Brian Oldfield, a colorful Olympic shot-putter whose outsize talent was matched by his unlikely celebrity, died Sunday at his condo in Elgin, the city where he was born an 11-pound, 9-ounce baby.
In the mid-1970s, “He was the single best shot-putter in the world,” said Dave Johnson, director of the famed Penn Relays competition and a longtime Track & Field News editor.
But in recent years Mr. Oldfield struggled with ailing health, becoming homebound and living on Social Security and the money he made selling T-shirts and autographed merchandise online and charging $25 to $75 for telephone coaching consultations.
Mr. Oldfield was 71.
“His body gave up,” said his sister, Lori Grimes.
Agile and quick for a 6-foot-5, 276-pound man, he used his signature “Oldfield spin” to generate explosive power and ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“He was the trailblazer for a lot of other throwers,” said Paul Pennington, athletic director at Elgin High School, where Mr. Oldfield graduated in 1963 and also where his 58-foot, 10-inch shot-put throw still stands as a record. “He incorporated a spinning technique, where other throwers in the 1960s and 1970s used more of a glide. . . . He studied European throwers and started utilizing more of a discus technique.
“It generates a lot more speed,” Pennington said. “It’s explosive, and it’s still used a lot today. If you are a thrower now, even the young kids, they would know Brian Oldfield’s name all over the world.”
At the height of his power and fame, Mr. Oldfield strode through competitions — and discos— like a golden god. He was nicknamed “the Big O.”
“He did everything large,” his sister said.
A 1976 People magazine article about him was headlined, “Scramble 12 Eggs and Hide All the Chicks — Brian Oldfield’s Back in Town.”
It was reported he once said, “When God invented man, he wanted him to look like me.” Asked if he was quoted accurately, his sister said Monday: “That’s my brother in his younger years, for sure.”
He was once featured in Playgirl magazine. In 1975, he appeared on the “Tonight Show.”
Despite his athleticism, Mr. Oldfield was a smoker, which only added to his mystique. “It made a personality out of me — which is good or bad,” he told Track & Field News in 1973.
On a Track & Field News forum, a mourner called him “the only guy I’ve ever seen compete in Speedos while chain-smoking as he paced the field between jumps.”
But his sister said, “”When he came home, my mother would make him a pot roast and a custard pie. . . . He was very, very sweet.”
His mother, Dorothy, once toured Illinois as a softball player for a Toastmaster factory team, Lori Grimes said. Their father was a heavy machine operator. After graduating from Elgin High and attending Middle Tennessee State, Mr. Oldfield made the 1972 Olympic team, beating out Randy Matson, the 1968 gold medalist. In Munich, though, Mr. Oldfield finished sixth in the shot put.
He then joined a pro track-and-field tour and, in 1975, threw 75 feet — “well beyond the world record,” Johnson said.
And though “it was a hard thing for him to get back amateur standing in time for the 1980 Olympics,” he managed to do it, Johnson said, only to be disappointed when the U.S. boycotted the games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Mr. Oldfield also sparred with Muhammad Ali and set records in Highland games. He once dunked a 16-pound shot put. He competed on TV’s “The Superstars” and “The World’s Strongest Man.” He also worked at Arkansas State.
But injuries and surgeries took a huge toll. In 2003, Sports Illustrated reported “he has had nearly every leg joint repaired, from ankles to knees to hips; 18 inches of his colon removed after 34 polyps were found; and two operations on his throwing (right) shoulder.”
Sometimes, he wore a T-shirt that said “King of the Whirld.”
The Elgin Sports Hall of Fame lists him as the only Olympian from Elgin.
“Brian was a bit ahead of me at Elgin High School,” Mayor Dave Kaptain said. “He loved the sports at Elgin High and never lost track of his roots in this community.”