I'm Not Worthy Czech Tomas Dvorak says he has scant talent--so how did he become the decathlon king?

Sept. 11, 2000
Sept. 11, 2000

Table of Contents
Sept. 11, 2000

Olympics 2000
Olympics 2000 [bonus Piece]

I'm Not Worthy Czech Tomas Dvorak says he has scant talent--so how did he become the decathlon king?

A cool, steady rain falls on Prague, throwing a gloomy veil over
the city's ancient splendor, enshrouding its spires in a soupy
gray fog. Next to a stadium on the northern edge of the city,
members of a soccer club run sprints on a threadbare field,
while a scraggly group of teenage athletes turns slow, labored
laps on the neglected cinder track that surrounds the pitch. A
cluster of maintenance workers huddles beside a ramshackle
storage building, drinking coffee and gossiping loudly. Next to
the building, the man with the title of world's greatest athlete
practices his high jumping, a thoroughbred among plow horses in
a setting that would need a major face-lift before it could be
called unglamorous.

This is an article from the Sept. 11, 2000 issue

Repeatedly, 28-year-old Tomas Dvorak, world-record holder and
two-time world champion in the decathlon, carves a parenthesis
on the rain-slickened track and flops over the bar. Each attempt
elicits growls from Dvorak's high jump adviser, Jaroslav Kovar,
a 1950s Czech champion in the event who looks like Jerry
Tarkanian's older brother, sounds as though his throat is full
of pebbles and always holds a cigarette in his right hand and a
lighter in his left. Kovar has instructed Dvorak to make his
approach while holding a small wooden plank behind his butt,
which forces Dvorak to keep his arms low until he drives into
his takeoff, at which point he drops the board and throws his
arms upward. It's a useful drill but awkward at first, and
Dvorak misses at low heights again and again.

"You idiot!" he shouts at himself in Czech, after one miss.

"Such a stupid man," he says after another. And those are the
gentle rebukes.

"He is always swearing at himself in practice," says Marta
Dusbabkova, assistant to Dvorak's agent, Libor Varhanik. She
shakes her head and demurely covers her ears.

The workout drags from midmorning into early afternoon. The
soccer team leaves. The runners leave. The workers finish their
coffee and retreat indoors. The rain continues falling, soaking
Dvorak's T-shirt and tights. Finally, he begins to clear the bar.
Kovar emits a gravelly laugh and lights another cigarette. Dvorak
smiles and shouts. Another event checked off his list.

Every day is like this for Dvorak. On the previous morning at
Juliska Stadion, a track stadium on a hillside overlooking the
Vltava River, Dvorak sprinted and hurdled for nearly two hours
under a blazing sun and then trudged across the infield to a
small concrete circle and threw the discus more than 30 times. He
cursed himself repeatedly after long throws that came down
outside the V-shaped landing sector--that is, out-of-bounds--and
didn't stop throwing until he was satisfied. When he finally
finished, nearly all the other 60 athletes who train with the
Dukla Praha sports club were long gone, the track and fields
deserted. "He has a love for each of the 10 disciplines, and he
wants to be good at all 10 of them," says Dvorak's principal
coach, Zdenek Vana. "He's also very hard on himself. He treats
himself very badly."

Dvorak's demanding regimen has paid off. His 8,994 points at last
summer's European Championships in Prague broke defending Olympic
champion Dan O'Brien's world record by a stunning 103 points.
Three months ago he amassed the second-highest score in history,
8,900 points, in Gotzis, Austria. "He's absolutely the king of
the hill among decathletes right now," says Noel Ruebel, who
coaches U.S. decathlete Chris Huffins, the bronze medalist at
last year's world championships in Seville. With O'Brien knocked
out of the Olympics by torn tissue in his left foot, Dvorak is a
strong favorite to win gold in Sydney.

Yet Dvorak insists he's quite ordinary. He would like the public
to believe that his success grows not from his athletic ability
but from tireless training. "I'm not very talented at all," he
says through an interpreter. As if to reinforce his commonness,
he's interviewed by an American journalist not at any of Prague's
many charming cafes but at a McDonald's, where he scarfs down a
hot cherry pie and sips a coffee.

