The World’s Greatest Athlete Wins Gold in London. And So Does Usain Bolt. Is Decathlete Ashton Eaton Really Better than Bolt?

The decathlon deserve more attention. But does it deserve the "world's greatest athlete" honorific?

  • Share
  • Read Later
ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP / Getty Images; Mark Blinch / Reuters

From left: Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates after taking the gold in the men's 200m final and Ashton Eaton of the U.S. reacts as he competes in the men's decathlon javelin throw event during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium, August 9, 2012.

“Usain! Usain! Usain!”

After Usain Bolt won the 200-meter sprint on Thursday night, becoming the first Olympian to defend both the 100-m and 200-m titles, the Olympic Stadium fans chanted Bolt’s name, as he took a victory lap draped in the Jamaican flag. “Usain! Usain! Usain!” It was like they were singing a hymn, reserved for the rarest of athletes. “Ali! Ali! Ali!” “Pele! Pele! Pele!” “MJ! MJ! MJ!”

After the race, in fact, Bolt was making Ali-like declarations. “I am now a living legend,” Bolt declared in front of at least a hundred reporters around the world. “Bask in my glory.” Earlier, Bolt even used the G-word.  He called himself “the greatest athlete to live.”

Whoa, whoa. Slow down, Usain — if that’s even possible. Remember, the winner of the Olympic decathlon carries the unofficial title of “world’s greatest athlete.” A little over 30 minutes after Bolt won, Ashton Eaton, the American who cruised to his first Olympic decathlon title, took his own victory lap around the London track. By tradition, his competitors joined him, so the crowd can fete the group for their grueling effort – ten events over two days. And remember, Eaton holds the decathlon world record, which he set at this year’s U.S. Olympic trials. So theoretically he, not Bolt, is the greatest athlete the world has ever known.

(MORE: Olympic Women’s Boxing Has Its First Champions, And A Generation of Girls Has New Role Models)

Yet the stadium failed to erupt in any “Ashton! Ashton!” chants. The applause was grateful, but far from raucous, or reverent. And after a few minutes, the stadium announcer redirected the crowd’s attention towards the women’s javelin final.

Thursday night showed a stark contrast in the state of two Olympic events, each with a rich history: the decathlon, first contested in the Olympics in a century ago, an event that produced legendary athletes like Jim Thorpe, Rafer Johnson, and Bruce Jenner — before he was a Kardashian stepdad — and the 200-meter sprints. Why was the crowd so psyched to be in the stands Thursday night? To see Bolt run. Not to watch Eaton throw a javelin, or the run 1500 (he had already run the 100, done the long jump, thrown the shot put, done the high jump, run the 400-meters, run the 110-meter hurdles, chucked the discus, and vaulted over the pole). If you bumped into Usain Bolt on the street, you’d surely recognize him. Can you say the same for Ashton Eaton?

(MOREOlympic Highlights in Photographs)

Why has the decathlon flown off the radar — for example the 2008 Olympics decathlon champ, American Bryan Clay, saw no flood of endorsements after his title — while the sprints remain the marquee events of track and field? First, you’ve got to credit Bolt. He’s a larger-than-life showman who carries his sport. Before the 100-meters, he played to the crowd, scratching faux albums, like a DJ, before the start. On Thursday night, during the crowd introductions, he gave a slow, stiff wave, like the queen. Once again, Bolt was just hamming it up. Bolt slowed at the end of his race – afterwards, he blamed it on a bit of back pain – and finished the race in 19.32 seconds. That was slower than the 19.19 world mark he set at the 2009 world championships, and the 19.30 he ran in Beijing. But Bolt was still blazing. “I came off the turn, I saw the big man in front of me, the tall guy,” says Yohan Blake, Bolt’s training partner, who won silver, like he did in the 100. “It’s his time, man. God says, ‘this is Usain’s time.’”

Bolt put his finger to his lips while crossing the finish. “That for all the doubters,” says Bolt. “You can stop talking now.” Bolt then did push-ups on the track – 80,000 fans laughed in appreciation.

