Decathlon, heptathlon identify `world's greatest athletes'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nowhere else in the Olympics is a full plate of athletic talent more essential than in the men's decathlon and women's heptathlon. These are the track and field events that unofficially bestow ``greatest athlete'' status upon the gold medalists. If there is a measure of reverence for the victor, it isn't always apparent at the moment of triumph.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, for example, put the finishing touches on a world heptathlon record here, but received only polite applause from a sparse crowd. There were so few spectators in the Olympic Stadium at the end of a lengthy track and field session that the medal awards ceremony was moved to the middle of the next day, when more people would be there to see it.

The decathlon, a 10-in-1 event in which Britain's Daley Thompson will soon attempt to win an unprecedented third straight gold medal, is even more of a marathon than the seven-event heptathlon. It, too, can challenge the staying power of spectators.

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The second day of competition can last 12 or more hours. In 1948, about the only people to see its conclusion were the officials, who needed a floodlight to handle their duties in a darkened stadium.

The event unfolds gradually and can get pretty tedious - as at this year's US Olympic trials, when the announcer took to reading stock prices during a lull. But it can produce great excitement, too, as when Bruce Jenner completed the 1,500-meter race to win his gold medal before a roaring full house in Montreal.

The decathlon, which evokes names like Jenner, Bob Mathias, and Rafer Johnson, has been the more prominent species of this multi-event track family. It also enjoys a much longer history, which dates to 1912, when the King of Sweden supposedly had this amusing exchange with gold medal winner Jim Thorpe:

King: ``Mr. Thorpe, you are the greatest athlete in the world.''

Thorpe: ``Thanks, King.''

The decathlon is also a more comprehensive test of speed, strength, spring, and technique than the heptathlon, which began as a a five-event pentathlon in 1964 and had two events added in 1984.

The decathlon breaks down this way:

Day 1 - 100-meter sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400 meters.

Day 2 - 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500 meters.

The heptathlon uses a 4-3 split. The four opening events are the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, and 200 meters. The long jump, javelin, and 800 meters follow on the second day, the longest race placed rather sadistically at the very end in each case.

Fatigued already, competitors usually run themselves to exhaustion in circling the track. ``In the last 80 yards I felt I was running backwards,'' Joyner-Kersee said.

Even so, she was running fast enough, breaking her previous personal best with a 2:08.51 clocking to clinch the gold medal that barely eluded her four years ago. In Los Angeles, if she had run less than half a second faster in the 800, she would have won. Instead, Australia's Glynis Nunn collected the gold with 6,390 points to Jackie's 6,385.

Scores are calculated using a formula based on times and distances, not individual placement, a procedure followed in the decathlon as well. Joyner-Kersee had 7,291 points here, a total that beat her own world record by 76 points and created roughly a 300-point cushion over East Germany's Sabine John and Anke Behmer, the silver and bronze medalists.

The performance represented nearly a 1,000-point improvement over her L.A. result. The marked change can be attributed to her own pursuit of perfection, and to the fine-tuning achieved through working with her coach and husband, Bobby Kersee, whom she married in 1986.

Kersee has emerged as one of the foremost minds in the sport, but says the sensitive nature of his dual role as husband and coach has not been easy.

``I could not coach her for another four years if she hadn't won here,'' he said after the victory.

Jackie, who is also entered in the long jump, where she once shared the world record, plans on staying in the heptathlon awhile longer. ``I think I can score 7,400 or 7,500 points in this event,'' says the former UCLA basketball star, who has already begun to hit the endorsement jackpot much as Jenner did after his triumph.

She and Kersee are talking about sticking with the heptathlon until 1990, when the Goodwill Games in Seattle would provide a good opportunity to push the record even higher, and on American soil.

Like her brother, Al, though, she is considering a future in the hurdles. Al won the Olympic triple jump in '84, but has concentrated on coaching his wife, Florence Griffith Joyner, the Olympic 100-meter champ, since failing to make this year's US team.

It remains to be seen if Jackie will help to popularize the heptathlon among American women. The US, after all, has not been able to sustain its preeminence in the decathlon, despite winning 10 of the first 14 Olympic golds. Thorpe began the tradition, and was followed by such star-spangled greats as two-time winner Mathias, Milt Campbell, Johnson, Bill Toomey, and Jenner. The Americans have slipped out of sight, though, since Jenner's magnificent Montreal showing.

Given today's much stiffer competi-tion, a decathlete requires years of seasoning to refine all the necessary techniques and skills. The Olympics are the big payoff for all the hard work, and Thompson has made the last three - finishing 18th in 1976, then winning in Moscow and again in L.A.

The Americans, on the other hand, were set back by the US boycott of the '80 Moscow Games. Gary Kinder, who won the US trials, finished 12th at the '87 world championships. That was not promising enough to receive some of the training money the US track people doled out to possible medalists here.

``Believe us, we're trying,'' said Kinder. ``We can't help it if our name isn't Jenner or that we're not Olympic champions.''

Patience is a key ingredient to the successful grooming of these most versatile of athletes. Mathias may have won his first gold as a peach-fuzzed 17-year-old, but the days of the overnight champion appear over. As Bert Nelson, a noted track authority, once observed: ``Now the scores are so high and people so talented, we will never see another natural come along and win in a hurry.''

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