"Look at me," says Dvorak, laying his arms open. He has
light-brown hair and a scruffy beard that he trims to a goatee
for social occasions; his eyes are a darker brown and almost
always hidden during competition by Oakleys. His default
expression is a What-me-worry? shrug. He's 6'1", weighs 195
pounds and seems perfectly suited to the varied tasks of the
decathlon, which require a man not only to sprint 100 and 400
meters and throw a 16-pound shot, a javelin and a discus, but
also to hurdle, long-jump, high-jump, pole-vault and finally, at
the end of two grueling days of competition, run the 1,500.

Yet, Dvorak argues, "I'm not fast, and I can't jump very high. I
don't have any great ability. I just take the ability that I have
and make the most of it." The decathlete of the past he admires
most is Jurgen Hingsen, the 6'7", 220-pound German behemoth who
was the world-record holder in the early and mid-1980s, and who
also was not naturally fast but trained ferociously. "I admire
those who really had to fight for it, who weren't just talented,"
Dvorak says. He pointedly does not mention 1980 and '84 Olympic
gold medalist Daley Thompson of Great Britain or O'Brien, the two
men who held the world record before him. Clearly, he feels both
were blessed with great natural ability.

Dvorak is almost resentful of O'Brien's gifts, perhaps because in
four tries he has never beaten O'Brien. "If you add up our
personal bests, O'Brien would score almost 9,600 points [actually
9,542], and I would score only 9,200 [9,232]," says Dvorak. "Yet
I have scored 100 more points than he has. How can that be? It's
because I have trained harder than he has."

It's true that O'Brien's greatest weapon (and also Huffins's) is
speed, a fundamental strength that helps in many of the 10
events. O'Brien has run 10.32 seconds for 100 meters and Huffins
a decathlon-record 10.22, both of which are borderline
world-class sprint times. Each can high-jump well over seven
feet. Yet both have dead spots, primarily in the javelin and the
1,500 meters. Athletes like O'Brien, Huffins and Thompson build
leads with their strongest events and don't worry much about
their weaker ones. Dvorak, meanwhile, cranks out one solid
performance after another, each within percentage points of his
PR in that event. When he set his world record, he established a
remarkable five personal bests. His score equals 97.4% of the
maximum he could have from all his personal bests. "People look
at O'Brien and see all that talent, and then they look at Dvorak
and they see a training machine," says Frank Zarnowski, a
professor of economics at Mount St. Mary's College in
Emmitsburg, Md., and a renowned authority on the decathlon.
"With Dvorak, there's no place where the guy is shaky."

Huffins, who spent three weeks training with Dvorak in Australia
last December ("It opened my eyes to my capacity for hard work,"
says Huffins), puts it more bluntly: "You compete against Tomas,
you get no breaks because the guy has no weaknesses."

O'Brien got the news of Dvorak's world record while watching the
bottom-screen crawl on ESPN2 at his house in Moscow, Idaho. "It
shocked me because I didn't think he had it in him," says
O'Brien, 34, "but I sat there watching the marks go by, and I'm
thinking, Hmmm, that's a pretty good 100, not a bad long jump,
solid shot, and so on until it all added up to a world record."

Dvorak is now dangerously close to training himself out of the
category of no-talent grinder. Nine thousand points is the next
great milestone in the decathlon, and Dvorak needs only to
improve by six points to get there. Had he run the 1,500 one
second faster in Prague, he would have made it. He has run the
100 meters in 10.54 and long-jumped 26'4 1/4" inches, which would
have been good for third place at the U.S. nationals long jump in
1999. His high jump PR is 6'10 1/4" and climbing. A hurdler before
taking up the decathlon, he has run a near-world-class 13.6 for
the 110-meter hurdles. His javelin is spectacular, and his
closing 1,500 is a killer.

These attainments leave opponents skeptical of Dvorak's purported
lack of talent. "He's a good guy and he works very hard, but he's
also got tremendous natural strength in his hips and lower
abdominals," says Huffins. "All that no-talent stuff is a ploy."

O'Brien says, "He's driven, but take a look at some of those
numbers: 26 feet in the long jump, 55 feet in the shot put, 10.5
for 100 meters. Come on, that's talent, too. I think of him as a
Dave Johnson [of Dan versus Dave fame] with speed. And I always
said if Dave Johnson had speed, he could have been the best
decathlete in history."

