LONDON -- There came this telling moment after Ashton Eaton had locked up the gold medal then joined hands with his fellow decathletes -- they bowed to the crowd like thespians taking a curtain call -- then walked gingerly into the mixed zone, having tweaked his left quad clearing 17 feet in the pole vault earlier that morning.
It didn't take long for reporters to get to the topic du jour: Was it special for Eaton to have shared the stage with Usain Bolt on this night? ("It did make it cooler," he allowed.) Bolt has referred to himself as a legend, another scribe continued, but here Eaton interrupted, fearing he'd misunderstood:
"He uses the word legend?"
Um, yes, Ashton. On this night, the Jamaican referred to himself as a legend in approximately every other sentence that came out of his mouth; it had clearly been one of his pre-race talking points. It was fun watching Eaton retain his tact -- "He's going to go down in the history books, and that's how legends are made, so, definitely" -- even as he processed that vastness of Bolt's ego.
His victory wasn't an hour old and Eaton was finding out how vast is the chasm between the World's Greatest Athlete -- the title traditionally bestowed on the Olympic decathlon champion -- and the World's Fastest Human, which Bolt undoubtedly is.
For part of the evening, after taking his second gold of these Games, Bolt was laid claim to both titles, also describing himself as not just the planet's fastest man, but also its best athlete. That went down poorly with Eaton's teammate, Trey Hardee, who'd just taken silver in the decathlon, and who bridled at the Jamaican's usurpation.
"Ashton is the best athlete to ever walk the planet," he declared. "Hands down." Being the best in the world at this event automatically makes you the best athlete in the world. End of story.
And who decreed this to be so? Why, none other than King Gustav V of Sweden, who upon presenting Jim Thorpe with the decathlon gold medal in Stockholm a century ago, declared, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." (Thorpe was much beloved for his plainspoken reply: "Thanks, King.")
Both Eaton and Hardee mentioned Gustav several times in the wake of their 1-2 finish, which seems odd, until you consider that they've just recently been steeping themselves in the lore of their event. Last month they attended a gala in Marburg, Germany, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Olympic decathlon. Both were already well acquainted with the giants who'd preceded them. But rubbing elbows with Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Milt Campbell and Bruce Jenner, to name a few, deepened their appreciation of the USA's legacy in this sport. And it made them want to join that fraternity.
It wasn't a cakewalk for Eaton, because you can't fairly describe a two-day ordeal featuring ten disparate events -- from the 100 to the 400 to the 1,500 meters; the 110 high hurdles, the discus, shot put and javelin; the long jump and high jump and pole vault -- as a cakewalk. But he did lead wire to wire, and was never really threatened. He won three of the first day's five events, lost to Hardee in this morning's 110 highs by two-hundredths of a second, at which point his lead was all but unassailable.
Hardee's day was more nervewracking. His medal wasn't assured until he penultimate event, the javelin. He'd clinched the world championships in South Korea last fall on his final throw of the javelin -- a supreme effort that also tore the ulnar collateral ligament off his right elbow. He didn't realize the seriousness of the injury, at first. When doctors diagnosed it, several days later, he walked outside and fainted.
Hardee underwent "Tommy John surgery" last September 18: "they took the tendon out of my forearm and laced up where my UCL used to be," he recounted. Recovery takes twelve to 15 months. Hardee had nine until the Olympic Trials. Saving his arm for London, he didn't throw all out in Eugene.
With bronze medalist Leonel Suarez producing a huge javelin throw -- his 76.94 meters was the best of the night -- Hardee knew he'd have to put the elbow to the test. With his elbow comprehensively wrapped and trussed as a virgin in a novel by one of the Bronte sisters, he uncorked the third-longest throw of the night, 66.65 meters, and then let loose with a manic celebration. "That was the throw that put the dagger in," he said, with a smile. That's when he knew he'd be standing next to his teammate on the podium.
And then the world turned green and yellow. The men's 200 meter final was contested, and afterward the scoreboard had JAM stacked on JAM stacked on JAM. Bolt and his wingmen took a slow lap, striking poses and making love to the rapturous crowd even as the officials tried to conduct the medals ceremony for the men's 800 meters, won by Kenyan David Lekuta Rudisha in world record time. (To Bolt's credit, when he heard the Kenyan national anthem he put the shtick away and stood at respectful attention).
It remained for the decathletes to run their final event. But with the track having just been scorched by the Jamaicans, the decathletes couldn't help but look a bit plodding. Eaton has gone 4:14 in the 1,500. Nursing that left quad, he was content to finish in 4:33.59. A few of the bigger guys fell so far off the back, they looked like linebackers who'd blown an assignment, and been told by the coach to run laps.
The truth about decathletes is that the cachet of the event has been in gradual decline since Jenner's day. "The end of the Cold War, and the loss that traditional rival, undermined track and field a little," speculates Craig Masback, a former world class middle-distance runner who is now a Director of Business Affairs at Nike, "and the decathlon in particular."
Asked if his gold medal would lead to Bolt-like wealth and endorsements, Eaton pretended to celebrate -- "Yeah -- WHOO!" -- before answering truthfully:
"No. And I don't really do it for any of that stuff.
"I just like doing what I'm doing -- it suffices," he concluded, sounding sincere and wise beyond his years.
The real endorsement comes tomorrow night, Hardee chimed in, "when they put those medals around our necks."
And they join the fraternity.