of the Fighter Command athletic team. From National Service I then went to Loughborough, where Mike Ellis and I became even firmer friends. After graduating from Loughborough I was faced with four possibilities – (a) go back in the RAF; (b) teach; (c) emigrate to Australia; or (d) try to get an athletic scholarship in the USA. I favored the latter. I wrote to most of the West Coast universities about my throwing ability, and the response was that I already had received the equivalent of three years of US university education while at Loughborough. They also said that I would lose a year for transferring from Loughborough to a US university. Most US universities counted freshman, junior, sophomore, senior as four years, anyway, and said that I was no use to them.

UCLA admissions assessed Loughborough as being less than university level, or maybe they simply didn’t understand how to assess British diplomas. The admissions and athletics office (for all sports) offered me a “grant in aid”, providing that I got myself to Los Angeles. So I went to my father. He talked to the directors of the shipping firm where he worked on the London docks, and it wasn’t long before I found myself on a tiny little freighter called “La Falda” going via Antwerp, Bremerhaven, through the Panama Canal, and finally to Wilmington Docks in LA – all for free. I had arrived. I moved into one of the campus dormitories, which took all of my paltry scholarship money, and I had to work illegally until I received a green card.

Q. You found yourself competing at a very high level against Babka, Humphreys, Silvester, Oerter etc. Was this daunting, intimidating or simply highly motivational? Or perhaps all of these things?

A. I was very much intimidated. The only time I beat Jay Silvester was when he fouled out every throw. Al Oerter intimidated everyone – especially those who had a chance of beating him. He walked out, and everyone tied themselves up with nervousness. I once saw him throw around about 190, casually spinning on wet grass. In my opinion, Rink Babka was the forerunner of the enormous men like Alekna, who are tall, strong and have immensely long arms. In California at that time I was lucky if I could get in the final six. Once I was last in the qualifying rounds in Santa Barbara, and for the final the throwing order was reversed so I had to throw first. I remember saying to myself, “Relax and register a valid throw”. I ended up by winning the all-comers’ meet on this first throw. I was more shocked than the track and field coach. In his drawl he said that I had done a real good job.

Q. Was the level of coaching and the quality of the facilities in California far superior to what you had experienced in England?

A. During my time I felt that much of the athletics coaching in England was far too concerned with biomechanical minutiae and any idiosyncrasy that the World record-holder might have. I once asked a great thrower, “What would you be doing with your left arm during your spin across the ring?”. The answer was very revealing to me. “I don’t think at all”, he said. “I just spin and throw”. To me his mind was so uncluttered. What the USA had at that time was phenomenal depth of talent, as well as a competitive system based on high-level dual meets between all their numerous universities, and in California consistent warm wonderful weather. In Britain I once had 13 weekend discus competitions all of them in rain. The USA “lost” many of their great track and field stars to American football. Sometimes UCLA footballers would wander over to the track and throw farther than me. British coaches know as much as any other coach in terms of the mechanics of the event, but they had to deal with far fewer talented youngsters. One example of an athlete moving in the “opposite” direction was Parry O’Brien. He tried shot putting because he got hurt in football.

Q. Oerter clearly was the great competitor of that era. What did you think of him and others like Babka, Silvester, Humphreys?

A. Al Oerter was in a class by himself. The records speak for themselves. I simply cannot imagine winning four gold medals in four successive Olympics nor a 247ft discus throw by the present World record-holder. I bet I could not have reached that distance throwing the discus directly downward off Beachy Head, where I was posted in the RAF. I once went to Eugene, Oregon, to watch a track and field meet. I went over to see the hammer competition. The person next to me put his hand on the fence. I happened to put my hands on the fence, too. I was shocked by what I saw. His hand was close to three times the width of mine, and he was a full head taller than me. It was Ben Plucknett, who at that time was throwing the discus 230+ feet.

Q. What did you benefit most from in the USA so far as training was concerned – more weights, more competition?

A. I benefited from both. I worked out at “Muscle Beach Gym”, which at that time was in a huge basement on Santa Monica Boulevard. The Los Angeles police trained there, and the Los Angeles Rams football team, the US Olympic weight-lifters, throwers, and football players from USC and UCLA. Then there was the body-building fraternity and all the other hangers-on. I competed in dead-lift competitions, bench press, pressing and squat (both front and back). There were competitions in every phase of weight-training. While on scholarship there were competitions up and down the West Coast every weekend during the season.