Aside from Bolt’s stardom, sprints are just a more natural draw than the decathlon in our attention-challenged world. A race like the 200 is filled with tension and suspense.  Before the start, bulbs flashed throughout the stadium as the runners stretched and headed towards the line. The crowd hushed in unison – “shhhhhhh.”  You could only hear a helicopter in the distance. Bang – the gun goes off. The runners approach the turn. Bolt and Blake break from the back, but Bolt has the advantage: no way Blake is going to catch him, but you can’t afford to look away. Bolt wins, then bam, it’s over, in less than 20 seconds. Now, let’s go put away the kids.

(MORE: The U.S. Women’s Team Is Golden Again In Soccer)

Plus, the decathlon is a terrible spectator sport. “It’s just tough to watch a decathlon,” admits Dan O’Brien, the 1996 decathlon Olympic gold medalist. “My wife was talking about it today, she said she should get a medal for just being out there two days watching it.” And it’s almost impossible to follow. Athletes are awarded points in each event, based on their performance. Going into the last one, the 1,500, an official hands me a start list. I see that Eaton leads the second-place competitor, fellow American Trey Hardee, by 151 points. I also see a scoring table, which shows how many points each 1,500 meter time is worth. So how much faster much Hardee run than Eaton to catch him for gold? Can any other runner turn in a stellar performance and pass them?

I didn’t bring a calculator. Neither did anyone else in the stands, I suspect. Eaton crosses the line in sixth place, well ahead of Hardee.  He ran a 4:33:59, and picked up 721 points. Since Eaton finished ahead of Hardee, I figure he must have won. But could someone else have caught them? After all, Eaton finished sixth. Sixth place! Golden! “People look at that and go, he’s not trying that hard,” says O’Brien. “The nuances of the sport, people don’t realize how difficult it is.”

A few minutes later, it’s finally official: Easton 8,869, Hardee 8,671. “The only way you make the decathlon a little more interesting is to make it shorter, quicker,” says O’Brien. “We need to do more fun things.” For example, why not hold head-to-head decathlon exhibitions, and do ten events over an hour?

At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, King Gustav V of Sweden said to Thorpe, the decathlon winner, “You, sir, are the world’s greatest athlete.” (“Thanks, King,” Thorpe supposedly replied). Since then, decathletes have clutched onto that honorific. But with all due respect to the King, do they really deserve that title? Should Swedish royalty be setting this standard, a hundred years later? Is Eaton really a superior athlete to Bolt?

Decathletes are good at a bunch of things. A guy like Bolt, however, is stunning. Watching him rocket out of the turn, fly down the stretch, and crush the field is an adrenaline rush. And there’s no more purely athletic action than cranking up your body’s engine, and running. Eaton is amazing. But I’m giving this one to Bolt. Sorry, King.

At the post-event press conference, I ask Eaton if he’s a better athlete than Bolt. Silver medalist Hardee, sitting to Eaton’s right, leaps to Eaton’s defense.  “So Ashton doesn’t have to sound selfish or self-centered, Ashton is the best athlete to ever walk the planet,” Hardy says. “Hands down.” Why? Hardee gives me an icy glare. “Because of the title bestowed upon the Olympic champion in the decathlon is ‘the world’s greatest athlete.’” Eaton chimes in: “King Gustav, 100 years ago.” Give the decathletes credit: they know their history. Hardee goes on: “And Ashton’s the world record holder in that event. The same reason Usain Bolt can be the fastest man on the planet, because that’s the title bestowed upon those event runners. And just because you’re fast doesn’t make you an athlete.” Huh? I’d love to meet the world’s first unathletic speedster.

“Thanks, Trey,” says Eaton.

As a follow-up, a columnist informs Eaton that Bolt has just declared himself the greatest athlete of all-time. Would he like to defend the decathletes? “There’s no fight,” says Eaton. “Usain is clearly awesome in his own right. He’s an icon of the sport and whatever. I think that titles are for, I don’t know, books and stuff. I just like doing what I’m doing.”

At his press conference, I ask Bolt the same question: who’s a better athlete, him or Eaton? Here, Bolt backs off his “greatest-ever” proclamations. “Well, I’ m a great athlete,” Bolt says. “But ten events, especially the 1,500 …” Bolt hates long distances.  “I’ve got to give it to him.”

He’s likely being nice. Eaton, and his sport, deserves more recognition. But if King Gustav had been around for Bolt, he might be singing a different tune.

