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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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