From the beginning Dvorak has viewed himself as a solitary
hustler. He was raised in Zlin, a city of 120,000 that lies 200
miles southeast of Prague. His father, Petr, an electrical
engineer, and his mother, Hana, a high school gym teacher and
former club volleyball player, raised Tomas and his younger
sister in a comfortable apartment where Tomas kept fish, gerbils,
turtles, cats and, eventually, a stray dog. The family owned a
small second home in the mountains near the border of Slovakia,
so Tomas became a competent skier. In team sports he was skilled
but uninterested. "He didn't want to compete in any sports that
used balls," says Hana. "I liked to represent only myself," says
Tomas. "I didn't like to depend on teammates. If they forced me
to play soccer, I would be the goalkeeper, because I liked the

In the Czech equivalent of junior high, Dvorak began competing
in track and field, which appealed to his athletic independence.
He showed promise in the hurdles, yet as he progressed, his
greatest strength was his versatility. "In many events there
were four or five boys better than me," he says, "but I could do
all of the disciplines fairly well. Just like now." He also
rebelled against authority in ways that are reminiscent of 1950s
America. He wore leather jackets and an earring and began
smoking; he fought with classmates and adults. "One day he no
longer tolerated authority," says Hana. "That became his way of
expressing himself."

In 1988, not long after his 16th birthday, Tomas was invited to
attend school in Prague. It would mean leaving his hometown and
his parents and living in a dormitory attached to a stadium, but
he jumped at the chance. "People were no longer fond of me in
Zlin," he recalls. "Once I was in Prague, I was homesick for only
two days." He met Vana, a former sprinter who agreed to become
his coach, and began dating Vana's daughter, Gabriela, a long
jumper. Vana helped Dvorak train for the hurdles but didn't fight
his urge to attempt more events. Dvorak progressed steadily. In
'93 he finished 10th in the decathlon world championships, and in
'95 he was fifth. One year later he got the bronze medal in
Atlanta. He won world titles in '97 and last year.

In contrast to his athletic consistency, there remains a
quirkiness to his personality. Before major competitions he dyes
his hair blond, not to attract attention, he says, but to
motivate himself. "I'm no Rodman," he says. "After I change my
hair, I look in the mirror and see a different face and then I'm
ready to compete."

Two weeks after the 1996 Olympics, Tomas married Gabriela. They
live with their twin three-year-old daughters, Barbara and
Katerina, in an apartment near Stadion Strahov, the mammoth
soccer arena where Dvorak broke the world record last July.
(Dvorak is building a six-bedroom house not far from there.) His
wife and parents were present for the record, and they were
shocked after the competition to find that Tomas was
disappointed. Sure, he was happy to win, but he was sorry he had
fallen short of 9,000. "I needed so few more points," he said.

That attitude is at the core of his being. On the night following
his rain-soaked high jump session, Tomas is sitting with his wife
and children along the river beneath the Charles Bridge in the
section of Prague called Mala Strana, Czech for Lesser Town, a
warren of 17th- and 18th-century buildings in the shadow of
Prague Castle. A writer gives Dvorak a hypothetical choice
between winning an Olympic gold medal and being the first to
score 9,000 points. He scratches his beard and then says, "I
would rather score 9,000 points." Gabriela's eyes widen at this
admission. (O'Brien and Huffins will later have similar
reactions.) "Of course I want to win the Olympic Games," he
explains, "but so many people can win a competition on a
particular day. If I score 9,000 points, that shows what I have
done with my talent."

Just then his daughter Barbara rises and walks toward the river.
Tomas pulls her away from the water, and she resists. She begins
slugging her father, whacking him about the head and chest as he
carries her. As a last resort she kicks him in the thigh, but
still he won't let her wander. Spent, the little girl gives up
and sits, like so many of her father's opponents, unable to find
a weakness.

"I'm not fast, and I can't jump very high. I just take the
ability I have and make the most of it."
"He has tremendous strength in his hips and abdominals," Huffins
says. "That no-talent stuff is a ploy."