MORE: Give The BBC A Gold Medal: A Love Letter To Britain’s Olympic Broadcaster

26 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
OPMUSDA
OPMUSDA

What about Will Claye bronze in the long jump silver in the triple jump how many have done that.How many have tried.

rsle91
rsle91

Sorry but Eaton wins it in my book. I've lost faith in Bolt after this olympics given his attitude. Way too cocky. Eaton is the definition of embodying the true attitude of an Olympian. Even though he has smashed the world record in the most grueling event, he is humble and would be hard pressed to admit his excellence. Its sad to see the media go nuts for a jerk like Bolt, but I guess that's how the world works. 

drorbenami
drorbenami

i think the comment: "just because you're fast, doesn't mean you are a great athlete" is, more or less, correct. about 30 years ago there was some college student who was watching some track meet on tv and he said to himself: "i can run faster than them" and so he started his training by running up stairs backwards, if i remember correctly. anyway within 12 months or so he finished 4th or 5th at the olympic tryouts for the usa.

i don't think any student could pull off a similar feat in the decathlon...(also, i think he used to run wearing a yellow shirt with red suspenders attached to green shorts)

TyrantInShorts
TyrantInShorts

The problem is, most or all of the decathletes are not really Olympic level good at the individual sports that make up the decathlon. In fact they are not even as good as the women in the individual sports. This means in some sense that the best of the best are not competing in the decathlon. 

You need a unique kind of person to be a decathlete, but that unique kind of person is really below Olympic standard in all of the individual sports, so a decathlete is not the best athlete in the world.

Its not even like the triathlon that's a one shot race. Sorry decathletes you don't get my vote.

jdg96
jdg96

Decathletes should be given the title of "The World's Most Mediocre Athletes."  That would be more accurate.  Every time I happen to catch the final event (1500m), I literally have to turn the channel so I don't have to see the pathetic display of the so-called "World's Greatest Athletes" running times that would embarrass any decent high school runner.  If Usain Bolt were so inclined, he would dominate the decathlon.  Let's see, given his explosive athleticism, he would finish at or near the top in the 100m, 400m, 110m hurdles, long jump, and high jump.  That's half of the events already.  With a little training, he would do OK in the throwing events, but since most decathletes suck at these anyway, it wouldn't hurt him too much.  He would probably do OK in the 1500m as well, but again given the level of ability typically displayed in this event, he would be OK here too.  He would probably have the most trouble with the pole vault, but his lead would be so large it wouldn't matter.  There is no way that Ashton Eaton is the world's best athlete!

wilkems
wilkems

Also by this logic, the world's fastest car is the worlds greatest car.  The world's smartest mathematician is the World's smartest person, although if they got a simple geography question wrong I would have a hard time calling them that.  The worlds fastest plane is the worlds greatest. The loudest stereo is the best ever. The list goes on and on, it's just not appropriate logic.

Rexeccoach
Rexeccoach

It is a ridiculous argument to try and determine the "world's best athlete".  Is it Phelps because he has won more medals than any other Olympian?  If Bolt decided to compete in the decathlon he would most likely win the 100, 110 hurdles, the 400 meters and the 1,500 meters before starting on the other events.  Epke Zonderland has my vote.  I defy any athlete including the top gymnasts in the world to even complete his high bar routine that won the gold.  It was so scarily difficult that no one else is attempting that level of difficulty.

wilkems
wilkems

I have to completely disagree with this article. When you think of the word athlete what comes to mind?  Someone who can run really fast for up to 20 seconds?  So in that sense, running backs are more athletic than any NBA player.  Because they are able to spring really fast, they are more "athletic" than someone who can jump highter, last longer, and still run pretty dang quick.  Bologne.

 

Now let's imagine the self proclaimed "world's greatest athlete" Usain Bolt did compete the in decathlon.  The open 100m obviously he would destroy.  Probably do great in Long Jump.  But without a doubt his score would get Crushed by Eaton and Hardee.  Do you think that because Hardee and Eaton ran a half second slower, Bolt would still be considered the worlds greatest athlete? He woulnd't hold a candle to either of them.