Q. Was the use of steroids widespread in the early 1960s?

A. It seemed to me that everyone was “on something” even in the early ‘60s, including me. This was particularly the case with the body-building group. It certainly was widespread, with mystery people selling or giving samples at all-comers’ meets. I am thankful that the amount I tried was miniscule relative to today. Dianabol was the drug of choice. As far as diet was concerned, most throwers ate as much as possible. Along with other track athletes, I used to serve meals to the 75 or so football players all on football scholarships. Most of them were so exhausted from their training that we ended eating huge amounts. It was reminiscent of Spartacus.

Q. What, exactly, constitutes a perfect discus throw – the speed and control of the turn, the angle of release? Did you ever feel that you had the perfect throw?

A. I wanted to throw 190 feet and never managed it. Yet I felt I was physically capable. My best throws were always in training. I always thought that the finish of my throw was suspect. Excellent technique for me was that of Jurgen Schult, of East Germany. It seems to me that driving the hips forward and causing rotation to occur around a “post” formed by the left side of the body – if you are a right-handed thrower – is very important. Many throwers fall in love with the reverse and pull back the left foot from the front of the ring before the body has moved forward and rotated sufficiently around the left side. The athlete should try to “crack a whip” around the body, with the discus being the tip and the body being the whip handle. I tried to correct the error of pulling back from the direction of throw by doing hundreds of standing throws with five-pound and seven-pound weighted discs from the beach pathway out on to the sand at Santa Monica.

The angle of release is dependent on a huge number of factors. We used to hold all-comers’ meets at Long Beach where a continuous incoming sea breeze came toward the thrower on the right-hand side. I once saw Ludvik Danek throw a discus there in which every ounce of forward thrust on the discus was used up in giving the discus flight. The discus just dropped to the ground well beyond 200ft and there was no skid at all. It was like launching a glider.

Q. Mike Ellis says that you were the best teacher of biomechanics he had ever met. When did you move on from student to lecturer?

A. That’s very nice of Mike. At UCLA I took a degree in English, and added to that a huge number of courses in German and Art History. The German language proved to be very useful because my PhD thesis was a comparison of the use of sport as a political weapon by the Nazi party and the East German government. I taught a couple of basic courses at UCLA in the Physical Education department, and I then moved up to the fledgling University of Victoria, in Canada, in 1967. Initially, I taught all and everything. Then one day my chairman said to me, “We need someone to teach biomechanics, and you’re the one”. I’m sure my face went white.

Initially, I learned as much as possible from books and also from the physics students in the class. Then if there was anything I didn’t understand I went over to the physics department. I used to teach the history of the Ancient and Modern Olympic Games, and along with that biomechanics. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at UVIC and continued teaching a couple of courses long after I retired in 2001. My last time teaching biomechanics was a two-day crash course to coaches in the Canadian Coaching Association.

Q. You were 10th in the 1956 Olympics at the age of 20 but did not compete in another Games. Do you regret that?

A. I had to work to support myself at UCLA because my scholarship money wasn’t sufficient. As a student during the competitive season I was on a carousel of study, work, train, and on the weekends travel to competitions on buses or planes. I ended up loathing the pressure. For a long time afterwards I had an uneasy reaction each time I passed the track and discus ring. Once I graduated I preferred not being “controlled” by the coach. I tutored in Bel Aire, Beverly Hills and Brentwood to the sons and daughters of the wealthy. I taught swimming and any academic course on which I felt I could stay one step ahead of the students. It was very lucrative and quite an experience.

Q. How has your academic career progressed?

A. I became a full professor and am now an emeritus professor. The “publish or perish” demands at the University became worse with each passing year, and I had to “produce” like anyone else. My background in both German and English became really helpful. I wrote many sport historical articles on the Soviet and East German system. I even attracted the attention of the police who wanted to know why I was receiving so much East German literature. At a conference one of the East German coaches said to me, “Ah, you’re the Canadian who writes about our country”. He grinned and laughed. I was relieved and laughed, too. We both knew what the score was. I am now busy learning Spanish and painting with acrylics.

Q. How do you think 21st Century discus-throwers compare with those of your era?

A. The throwers nowadays are definitely bigger, faster and stronger. Yet the fundamental technique has changed little. Most throwers nowadays would sniff at 190 and 200ft and probably go off and play golf or soccer. In retrospect I consider that I was too small, but by throwing a discus I was rewarded with four years of education and eight years in California during the 1960s. Those were wonderful times, and I met many terrific and generous American people.

