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The Decathlon in Olympic History

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The Jim Thorpe Story

American Indian Jim Thorpe - His Gold Medal performance in the 1912 Stockholm Olymic Games destroyed the world record When King Gustav V of Sweden presented awards at the 1912 Olympic Games of Stockholm, he proclaimed to the decathlon winner, an American Indian named Jim Thorpe, as the world's top athlete. "You sir, are the world's greatest athlete." Incidentally, Jim is purported to have replied, "Thanks, King" to the Swedish monarch, a story, true or not, which itself has become part of the Thorpe saga.

Ever since, the Olympic decathlon champion or world record holder has been dubbed "the World's Greatest Athlete." And rightly so, since the decathlon is the only objective test of all around athletic ability. Decathletes must contest ten separate events and have those performances tallied on a standard scoring table. The decathlon measures basic sporting ability like jumping, sprinting and throwing. Within the backdrop and rules of track and field, decathlon champions must exhibit, the 4 S's: speed, spring, strength and stamina.

Since 1912 great decathlon champions like Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, Bruce Jenner and Daley Thompson and others have become household names. But they all owe much to the legend of Thorpe.

In 1912 Jim Thorpe, a Native American from the Sac and Fox tribe, was a student at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania Indian School and was already being called "the athletic marvel of the age." He was the nation's best football player, then, turning his attention to the Stockholm Olympic Games, made the USA team in 4 (!) events and won gold medals in the first Olympic decathlon and pentathlon.

A year later he was stripped of his Olympic records and medals when it was discovered he had played semi-professional baseball for a few dollars, not unusual for students of the day. But the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) of the United States made an example of Thorpe claiming he was not a true amateur. It was a raw deal and Thorpe left Carlisle and became a professional athlete playing major and minor league baseball for another 10 seasons and in the NFL until 1929, when he was 41. Indeed, he was the National Football League's (NFL) first president. No one surpassed his decathlon score for 15 years.

In 1982, 29 years after Jim Thorpe's penniless death, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored his name to the Olympic record books and, in January, 1983, presented facsimile medals (the originals had been lost) to his children. In 1953 Jim Thorpe was voted the "Athlete of the First Half Century."

Jim's Native American heritage, remarkable ability, long professional career, and loss of Olympic medals elevated him to an almost mystical sporting figure. Even today, eight decades later, his name, of all decathlon men, is still history's most recognizable. top


The Ancient Pentathlon

In one sense, modern decathlon history begins with the Thorpe story. Yet, in another sense, the story begins 26 centuries earlier. The Greeks created an all-around test, the pentathlon, for the ancient Olympic Games. The ancient pentathlon consisted of a long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, a sprint and ended with a wrestling match. There is still considerable academic debate pertaining to the order of events and how the winner was determined.

Discobolus by Myron; Ancient Greek discus thrower and pentathlete

The Greeks invented the pentathlon to ascertain their best all around athletes. Five (penta) seemed a convenient number to them, much like ten (deca) is to contemporaries. The Greek pentathlon was a blend of speed and strength. Technique and endurance played lesser roles. Much like the first day of the decathlon, the Greek pentathlon was power oriented. According to most evidence, wrestling was the last event and necessary only if the pentathlon winner had not been determined in the earlier events.

The pentathlon was introduced at Olympia 708 BC and continued unabated every fourth year for almost eleven centuries. The first Olympic winner was Lampis, a young Spartan. And, although the Greeks did not keep records in a modern sense (in ancient Greek there is no way to say "break a record" or "set a record") we do have the names of many of the pentathlon winners. For example we know that Gorgos, of the small town of Elis (near Olympia), won four ancient pentathlons.

The pentathlon was not just an Olympic event. By the 6th century BC major religious games were held in Corinth, Delphi and Nemea. And secondary athletic festivals were conducted in most towns of the Greek world. Athletes could and did compete in numerous pentathlons annually.