 

So what if the 100m and 200m are more exciting?  What does that have to do with the world's greatest athlete?  If media attention is all the qualifies an ahtlete to be the greatest then Usain Bolt is second to every World Cup Soccer player.  An Athlete is someone who does it all, and does it well.  An Athlete is someone who can run jump throw, who has indurance and speed, and is a smart competitor.  Usain Bolt is the world's fastest man, hands down.  But the day he can hurdle, high jump, throw, run almost a mile, and then some faster and better than anyone else, that is the day he will be the world's greatest athlete. Be

wilkems
wilkems

Is the world's fastest car the worlds greatest car? Is the world's loudest stereo system the greatest one?  Is the best math student the smartest person in the world? Because if they couldn't answer a simple geography question, I would have a hard time calling them that.  Is the worlds fastest plane the greatest to have every existed?  If you agree with that logic then stop reading.  If not then please continue.  I have to completely disagree with this article. When you think of the word athlete what comes to mind?  Someone who can run really fast for up to 20 seconds?  So in that sense, running backs are more athletic than any NBA player.  Because they are able to sprint  really fast, they are more "athletic" than someone who can jump highter, last longer, and still run pretty dang quick.  Bologne.

 

Now let's imagine the self proclaimed "world's greatest athlete" Usain Bolt did compete in the decathlon.  The open 100m obviously he would destroy.  Probably do great in Long Jump.  But without a doubt his score would get Crushed by Eaton and Hardee.  Do you think that because Hardee and Eaton ran a half second slower in the 100, Bolt would still be considered the worlds greatest athlete although he is in last place? He woulnd't hold a candle to either of them.

 

So what if the 100m and 200m are more exciting?  What does that have to do with the world's greatest athlete?  If media attention is all the qualifies an ahtlete to be the greatest then Usain Bolt is second to every World Cup Soccer player.  An Athlete is someone who does it all, and does it well.  An Athlete is someone who can run jump throw, who has indurance and speed, and is a smart competitor.  Usain Bolt is the world's fastest man, hands down.  But the day he can hurdle, high jump, throw, run almost a mile, and then some faster and better than anyone else, that is the day he will be the world's greatest athlete.    Until then, he will just have to live with the fastest man who has ever lived.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 I cannot understand how a guy who won Olympic gold for the first time can be declared a legend.

 I mean, while Bolt's statement was pretty bold,, there is a lot of truth to it.

 Firstly, he literally decimated the field. His 2008 win was widely satirized; and while 2012 held some drama, he won by a pretty sizable margin.

 Secondly, the times he posted would have been considered science fiction a mere decade ago (and the decade here stands for "I stopped following the sport about a decade ago").

 And, finally, even if we have to have an argument why an American athlete is the worlds best, I would ask a really hard question why we should pick Eaton.

 US has a very obvious choice of Phelps in this Olympic. If we look back, Carl Lewis comes to mind.

 So, no, I'm sorry, I'm not buying the argument.

Michael Chan
Michael Chan

Keep in mind, Eaton can run the 100m in 10.35.  Slower than Bolt yes, but Eaton can also run 110m hurdles within half a second of the WR, throw a javelin 65 meters, pole vault 5.5 meters, high jump well over 2.2 meters, and run a mile in blazing speed as well. Among throwing two other apparatus etc.

Bolt is a brilliant sprinter, the fastest the world has ever seen. Athletically speaking, we would have to see his other measurables, which we never have, and probably never will.

Omar Palmer
Omar Palmer

But can Eaton guarantee a full stadium anywhere in Europe or anywhere in the planet?? Bolt is the greatest not simply because of his fast times on the track but because of his appeal to people all over the globe....

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 It is really hard to compare Eaton with Bolt based on the facts you listed. 

 In part - because we don't know how Bolt would do because he never tried in the first place, and, in part - because we don't know how "cool" the results are to begin with.

 I mean, if you look at each of the individual sports' results and compare them to competitive times, you'd notice that they are relatively mediocre by the standards of the respected competitive sports.

KBATL
KBATL

We can all argue over semantics (the definition of  "athlete") until we're blue in the face, but as a former college decathlete who used to spend 3-5 hours daily training for the dec (at a College level), I will try my best to help you understand how "elite" Ashton is...and not only among decathletes. 

