RIO DE JANEIRO — Shortly after Ashton Eaton won his second straight Olympic gold medal in decathlon Thursday night, Usain Bolt earned his eighth gold by winning the 200 meter run. Bolt received enormous applause and attention, and deservedly so, because that was an amazing accomplishment. But Bolt had to run only 200 meters to win. He didn’t have to also run 1,500 meters. And throw a discus, a shot put and a javelin. And attempt the pole vault, either. Or jump as long and high as possible. Or compete in 10 different events in just two days.
“I know, right? Exactly,” U.S. decathlete Jeremy Taiwo said. “You need to be skilled at so many things in the decathlon. I know the Greeks really valued that.”
We should value the decathlon more, as well. Just as we used to.
Decathlon champions were first regarded as “the world’s greatest athlete” when Sweden’s king bestowed that honor on Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Eaton earned that title at the 2012 Olympics and he retained it with an Olympic record-tying mark of 8,893 points Thursday to join Bob Mathias and Daley Thompson as the only three decathletes to win two Olympic golds.
“I am proud to be part of the decathlon family,” Eaton said.
Unfortunately, far fewer people know his name than they did in the old days when the champ was a nationally known hero, such as Bruce Jenner.
“He is nowhere near that. Isn’t that incredible?” Taiwo said. “I don’t really know how to get it trending for Ashton to be acknowledged by more of the world that he’s the best athlete in the world. Because he is. It’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘Huh?’ I feel he should get more recognition because he’s been so awesome and so dominant. Just like Bolt.”
Bolt and Justin Gatlin complained about having to run the 100 twice Sunday with little more than an hour break. Sure, it slowed their times in the final race, but c’mon. Compare that to the decathletes.
No kidding. Eaton said he got six hours sleep Wednesday night and Taiwo said he didn’t get any shut-eye.
When competing in the decathlon, Eaton said he is also watching the other athletes. “And I think, ‘How are they doing this?’ I almost separate myself from them. Watching Kevin Mayer fly down the pole vault runway at 4 p.m. after throwing the discus and knowing what it feels like. Watching Damien Warner after racing in the hurdles in the morning and thinking, ‘I know how that feels.’
“It’s amazing to sit and watch and knowing what it takes to go through it.”
So why are the decathlon champions no longer as famous as they were? Why do they not get the attention others do?
Part of the reason for the decline is ever-shortening attention spans. French silver medalist Kevin Mayer said that people love the 100 meter dash because it is over so quickly. Watching all 10 decathlon events is almost as long a process as sitting through every episode of “The Walking Dead.” No matter how much you like each one, it takes time.
Canadian bronze medalist Damian Warner said another problem is people compare them to the top athletes in specific disciplines and are unimpressed when decathletes don’t match their marks.
“It’s not very special for them to see us running the 1,500 in 4:20 and see us on the ground dying afterward,” Warner said. “What people don’t understand is we have a very small amount of time to do these events and we’re doing 10 different events. People needto see how tough it is. Once people see how tough it is, they get a lot more excited. Once people have done the decathlon, they just love it.”
Few people will ever attempt the decathlon or even some of its events. But we still should pay more attention to it. And be as familiar with the champion as we once were.
Eaton highly praised Bolt and said he was happy just to be in the same pages of the Olympic book as him. With two gold medals in the most difficult sport, Eaton should be on the front page and in the forefront of our memories of these Olympics.