The popularity of the pentathlon varied over time and from person to person. Some, like Aristotle, had lofty respect for the pentathlete's combination of speed and strength. Others, like wrestler Plato (his name means broad shouldered), considered the pentathlete a mediocre performer. But the poet Bacchylides, in an ode to the winner, leaves little doubt about his sentiment for Automedes, winner of a Nemean Games pentathlon. Ancient Greek amphora: Runners

"He shone among the other pentathletes as the bright moon in the middle of the month dims the radiance of the stars: even thus he showed his lovely body to the great ring of watching Greeks, as he threw the round discus and hurled the shaft of black leaved elder (javelin) from his grasp to the steep heights of heaven, and roused the cheers of the spectators by his lithe movements in the wrestling and the end." --Bacchylides

Greek Olympians, including the pentathletes, were hardly amateurs in the modern sense. They were paid for their efforts and by the fifth Century BC city states bid for the services of athletes and generously rewarded them for major victories. Today's most authoritative Ancient Olympic scholar, David C. Young, estimates that a pentathlon victory, (which could be paid in a variety of forms, such as jars of olive oil) was worth more money than a full years labor.

The last recorded ancient Olympic pentathlon winner was Publius Asklepiades of Corinth who won in AD 241. In A.D. 393 Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, closed all pagan sanctuaries, including Olympia, effectively ending the ancient Olympic Games. The site was abandoned and over the centuries, buried by nature and earthquakes. It would be more than 15 centuries before another Olympic multi-event winner would be crowned. In the 19th century German archaeological teams excavated the ancient Olympic site. Soon thereafter the Greeks and the Baron Pierre de Coubertin promoted a revival of the Olympic Games. top


The Middle Ages

The importance of athletics (and therefore multi-events competitions) deteriorated as Greek and Roman civilization declined. But the ideal of a versatile, all-around athlete was never lost in the 15 centuries in which the world went without Olympic Games.

During the Viking era (approximately A.D. 800-1250) Norsemen had to pass a number of athletic tests, military in nature. Multi-event contests for Vikings included running, wrestling, throwing heavy spears and even dashing over moving oars. During the Middle Ages knights periodically tested their skills in tournaments many of which used a point scoring system. Aspirants had to pass multi-event tests before knighthood. Knights were asked to excel in numerous physical and martial skills.

Treatises on educational reform in the middle of the sixteenth century called for youths to know how to ride in armor, vault on horseback, practice weightlifting, run, wrestle and jump for distance and height. By the early seventeenth century Robert Dover, an aristocratic English lawyer, reinstated the Olympic Games. These annual affairs, The Olympik Games of the Cotswolds, began in 1612 and lasted more than two centuries. Thousands, including William Shakespeare, came to watch the Cotswold Olympiks which proved so popular that Dover was held in the same high esteem as the modern Olympic Games founder Baron de Coubertin would be three centuries later.

Unfortunately, for our purposes, the Dover Olympiks contained no multi-event contest. But the idea was not far off. The Renaissance did much to foster the versatility of life. And the Enlightenment (new ideas about physical education) would provide the setting. Advances in technology and economics provided Europeans with free time. In the mid 1700s, in Dessau, in what is today Germany, students competed in a school pentathlon, a combination of the ancient Greek version and knighthood skills. And, in 1792 in Stockholm, Sweden, an 'overall' champion was crowned using a three event contest (running, throwing a large stone, swimming).

In the late 18th century, Guts Muth, author of the first book on physical education, developed a forerunner of modern scoring tables. Weekly his German pupils' performances in running, jumping and swimming were awarded points. Much of today's decathlon was portrayed by Guts Muth and later 19th century German reformers who began the Turner Movement (gymnastics in unison).

Meanwhile, track and field was staging a comeback in the first half of the 19th century and it would not be long before multi-events joined the movement. Modern track expert and historian Roberto Quercetani claims that all-around competitions were held in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century. Another English Olympic revival, the Much Wenlock Games, offered a pentathlon in 1851, the events being a high jump, long jump, putting a 36 pound stone, half mile run and climbing a 55-foot rope.

