Beijing Stories: A few words on, the decathlon, by Stuart Weir

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Eaton_Ashton400m-World15.JPgAshton Eaton, WR Holder, 9045, August 28-29, 2015, photo by PhotoRun.net

The Decathlon in Beijing ended with a roar.

Ashton Eaton set a new world record of 9045 points, breaking his old world record of 9029, set in July 2012. In the new world record, Ashton have five events better than Eugene in 2012 an five not as good. In the end, it came down to a 44 second last 300 meters in the 1,500 meters. That time of 4:16.62 gave him a new World Record, by the skin of his teeth.

Stuart Weir wrote a piece for me, short and to the point, on the decathlon and the nature of invididual talent. Decathletes are talented athletes. Last summer, Ashton Eaton needed a break, so he focused on the 400 meter hurdles. Ashton told me, after he ran so well in Glasgow, that it was the best thing that had happened to him in some time. He could concentrate on one event for some time.

But the past two days have been about making as few and as small mistakes that he could. Ashton Eaton is indeed, the "world's greatest athlete."

Let's discus the Decathlon, shall we?

Earlier this week Dafne Schippers was asked why (female) heptahletes are able to be competitive in individual disciplines while the (male) decathletes seem unable to be. Of course, Schippers should know as she was 3rd in the 2013 World Championship heptathlon before switching to sprints and becoming World Champion in the 200 metres. Jess Ennis-Hill breaking the GB record in the 60 metres and 100 Hurdles as well as equaling the high jump record is another good example of a heptathlete's individual feats.

Schippers' answer was the sensible thought that heptathletes only do seven events and therefore spread themselves less thinly than the men who do 10 disciplines.

There is also what Ennis-Hill's coach, Toni Minichiello calls "spinning plates", the balance of training to optimise the ability in each discipline. Put simply, if you put on weight, you may throw further but you may also, in consequence, not run as fast or jump as high.

So that is settled then. Everybody clear? Decathletes are amazing all round athletes but they cannot produce world-class performances.

Well it was until yesterday when Ashton Eaton ran 10.23 in the 100 metres and 45.00 in the 400. To put that in context Christophe Lemaitre of France qualified for the semi-finals of the individual 100 metres this week running 10.24 and he has been European Champion six times! In the 400, six athletes qualified from the heats with a time slower than 45.00.

The decathlon can be traced back to the ancient Olympics where a five discipline event called the Pentathlon was held, in which contestants would jump, throw (twice), sprint and wrestle. The 10 event version can be traced back to the late 19th century. At the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, the king of Sweden is reported to have called Jim Thorpe, the decathlon winner ,"the world's greatest athlete".

One of the all-time great duals in the event came in the 1980s when Daley Thompson of Great Britain battled with Jurgen Hingsen of Germany. While Hingsen broke the world record in 1982 and again in 1983 Thompson won Olympic Gold in 1980 and 1984, the first ever world championship in 1983 and was unbeaten for 8 years. Their contests gave the event high profile.

Ashton Eaton has now taken the event to new levels winning the 2015 World Championship (in a new World Record) as well as well as the 2013 World Championships, the 2012 Olympics and two World Indoor heptathlons - not to mention running 10.2 for the 100!. It is one thing to have the talent to master 10 athletic disciplines, it is another to put it all together over 2 days and even most impressive to do it repeatedly and consistently.

So who is the world's greatest male athlete. Some people would say Usain Bolt, others Renaud Lavillenie - and their achievements in their discipline are impressive but for all round consistency, it must be Ashton Eaton. And I can't help wondering what kind of time he could run for the 100 meters or 400 meters if he took it seriously.

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