The United States’ history in the Olympic decathlon has been one of epic performances resulting in the birth of iconic athletic figures.
Jim Thorpe, winner in 1912. Robert Mathias, gold medalist in 1948 and ’52. Milt Campbell, champion at the 1956 Olympics. The great Rafer Johnson, king of the Rome Games in 1960. Bill Toomey, who stood atop the medals podium in Mexico City in 1968. And Bruce Jenner, who earned gold and rock-star status at the Montreal Games in 1976, long before becoming a pop culture celebrity as the stepfather of Kim Kardashian and her siblings.
Out of the 22 decathlons that have been held at the modern Olympics, an athlete from the United States has finished first 12 times, including Bryan Clay at the Beijing Games in 2008. Today (Thursday), another American decathlete will seek to etch his name alongside the aforementioned greats and be honored as the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” the proverbial title bestowed upon the Olympic decathlon champion.
The man expected to do so is Ashton Eaton. The 24-year-old native of Portland, Ore., was the favorite coming into London after breaking the decathlon world record at the U.S. Olympic trials in June in Eugene, Ore. The University of Oregon graduate recorded 9,039 points on his home track, becoming only the second man ever to surpass the 9,000-point mark, joining Czech Roman Sebrle, the 2004 gold medalist at the Athens Games.
Eaton was a five-time NCAA champion at Oregon and arguably the greatest collegiate decathlete to put on spikes. The product of an African-American father and Caucasian mother, he embodies the sacrifice and commitment required to master the grueling decathlon–a two-day, 10-event discipline that is the supreme test of strength, speed, power and endurance. Nevertheless, Eaton is acutely aware of the perils that face every decathlete with each race, jump and throw.
“With multi-events there are a lot of things that can go wrong,” he said at a recent press conference in London. “I think it is unrealistic to think I am going to get another world record, especially at the Olympic Games.”
Eaton knows that the number of points he ultimately posts isn’t the true measure of greatness–it’s earning a gold medal. “You are always striving for 10 perfect events,” he said, “but it never happens.”