Decathlon: The Quest to Be The Greatest in the World

In 1912, King Gustaf V of Sweden set the tone for future decathletes when he referred to Jim Thorpe as 'the world's greatest athlete' after Thorpe won the event

"Summon the Heroes," composer John Williams' musical theme of Atlanta's Centennial Olympics, is a call to every competing athlete here. Its strains must have special meaning for those who compete in the decathlon, which is often perceived as producing the ultimate Olympic heroes.

Certainly, Sweden's King Gustaf V sent that message at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, when presenting decathlon winner Jim Thorpe with various spoils, he said to the legendary native American, "Sir, you are the world's greatest athlete."

This week, world-record holder Dan O'Brien of the United States leads a field of 41 athletes through their 10-event paces beginning early Wednesday and concluding Thursday. More than any other event in these Olympics, the decathlon seems to pay homage to the ancient Games. In some form, speed is important in every one of the 10 events, but decathletes are specifically called on to go higher in the pole vault and high jump and to flex their muscles in the shot put, discus, and javelin. The remaining events are the 100 meters, 110-meter hurdles, long jump, 400 meters, and 1,500 meters. There are no preliminaries. There's neither time nor energy for them.

Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic champion, says, "Nobody ever walks around thinking, 'I want to be the world's greatest athlete.' "

What draws many to the decathlon in the US is its rich heritage as an American event, a status that Jackie Joyner-Kersee has established in the much-younger women's heptathlon, which she entered here after going silver-gold-gold since the heptathlon was added to the Olympics in 1984. She has since withdrawn because of an injury.

Joyner-Kersee aside, it is the success of the US men decathletes that has historically turned heads. The US has produced the greatest number of Olympic gold medalists. Nine different Americans, beginning with Thorpe, have won 10 golds, with Bob Mathias one of only two double winners in 1948 and 1952. Britain's Daley Thompson was the other in 1980 and 1984.

Bruce Jenner, the American athlete rushed onto a Wheaties box after he won the Olympic decathlon in 1976, was the last American Olympic champion, a drought partly attributed to the 1980 US boycott of the Moscow Olympics. No American won the Olympic decathlon on US soil since James Bausch in Los Angeles in 1932, which is why even the specter of an O'Brien victory has been trumpeted by the US media.

Frank Zarnowski, a decathlon authority who has turned studying and tracking the event into a virtual cottage industry, says O'Brien "has done everything right since 1992. He hasn't lost a meet. He set the world record and has been the world champion," extending his winning streak in the biennial world meets to include titles in 1991, '93, and '95.

O'Brien's absence from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was one of the great heartbreak stories in decathlon history. Zarnowski made it the centerpiece of a new book, "Olympic Glory Denied," which tells what happened to exceptional international athletes who never got to the Olympics, because of wars, boycotts, or other reasons.

In O'Brien's case, his failure to make the '92 Olympics resulted from a nightmarish experience at that year's US selection trials when he came up empty in the pole vault, one of his strongest events, and ruined any hope of making the team. In a bad miscalculation, he waited until the bar was raised to 15 ft., 9 in. before taking his first jumps. He missed three attempts, recording a zero in an event scored on cumulative points.

"I don't think anybody could have made that third attempt because he was carrying $25 million of Reebok on his shoulders," Zarnowski says, referring to a major ad campaign that prematurely cast Reebok clients O'Brien and Dave Johnson as the athletes who would battle for the Olympic gold.

O'Brien quickly set out to ease the sting, scoring a world record 8,891 points at a meet in France shortly after his trials failure. He has moved on, changing sponsors and simulating various competitive situations in practice to sharpen his strategic instincts and keep focused.

"I don't feel any pressure from sponsors, the media, family, or friends," he said at June's US trials. "When I step on that track, I don't even know what uniform I'm wearing half the time."

Zarnowski says he thinks the Americans - O'Brien, Steve Fritz, and Chris Huffins, could sweep the Olympic medals as happened in 1936 and 1952. Providing the major competition for this group could be Canada's Michael Smith, the Czech Republic's Robert Zmelik and Tomas Dvorak, Estonia's Erki Nool, and Ukraine's Lev Lobodyn.

One of the beauties of decathlon competition is the mutually respectful atmosphere that surrounds it. Compared with sprinting, where the top competitors often strut about arrogantly, decathletes seem inherently more modest. "That's the nature of the decathlon," O'Brien says. "You need to accept the fact that you're going to fail. You need to be able to accept the fact that you are not quite good enough in something. It's like a game of golf. You have good holes and bad holes, but it's that one great shot that brings you back for the next round."

O'Brien's best event is the 100 meters (he holds the world decathlon record of 10.23 seconds); his worst, or the one he likes least, is the 1,500 meters - the final, punishing event. His personal best is 4:33.19, which is well off the world record clocking of 3:58.7 turned in by Principia College's Robert Baker in 1980.

The scoring in the decathlon means that O'Brien can finish well behind runners in the 1,500 and still win the overall competition. A table is used to assign points based on performance, but Zarnowski says that the decathlon numbers jumble is "something only a CPA could love."

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