British discus-throwing in the 1950s and 1960s

Gerald Anthony Carr was born on 1 February 1936. He was a member of Woodford Green AC and was AAA junior champion in the shot in 1952 and in the discus in 1953 and 1954, and Mike Lindsay won the same two titles in 1956 and 1957. Carr set the first of his British senior discus records at Loughborough on 21 May 1958 and the last of them at Long Beach, California, on 17 July 1965, while Lindsay also broke the record in the USA in 1960. Together with Mark Pharaoh, who set 10 British records between 1953 and 1956, Carr and Lindsay were the first genuinely international-class discus-throwers that Britain had produced. The sequence of British records during the 1950s and 1960s was as follows:

 154-6˝(47.11)   John Savidge, Motspur Park, 3 May 1950
 155-3(47.32)Harry Duguid, Edinburgh (Craiglockhart), 12 May 1951
 155-3˝(47.33)Savidge, Chiswick, 9 May 1953
 155-10˝ (47.51)Mark Pharaoh, Motspur Park, 27 May 1953
 161-1(49.10)Pharaoh, Hull, 20 June 1953
 162-5˝(49.51)Pharaoh, Hull, 20 June 1953
 163-0˝(49.69)Pharaoh, Oxford, 6 May 1954
 165-8˝(50.50)Pharaoh, Motspur Park, 2 June 1954
 166-9(50.82)Pharaoh, Rugeley, 9 July 1955
(169-11) 51.79Pharaoh, Prague, 15 September 1955
(174-0˝) 53.04Pharaoh, Prague, 22 July 1956
(174-8˝) 53.26Pharaoh, Melbourne (OG), 27 November 1956
(178-0˝) 54.27Pharaoh, Melbourne (OG), 27 November 1956
 178-11(54.54)Gerry Carr, Loughborough, 21 May 1958
 181-2˝(55.23)Carr, Walnut, California, 23 April 1960
 181-6(55.32)Mike Lindsay, Stillwater, Oklahoma, 4 May 1960
 181-6˝(55.33)Carr, Los Angeles, 6 August 1964
 185-0(56.39)Carr, Long Beach, California, 15 August 1964
 187-0(57.00)Carr, Long Beach, California, 17 July 1965
 187-10(57.26)Bill Tancred, Cambridge, 18 May 1968
 189-6 57.78 John Watts, London (White City), 2 September 1968
 189-6(57.76)Tancred, London (White City), 13 August 1969

Note: Watts’s performance was measured for both imperial and metric distances. Roy Hollingsworth represented both Trinidad & Tobago and Great Britain in international competition and achieved throws of 184-4 (56.18), Portsmouth, 20 July 1963, and 186-0˝ (56.71) London (White City), 14 September 1963.

During this same era of the 1950s and 1960s the World record advanced from 197-0? (57.93) by Sim Iness (USA) in 1953 to 224-5 (68.40) by Jay Silvester (USA) in 1968.

The first of Gerry Carr’s British records in the USA was achieved at Walnut, California, on 23 April 1960 during what was described as the “hottest discus competition ever”. The result was as follows: 1 Jim Wade 190-6˝, 2 Rink Babka 188-10, 3 Jay Silvester 188-8˝, 4 Bob Humphreys 188-4˝, 5 Carol Lindroos (Finland) 182-7, 6 Gerry Carr (GB) 181-2˝, 7 Jack Egan 175-7, 8 Parry O’Brien 174-11˝, 9 Rafer Johnson 172-3, 10 Jack Putnam 171-11. Prior to 1960 only five men, all of them Americans, had beaten 188ft – Fortune Gordien, Jack Ellis, Sim Iness, Rink Babka and Al Oerter.

British All-Time Top Ten – Discus – end of 1965

 187-0(57.00)   Gerry Carr(3)   Long Beach, Cal.17.07.65
 186-0˝(56.71)Roy Hollingsworth   (1)London (WC)14.09.63
 181-6(55.32)Mike Lindsay(1)Stillwater, Okla.04.05.60
(178-0˝) 54.27Mark Pharaoh(4)Melbourne (OG)27.11.56
(177-2˝) 54.01Eric Cleaver(1)Minden, Germany   21.10.62
 173-3(52.80)Peter Nimmo(4)Austin, Tex.03.04.65
 170-10˝ (52.09)Bill Tancred(1) Colchester23.08.64
 170-6(51.96)John Sheldrick(3)London (WC)29.09.62
 167-1˝(50.95)Dennis Roscoe(2)London (WC)08.05.65
 167-0(50.90)Arthur McKenzie(1)Wolverhampton27.06.64