Decathlon, heptathlon identify `world's greatest athletes'
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.