Large numbers of Scots, Irish and Germans immigrated to America during the 19th century and they brought their games with them. The Scottish Caledonian Games, German Turners and US colleges fostered the return of track and field, which became popular after the Civil War. Many American meets had an "all-around winner," usually the athlete winning the most events or places. The concept was formalized in 1884 when the US designed a national championship All-Around. This evolved into ten events (100 yards, shot put, high jump, 880 yard walk, hammer throw, pole vault, 120 yard hurdles, 56 lb. weight throw, long jump and one mile run) contested in a single day, with only 5 minutes rest between events. Quercetani describes the American menu as "Pantagruelian" and indeed it was. Winners had to meet minimum marks in each event and were scored on a points for place basis until 1893 when the newly formed Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) generated a scoring table to evaluate each performance.

In 1880 an all-around championship was held at the German Gymnastics Championships. It included a stone throw, pole vault and long jump. By the 1890s several Scandinavian nations were offering a pentathlon, exactly the same as the ancient Greek event. When the Olympic Games were renewed in 1896, in Athens, a multi-event contest was overlooked as it was in Paris four years later. But in 1904, the AAU held their All-Around championships in conjunction with the Olympic Games of St. Louis. Tom Kiely, an Irishman, won easily becoming the first Olympic multi-event track champion in 16 centuries.

A ten year anniversary Olympics was held in Athens in 1906 and organizers, searching for a multi-event contest, conducted the ancient Greek pentathlon, complete with wrestling. Two years later the British, as they have for most of the 20th century, neglected multi-events at the 1908 London Olympic Games. It was up to Sweden to include multi-event contests at the 1912 Olympic Games of Stockholm. And they did so with gusto. The Swedish organizers planned a "modern" pentathlon (based on military events), a track and field pentathlon (based on the ancient variety, substituting the 1500 meter run for wrestling) and a decathlon, a ten-event contest.

The word decathlon (deka = ten, athlos = contest) was first used in Scandinavia (Danish tikamp) and (Swedish tiokamp) as both nations offered "decathlons" in the early years of the 20th century with different events, order and tables. In 1911, using today's ten events and sequence, the Swedes conducted the first modern decathlon as a rehearsal for the Stockholm Olympic Games a year later. The decathlon has not changed since. The Göteborg winner was Hugo Weislander who would finish second to Jim Thorpe and would later inherit the world record and Thorpe's medal. top


Early Olympic History

The Scandinavians took to the decathlon like fish to water. In fact, all but one Olympic decathlon medal awarded before World War II were won by decathletes from either the United States or a Scandinavian nation. American achievements were chiefly a result of talented ex-collegians from America's heartland taking up the event once every four years. Scandinavian success was evidence of a multifaceted view of physical education.

The Berlin Olympic Games, scheduled for 1916, were canceled by World War I. In 1920 Norwegian soldier Helge Lövland edged Brutus Hamilton of the University of Missouri by smallest margin, before or since, in Olympic decathlon history. Hamilton, while coaching at the University of California at Berekely, became one of America's best loved and most successful mentors. Four years later, in 113- degree heat on Paris's 500 meter track, Harold Osborn, a former student at the University of Illinois, won the gold medal just days after he also won the Olympic high jump title. He remains the only athlete to have won both the decathlon and an individual event.

Decathlon Medalists at 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games In 1928 in Amsterdam, a pair of Finns, Paavo Yröjla and Akilles Järvinen, captured the gold and silver medals. Steady Ken Doherty of Detroit, Michigan won the bronze. Doherty's track career spanned six decades. Like Hamilton, he became one of America's best known coaches (Michigan and Pennsylvania). Doherty was also the director of the prestigious Penn Relays and author of popular training books.

A University of Kansas football and basketball star, "Jarring" Jim Bausch, turned back Järvinen at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1932. Bausch is still regarded as the greatest athlete in the history of the University of Kansas, quite a feather when one realizes that four-time Olympic discus winner Al Oerter, Olympic 10k champ Billy Mills and hoop star Wilt Chamberlain were all Jayhawks. Ironically, had later sets of scoring tables been used in both 1928 and 1932, Järvinen would have had higher totals than either winner. Such is the subjectivity of the scoring tables.