Taking his PRs from each event and comparing them to individual events or  specialists in each field (or Individual Sports as you called them) - here is a break down:

+ 100M - His PR of 10.2 seconds - this would meet Olympic qualification standards and put him just off 7th place in London by 2 tenths of a second

+ Long Jump - His PR of 8.23M (27') - would have won him the Silver in London

+110M Hurdles - his PR of 13.35 would have him finishing 4th in London only missing the Bronze by 23 hundredths of a second

+Pole Vault - His PR of 5.3M (~17'5") - would put him in the top 12 in London

+400M - His PR of 45.68 seconds would put him just outside of the final 8 by 44 hundredths of a second (still meeting qualifying standards for Olympics)

+In the Discuss, Jav and Shot - his marks of 47.36M, 61.96M, and 14.78M might seem mediocre compared to the beasts that throw for a living, but I can tell you for a 6'1, 185 lb guy, these are still very very good marks for any level and each takes huge amount of technical skill

+High Jump - his PR of 2.1M (or ~6'11") is huge. just under 3.9 inches of what 13th and 14th place in London

+1500M - His PR of 4:14 is flying after 9 events and yes would never compete with the world class milers, but how many people in the world (%) can ever say they ran a sub 5-min mile (very small percentage)...and I wonder what he could get it down to if not after a 10 hour day and distance training.

Anyways, I would say 5 events that he could qualify in the Olympics for and several that he could win Medals already in would put him in a class of his own...there is nothing "mediocre" about his marks by any standard.

en_a
en_a

Nobdoy cares... a title is what people give them. People already decide Bolt is the king. End of story. Geez

SquareCircles
SquareCircles

Interesting piece Sean. Kudos for showing both sides of their quotes. 

I also agree our society is too ADD to follow a whopping 10 events over 2 days. It's easier to follow high-profile swimmers' slew of events over 4 or 5 days. Societal ADD must have a good trickle down effect.

The most recent example right in front of my eyes: It was my mistake to figure a piece for TIME would be solid writing - no spelling errors - including, but not limited to, the decathlon's gold AND silver medalists' names. I also thi - look! Shiny! What ij#8...

Sofia Papazoi
Sofia Papazoi

It's not about who is better... They are the best athletes in the world in their own field and in their own unique succesfull way. They simply are different...

Queueing
Queueing

I don't think that anyone is going to deny that Bolt is fast.  Fast. 9.58 100m world record holder?  That's silly fast.  But he only has two events.

Decathletes (and even Pentathletes and Triathletes)  cant just be stellar in one or two events; they have to be amazing all around.  That's the difference between being an Athlete and being athletic.  Bolt may be the best sprinter the world has ever seen, but he certainly hasn't proved himself to be the Worlds Greatest Athlete.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

I have to point out that while decathlon is definitely a more "all around" sport, it has the problem of being more prone to manipulation courtesy of the formula how the results in individual sports translate into points for the first place.

 Besides, I think that there is something inherently wrong with the sports where you can win overall gold without winning any of the individual events.

Nae Constantin
Nae Constantin

Why? Why is there something wrong in being the best overall even without being the best in just one? Why is there shame in consistency and complexity? After all, we're talking about the "greatest athlete", not the "fastest runner". 

The Olympic spirit, not to mention its motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Faster, Higher, Stronger), I think, clearly advocates that.

Lennox Deane
Lennox Deane

But hello!!! If you aren't "faster, higher stronger" than your competitors how can you be the "best"?? Contradictory to me!

bmoz
bmoz

Um, what about the pentathlon?? It has 5 completely different events, compared to the decathalon which has a number of events which require quite similar skills. Don't get me wrong, decathletes are amazing athletes, but if anyone should be claiming the greatest athlete, it is the winner of the modern pentathlon!!

bobsy1
bobsy1

 Your argument about the length of the decathalon being a problem ignore the enormous popularity of cricket in some countries. Test cricket takes 5 days to complete yet in some countries it is enormously popular. Instead, the reason decathalon is not popular is the lack of media interest and build up. If a rivalry was built up in the media before the Olympics, or perhaps a challenge to the world records, then people would be sitting on the edge of their seats to watch the events unfold.

zaglossus
zaglossus

Be serious. It's the decathlete. There's more to athletics than just running very fast over a short distance. There are longer distance runs as well as jumping and throwing. And actually the greatest athlete at the Games might just be Lebron James.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,267 other followers