Oerter took the gold medal in the discus in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968, setting a new Olympic record on each occasion, although he was never the favourite to win the event. His third victory in 1964 was remarkable for the fact that he overcame the handicap of neck and rib injuries, but still managed to set a career best. He also won the Pan-American title in 1959 and set four world records, the first of which in 1962 gave him the distinction of being the first man to record a legal throw of over 200 feet (60.96 metres).
Oerter retired after the Olympic Games of 1968 but returned to full-time competition in 1977 with the goal of making the 1980 Olympic Games and winning a fifth gold medal. He finished 5th at the TAC Championships in 1979 and 6th in 1980. His comeback was derailed by the 1980 Olympic boycott by the United States, but Oerter did post the longest throw in the world in 1980.