Published August 10, 2012
Is Ashton Eaton now the world's greatest athlete?
Eaton, an American, was awarded gold Thursday for his performance in the decathlon, an event that combines 10 different sprinting, jumping, throwing, and middle-distance disciplines. The winner of the Olympic decathlon is traditionally considered the "world's greatest athlete."
But is there really justification, or agreement among sports enthusiasts, that an assortment of sub-world-class performances in events such as discus, shot put, javelin, and pole vault adds up to the "world's greatest athlete?"
I think a more accurate description would be "impressively well-rounded, solidly better-than-mediocre" athlete.
Look, nothing against Eaton or any of the other decathletes. They are certainly the best in the world at combining those 10 specific disciplines.
And training for all those different events certainly does impressive things to their physique. I think it's pretty clear that, as a field, this batch of decathletes are the hottest athletes in London. It was hard to spot a single one who looked the slightest bit rough around the edges. You won't find me advocating here for the removal of the decathlon from the Olympic program. I'm merely struggling to define the true measure of their athletic performances.
For perspective, take another high-profile, multi-event Olympic sport like the all-around competition in gymnastics. Unlike on the track, where individual events like the 100-meter dash reigns supreme, the pinnacle of gymnastics is the individual all-around. This year, the gold in the women's all-around went to American Gabby Douglas, who then failed to medal in any of the apparatus finals. The men's all-around champion was Kohei Uchimura. He was good enough for silver in the floor exercise, but did not even make the final on any other apparatus. Yet, both Douglas and Uchimura will be remembered for winning all-around gold much more than the specialists who triumphed on the beam, floor, vault, rings or bars.
The exact opposite is true on the track. The world is riveted on individual races like the 100 meters, which produce superstars like Usain Bolt. Today's 800-meter final, won in world record time by David Rudisha, was one of the greatest Olympic races ever run. Every single man in the field set either a national record, personal best or season's best time. The decathlon hardly stacks up to these individual events -- not in fan interest, media attention or athletic achievement.
On the track, I think multi-event athletes like Carl Lewis, who won gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and relays, and Usain Bolt, who has won gold in both the 100 meters and 200 meters in consecutive Olympics, are greater athletes.
Is a decathlete "greater" than Carl Lewis because he can throw a discus or javelin? Maybe if he threw it really, really far. But Eaton, this year's gold medalist in the decathlon, chucked the javelin just 61.96 meters. The female gold medalist in that event, which also took place today, speared the infield grass at 69.55 meters, nearly eight meters further.
For comparison, here are decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton's times/distances in each discipline, along with the corresponding mark of the 2012 individual gold medalist and the percentile difference (in parentheses):
100 meters, 10.35 seconds (9.63, +7.5%)
Long jump, 8.03 meters (8.31, +3.3%)
Shot put, 14.66 meters (21.89, +33%)
High jump, 2.05 meters (2.38, +14%)
400 meters, 46.90 seconds (43.94, +6%)
110-meter hurdles, 13.56 seconds (12.92, +5%)
Discus throw, 42.53 meters (68.27, +38%)
Pole vault, 5.20 meters (6.14,* +15%)
Javelin throw, 61.96 meters (98.48,* +37%)
1,500 meters, 4:33.59 minutes (3:34.08, +28%)
Only Eaton's long jump mark could, on its own, be considered elite world-class. Some of these marks, like the 1,500 meters, discus, and javelin, are boarding on pedestrian (if pedestrians threw discs and javelins).
I submit that triathlon needs to be in the conversation for "world's greatest athlete." Although the times turned in for each leg of an Olympic-length triathlon, which is a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike, and 10-kilometer run, are off the pace of the world's top swimmers, cyclists and distance runners, at least triathlon combines the sports consecutively in a grueling, nearly two-hour race. Bonus points for triathlon for incorporating sports that are generally accessible and globally popular. Half of the events in the decathlon can be described only as obscure.
I don't have much to say about the other multi-event Olympic sport, Modern Pentathlon, other than "Who cares?" Modern Pentathlon combines horseback riding, fencing, shooting, running, and swimming. Maybe you could call the winner of that the "world's most bougie athlete."
In any case, we'd be more accurate to refer to decathletes as the "world's hottest athletes."
World's greatest decathlete? Yes. World's greatest athlete? No.
I can't believe I made it through that article without a Bruce Jenner/Kardashians joke. If you have one, insert it here.