WASHINGTON, June 29, 2012 — One hundred years after King Gustav V of Sweden crowned Jim Thorpe a gold medalist in the decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, celebrating him as the “world’s greatest athlete”, the decathlon world record has been shattered. In the United States. By an American. Ashton Eaton.
The moment was met with surprise by the millions who suddenly recalled the existence of the decathlon and its siblings, the heptathlon and the pentathlon. For the perfect indicator of how far the decathlon family had fallen off the world radar, type Roman Sebrle’s name into Google. The Czech, who is regarded as one of the greatest decathletes of all-time, was the only person to top 9,000 points in the decathlon until Eaton’s superb performance in Eugene, Oregon on June 23.
Six days after scoring 9,039 points at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials, Eaton now nets 13.7 million hits on Google, greater than Sebrle’s total by a factor of almost 100. Most importantly, though, once his world record is certified, he will simultaneously hold the world records in the decathlon and the heptathlon.
To reinforce how Eaton now truly is the world’s greatest all-around athlete, look no further than many, even all, of his marks in each of the decathlon’s ten events. His dominance in the five track events has never been a surprise: After all, he began his career as a track star at the University of Oregon.
But the scope of his results in the track events over the two days of competition was nearly beyond belief. He ran the 100 m dash in 10.21 seconds, a decathlon record, and just three-milliseconds short of the Olympic A Standard mark in the 100 m, the minimum time that every runner who intends on competing in that sole event in London must meet.
His long jump distance of 8.23 m would have tied him for second in that event at the trials and was another decathlon best. Aside from those two, his best events, he was not far off the decathlon record time in the 110 m hurdles, coming in 13.70 seconds. His 5.30 m mark in the pole vault was also a personal best, as was his time in the final event, 4 minutes and 14.48 seconds in the 1500 m sprint, which clinched him the world record by two seconds.
Twelve days before the trials started for decathlon, Sports Illustrated proclaimed Eaton to be “the best decathlon runner ever,” yet warned of his relative inexperience in the field events and closed by postulating that someday he could hold the world record. The real surprise, it seems, is that no one saw it coming so fast.
And the world record wouldn’t have come if it weren’t for the events that used to hold him back. At the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Eaton won the silver medal, trailing only fellow American Trey Hardee. At the trials, compared to his silver medal performance, he threw the javelin 3.7 m further, jumped 0.03 m higher, and pole-vaulted 0.7 m higher, in total equivalent to 298 additional points.
Now that the decathlon has returned to the spotlight, it remains to be seen if it will hold that place until London. Unfortunately, the odds are that it will drift behind more compelling stories within the track-and-field subcategory. Just for starters: Justin Gatlin’s return to the Olympics after serving a four-year ban for performance-enhancing drugs. Lolo Jones’ quest to claim the Olympic gold that she heartbreakingly missed after falling in the 100 m hurdles final in Beijing. The world’s cumulative attempt to beat Usain Bolt. All of these storylines and more will steal the public’s attention back soon enough. But for now, and potentially again in August, it’s the world’s greatest athlete’s – make that Ashton Eaton’s – turn to shine.
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