Historically, few events have resonated more with U.S. audiences than the decathlon, whose winners are among the most iconic names in the Olympic canon: Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner, Dan O'Brien. The event's luster has faded in recent years, as U.S. influence has waned.
The latter quality will surely change in London.
One of the heaviest favorites in any of the Olympic track and field events is U.S. decathlete Ashton Eaton, 24, who broke Czech Roman Sebrle's 11-year-old world record and became just the second man in history to surpass the 9,000-point mark (9,039 to be exact) in winning the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., in late June. Tracknuts and decathlon insiders have for several years considered Eaton -- who even before Eugene was the best ''runner'' (100, 400, 110 hurdles, 1,500) in decathlon history -- a likely candidate to break Sebrle's respected world record, but few expected it to happen so quickly.
As the 2012 season opened, two questions loomed over the Olympic decathlon: 1) Could the U.S. trio of Eaton, two-time world champion Trey Hardee and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay sweep the medals in London? And 2) Which non-Americans would emerge as medal contenders? The first answer is no, because Clay did not make the U.S. team after an unusual disqualification-and-reinstatement in the 110 hurdles on Day Two in Eugene.
As to the second question, three European athletes have emerged from the spring season as medal contenders, but none are even close to Eaton's best numbers: Pascal Behrenbruch of Germany, 27, won the European championship in Helsinki in June with a career-best of 8,558 points. Hans van Alphen of Belgium, 30, took first place at the annual Gotzis decathlon with a PR of 8,519. And Eelco Sintnicolaas, 25, of the Netherlands was second at Gotzis with a PR of 8,506. All can be expected to improve in London, but the gap between their bests and Eaton's is cavernous. Leonel Suarez of Cuba took the bronze medal in Beijing with 8,527 points, but has improved only to 8,654 since, and that was in 2009.
The question surrounding Eaton heading into the Games has nothing to do with his status as overwhelming statistical favorite. Eaton performs best in Eugene; three of the best performances of his career took place at Hayward Field, where he competed for Oregon (8,457 to win the 2010 NCAA title, 8,729 to win the 2011 national championship and this year's world record). In 2011, he dropped off by 224 points between the nationals in Eugene and the worlds in Daegu (although he still took the silver medal behind countryman Trey Hardee). Eaton's coach, Harry Marra, says that Eaton left a lot of points on the field in Eugene at trials (mostly in the throws), but the larger question is: How will Eaton's game travel this year?
The most intriguing challenger to Eaton is Hardee, who was the gold-medal favorite after winning the 2009 world championship and still was holding off Eaton a year ago. However, Hardee underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow last September. His recovery to make the U.S. team was three months ahead of the customary schedule for recovery from that procedure, and he did it while throwing only 187 feet in the javelin (his personal best is 226 feet, 4 inches). His personal best in the decathlon is 8,790 points, which he could approach if he turns loose one strong throw in the javelin. If he does that, he could be on track for a silver medal and the U.S.A.'s first 1-2 decathlon finish in 60 years.
Eaton (USA) vs. his own world record of 9,039 points and vs. the challenge of competing outside his geographic comfort zone in Eugene.
Dr. James Andrews, who performed Tommy John surgery on Trey Hardee of the U.S. last September after Hardee blew out his elbow in the worlds in Daegu, said that the customary rehab period from the injury is 12 to 18 months. Hardee will be trying to win an Olympic medal 10 months after surgery.
Decathletes are constantly trying to find creative ways to sustain their energy level during competition. During every competition, Eaton consumes a turkey, lettuce and cheese (no mayo) sandwich during the high jump on Day One and after the discus on Day Two.