The Decathlete: The Best Athlete the World’s Never Heard of

Uncategorized Posted Sep 21, 2015 by chenpr

While following the recent 2015 Track and Field World Championship, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that the mainstream media seemed interested only in Usain Bolt’s continued successes while considerably more impressive stories flew under the public’s radar. Most notably, twenty-seven year-old American and Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton broke his own world record and won gold in the decathlon, the ten event competition that traditionally earns the world record holder the designation of world’s best athlete, but hardly anyone took notice.

It wasn’t always that way. In the mid-1970s decathlete Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, much like Eaton, won Gold in the 1976 Olympics and breaking her own world record twice. The difference is that Jenner became a national hero, household name and instant celebrity. I wanted to know why. What changed that could cause Jenner to become an American icon in 1976, while four decades later Eaton’s reputation extends little further than the sport’s fan base?

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The difference, it seems, can mostly be explained through historical context. Like many things that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century, Jenner’s fame had a lot to do with the Cold War. In the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Mykola Avilov, decathlete from the Soviet Union, won gold and broke the world record formerly held by American Bill Toomey. On top of that, in 1972 the Soviets won both the total medal count and total gold medal count.

The 1976 Olympics were a particularly big deal to Americans because that year marked the United States’ bicentennial and, though we still lost the medal count at those games, Jenner’s world record and gold medal winning performance was one of our country’s finest successes. And since the Cold War was largely a war of propaganda, you can bet that the U.S. government made sure that everybody knew the United States was home to the greatest athlete in the world.

It is also important to note that in the 1970s track and field was still officially classified as an amateur sport which meant that athletes were not allowed to accept sponsorship or advertising money. So after Jenner’s victory at the 1976 Olympics, she retired at the age of 26 to capitalize on her fame and finally profit off of years of tireless training and remarkable achievement. Jenner appeared in commercials, films, television shows and Wheaties boxes.

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While this explains the origins of Jenner’s celebrity, it fails to adequately explain Ashton Eaton’s relative anonymity compared with contemporaries Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin and Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh Jennings and, of course, Bolt. Perhaps Ashton’s restrained and humble demeanor makes him a less compelling target for media attention, or maybe we are just living in a cultural era that no longer appreciates the athletic Renaissance man, but that celebrates specialists and niche experts. Whatever the reason, I think it’s important that we recognize greatness when we see it.

For those of you familiar with the sport, I’ve copied the results of Ashton’s latest world record performance below with a compilation video of his performance in each event.

100 Meter: 10.23

Long Jump: 25ft. 10.23in.

Shot Put: 47ft. 7.65in.

High Jump: 6ft. 7.13in.

400 Meter: 45.00

110 Meter Hurdles: 13.69

Discus Throw: 142ft. 2.3in.

Pole Vault: 17ft. 0.7in.

Javelin Throw: 208ft. 9.11in.

1500 Meter: 4:17.52