RIO DE JANEIRO – Let’s try to appreciate what Ashton Eaton just accomplished. But where do we begin?
How about the shower? Eaton took a cold one Thursday evening, after completing the ninth of 10 decathlon events, the javelin. To track observers, Eaton had virtually clinched his second straight Olympic gold medal—France’s Kevin Mayer needed to beat Eaton by seven seconds in the 1,500 to beat him, and Eaton is faster than Mayer.
But Eaton was not an observer. He was an athlete, drained by the most difficult event of the Olympics, maybe in all of sports. Over just two days, he had run a 10.46-second 100-meter dash and thrown a 16-pound sphere more than 48 feet. He had jumped over a bar that was 6 feet, 5.9 inches off the ground and run the 110-meter hurdles in 13.8 seconds, just one second off the world-record time.
So yeah: He was tired.
And in that shower, he decided that if he had to run himself into the hospital in the 1,500, he would do it.
Instead, at the end of an athletic workday that was into its 13th hour, Eaton ran the 1,500 in 4:23:33.
We could start there. Or we could start right before the shower, with the javelin. Mayer’s first throw flew an impressive 65.04 meters. Eaton’s first one went 53.26 meters, and he thought, “That’s not good.” His next one went 58.26, and he thought, “That’s a little bit better. But you’re not doing yourself any favors here, Ashton.” He was nervous before the third one, but he threw that 59.77 meters, which was OK with him, and anyway, that was not his most nervous moment of the day …
… so maybe we should start there, with Eaton staring at the pole-vault bar, knowing he had a few seconds to salvage four years of work. He had failed in his first two attempts at 4.9 meters. If he failed a third time, he would get zero points for the pole vault, a disaster that would cost him any chance at a medal.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Your whole life has been about this – getting ready for this,’” Eaton said. “‘What are you going to do?’”
You know what? Maybe we should keep this simple. Start where most days start: in bed. Not Eaton’s—he slept a solid six hours in between decathlon days. That’s a lot for a decathlete.
Start in the bed of Eaton’s U.S. teammate, Jeremy Taiwo, who rented a bed-and-breakfast near Olympic Stadium precisely because decathletes get so little sleep. Taiwo didn’t want to lose a minute in traffic or in a security line at the athletes’ village. But after the first day of the decathlon, Taiwo went back and forth between a hard mattress and soft mattress, knowing he had to get some sleep, but he wanted to sleep so bad that he couldn’t do it.
Taiwo said he didn’t sleep for a minute. All day, people talked to him and he was too tired to process their words in real time. Still, he competed in the 100 hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin and the 1,500, all on zero sleep. He finished 11th in the world.
Maybe the best way to describe the decathlon is that it’s so difficult, we can’t appreciate how difficult it is. We expect sports to be entertainment, and the decathlon is lousy entertainment. It takes two long days to complete. Score is kept on a cumulative point system, meaning you can win the decathlon without finishing first in any particular event. But the decathlete who finishes last has accomplished something that many medalists in other sports could not even comprehend doing.
That’s probably why, after Eaton was told he was in exclusive company with two gold medals, he said, “The decathlon is exclusive company. I'm just glad to be part of the family, the decathlon family. So the records, and (fellow two-time gold medalists) Bob Mathias and Daley Thompson, those guys are awesome. To be in the company of two-time gold medalists is great. But it's great to just be a decathlete.”
And that’s probably why Eaton saluted the two people who most understand how hard this was for him. One was his coach, Harry Marra, who is retiring from coaching the decathlon. The event is even too hard to coach. As Marra said, “There are just too many pieces to try and put together.”
Eaton said, “My throwing was what kept me in this competition. That's Harry's modus operandi. And every time I was out there in the ring or on the tartan, I was thinking, ‘This one's for you.’”
The second person Eaton saluted was his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who won bronze in the heptathlon for Canada.
"Brianne walked into Harry's office four years ago and said, 'I'm not doing this to get 10th or 11th anymore,’” Eaton said. “For her journey to start there, to say ‘I want to be on the podium,’ and for her to realize that four years later, was unbelievable. I'm glad I got to watch every second of it. She is a massive, massive inspiration to me.”
Every second of a decathlon or a heptathlon is a lot of time. It’s too much time for the average sports fan to watch it, and these days, if we don’t see the video, it doesn’t register. We don’t really think of the world’s best decathlete as the world’s best athlete anymore. Most of Eaton’s work this week took place in a mostly empty stadium.
Ask the average person: “Who is the best track athlete in the world?” Most will say Usain Bolt, understandably. Bolt is the best sprinter ever, and we love watching him.
But suppose you had a best friend, or a twin brother, and you competed in everything. He beat you by a stroke in golf. You beat him by a bucket in basketball. Finally, you said, “OK, let’s settle this: Who is the better athlete?”
What would be the better test?
1. Do a long jump, a high jump, and a pole vault; throw a discus, a shot put and a javelin; and run 110 meters with hurdles on the track, and also 100 meters, 400 meters, 1500 meters.
2. Run for 10 seconds, then come back a few days later and run for 20 seconds.
The decathlon is a greater all-around challenge, but it’s not nearly as much fun to watch. There is really no way for the decathlon to escape this.
In the mixed zone with reporters afterward, as Bolt prepared for the 200-meter final, Taiwo was asked about compressing each day into an hour or two, for TV purposes. It makes more sense to spread the competition out over five days, with two events each night. Taiwo was intrigued by the idea. But that would radically change the event. So much of the challenge is doing all 10 events in two days.
“To be skilled at many things, I know the Greeks really valued that,” Taiwo said.
Taiwo paused, looked up at a TV, and asked reporters, “Do you want to watch this 200 final right now?” We did, so we did.