100 Years of Decathlon Track & Field Olympic Trials

More like 2700 years of Decathlon

Bill Thorpe with an image of his father Jim Thorpe
Bill standing next to his father Jim Thorpe's picture

The Olympic Track and Field Trials wore me out after 3 days!   I can’t imagine what 10 events over 2 days must feel like,  and the men who do this are certainly among the most amazing and best athletes in the world.  

The Ancient Games had a five event finale called the Pentathlon which was held to determine the best all-around athlete.  It consisted of javelin, discus, long jump and ended (if the winner had not yet been determined) with a wrestling match. The ancient Pentathlon was first held in 708 BC,  and continued every four years for over  a millinium! The last one was held in 241 AD. Like modern “World’s Greatest Athletes”, those ancient decathletes were also highly revered,  highly honored by their city states and were handsomely rewarded.

 A variety of pre-modern Olympic Games multi events evolved in Scotland, Scandinavia and Germany, and came to the US with immigrants along with increasing popularity of Track and Field.  In 1884 a ten event “All Around” was created in the US which evolved into a close proximity of modern Decathlon, only all events occurred in a single day.  100 yard dash, shot put, high jump, hammer throw, pole vault, 120 yard hurdles, 56 pound weight throw, long jump, 880 yard walk, and a 1 mile run, with only 5 minutes between events.
Yikes!  Good thing they got to walk the 880.   

In 1912 the Swedes, apparently into multiple Greatest Athletes, organized not only a ten event Track and Field Decathlon, but a Track and Field 5 event Pentathlon substituting a 1500 M run for the Greek event of wrestling.  They also created the “Modern Pentathlon” based on the five military events of running, swimming, fencing, shooting and riding.

Jim Thorpe won the first Decathlon in the Modern Games, in Stockholm in 1912 and was proclaimed by the Swedish King as the World’s Greatest Athlete.   The AAU subsequently stripped him of his medals when they discovered that he had played baseball as a student for money.  He went on to play professional football and baseball, and become the NFL’s first president.  Finally, in 1982 the IOC restored him to the record books and presented new medals to his family.

Jim Thorpe was the first of many great American Decathletes.  In 1924 Harold Osborn took the Gold and in 1932 it was Jim Bausch.  Glenn Morris surprised the world and especially the Germans in 1936, beating the German star Sievert’s world record in only his second meet and leading a US 1-2-3 sweep.  The great Bob Mathias, only 17 in London in 1948, won the Gold and repeated in 1952 in Helsinki, a feat only matched by Daley Thompson in 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles.  1956 Melbourne saw Milt Campbell win the gold, and Rafer Johnson the silver. Rafer would take the gold four years later in Rome in 1960.  Bill Toomey would win Gold, in 1968 in Mexico City, and Bruce Jenner in 1976 In Montreal. Dan O’Brien won in in Atlanta, 1996 and Bryan Clay in Beijing 2008.  

We were honored to be among some of these American legends, Olympic champions and men crowned each time as was Jim Thorpe, the Best Athlete in the World.

Jim Thorpe’s two sons joined Milt Campbell,  Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey,  Bruce Jenner and Dan O’Brien for the 100 years of Decathlon celebration in Eugene, at the US Track and Field Olympic Trials.  It was held on the evening of day two and we got to sit with them during the two day Decathlon competition which proved to be both exciting and historic beyond expectation.   And expectations were running pretty high.

A little history:  Ashton Eaton and teammate Trey Hardee went to Daegu for the IAAF Worlds last year.  Ashton did not have a good meet and Trey came home 2011 World Champion.  Before the Trials,  they trained together and decided they would push each other and it would be the two of them 1-2 either way.   

As it happened,  in the pouring rain,  Ashton Eaton overcame Daegu in spectacular fashion.   He came out for event 1 and broke the decathlon world record in long jump with a 27+’ jump long enough to qualify for the long jump team.  In Event 2, he broke the 100 record and finished day one only 10 points behind Dan O’Brien’s World Record pace.

By the final event of 1500, every one in the stands was on their feet, knowing he was in reach of Dan’s record.   His pace was fast, although it was raining, and at the split he needed to pick up the pace by 2 seconds.  The crowd willed him forward to gain those two seconds, cheering for all the athletes, and when he finished he was the new World Champion and on his way to London, with his friend Trey in second place.

The most amazing part was the group who greeted him on his victory lap:  Bruce,  Milt, Bill,  Rafer,  JIm Thorpe’s two sons, and Dan, whose record was just broken.

Dick left for camp right after this,  taking the red-eye back to Maine, and at dinner the next evening I was seated across from Rafer and Toomey.   The two longest standing records were both set in 1968: Beamon’s long jump is still the Olympic record, and Toomey holds both world and olympic records for the Decathlon 400M.  I asked Bill if he thinks Ashton will take that too, and he said no doubt, that Ashton is not close to his potential, and we will see much more from him over time.    We will have to watch Ashton in the 400 in London to see if Toomey's record will fall too. 

On Sunday night, the 100 Years of Decathlon was celebrated with a lovely reception, complete with live music, and was attended by all the decathletes including Bryan Clay,  Trey and Ashton, as well as what was so politically correctly called the ‘Heritage Athletes‘ most notably Rafer Johnson, Milt Campbell, Dan O’Brien and Bill Toomey.  Jim Thorpe’s two sons were in attendance and I made a date to go to Oklahoma City to two-step with Bill Thorpe... can’t wait for that!

Ashton Eaton Robin Fosbury
Ashton Eaton, Robin Fosbury
Milt Campbell circa 1956
Milt Campbell circa 1956: Be still my heart!

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