At right: Decathlon medalists at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, l-r: Jim Buasch/USA, Gold; Akilles Jarvuinen/Finland, Silver; Woland Eberle/Germany, Bronze

Germans expected their world record holder, Hans-Heinrich Sievert, to win the Olympic gold medal in Berlin in 1936. But the United States came up with a used car salesman from Denver named Glenn Morris, a former student at Colorado State who took up the decathlon in 1936 and broke Sievert's record in just his second meet. The great Morris-Sievert duel never came off when the German came down with a mysterious illness. Morris re-broke his own world record and led a 1-2-3 USA sweep, all of which was brilliantly captured by Leni Riefenstahl superb film, Olympiad, Festival of Nations. Morris immediately retired, undefeated in the decathlon, but made nothing of a Hollywood career, appearing with the lead role in but one film, Tarzan's Revenge.

World War II robbed several all-around greats of Olympic opportunities. The most notable was Michigan's Big Bill Watson who would have been the decathlon favorite both in 1940 and 1944. top


The Post-War Era

Decathlon Medalists at 1948 London Olympic Games In 1948, when the Olympic Games were held in London, a 17-year old schoolboy from California turned all the decathlon traditions upside down. The decathlon had been looked upon as an event for the experienced, older athlete. Yet here was Mathias, during two miserable days of London fog, turning back the world's best. He was, and still is, the youngest track and field champion in Olympic history. And it was only his third decathlon. In the intervening years, Mathias enrolled at Stanford, starred as a running back and broke and re-broke the decathlon world record. At the 1952 Helsinki Games Mathias became the first decathlete to win a pair of Olympic titles. He led another 1-2-3 USA sweep and won by more than 900 points, the largest margin in Olympic history. Although just 21, Bob retired, undefeated and four-time national champion. He starred in a movie version of his life, The Bob Mathias Story, then served several terms in Congress and was director of the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

At right- 1948 London Olympic medalists: Ignace Heinrich/France, silver; Floyd Simmons/USA, bronze; Bob Mathias/USA, gold

The Helsinki Games saw an American sweep of all decathlon medals. New Jersey schoolboy Milt Campbell garnered the silver and Floyd Simmons captured his second bronze. Four years later Campbell conquered American teammate and world-record holder Rafer Johnson at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Milt was one of the most versatile athletes of any age. A year later he would break the world record for the 120-yard hurdles, then turn to a professional football career. He was also a national class judo competitor and All-American swimmer. He is the only athlete to have been inducted into both the National Swimming and National Track and Field Halls of Fame.

Decathlon medalists at 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

Much like Milt Campbell four years earlier, Rafer Johnson stepped up from silver to gold, winning the decathlon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. But it was not easy. He had to contend with a UCLA teammate, C.K. Yang of Formosa. For two hot Italian days and nights they put a moratorium on their friendship and battled for ten events at Rome's Estadio Olympico. With only the 1500 meters remaining, Johnson led by 67 points. If Yang could put 10 seconds between himself and Rafer, the gold medal was his. Rafer dogged C.K.'s every step, finished a few meters back and won by a slim margin. Italian spectators chanted, "Give them both the gold medal, give them both the gold medal."

At left, the decathlon medalists at 1956 Melbourne Olympics, l-r: Rafer Johnson/USA, silver; Milt Campbell/USA. gold; Vasiliy Kuznyetsov/USSR, bronze top


A New Decathlon Era

The 1960s saw the decathlon come of age. Not only did American Phil Mulkey and C.K. Yang take turns breaking Rafer Johnson's world record, but also the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), in 1964, introduced new scoring tables making the decathlon a more balanced event. No longer could the decathlon be won by a handful of good events, but it could now be lost with one bad one. Decathletes had to be proficient in every event. West German coach Friedel Schirmer, who had finished eighth at the 1952 Helsinki decathlon, raised his nation's awareness and popularity of the decathlon. Schirmer insisted that the decathlon was not 10 unrelated events, but an event in itself. Balance and focus on new tables were the hallmarks of his training methods and his athletes had great success during the decade. In 1964 in Tokyo, the American decathlon winning streak, which began in 1932, ended. Germans Willy Holdorf and Hans-Joachim Walde won the gold and bronze, sandwiching Estonian Rein Aun. Paul Herman from little Westmont College (CA) was fourth and all topped Yang.

Decathlon medalists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games Four years later Schirmer's athletes claimed all the Olympic medals. American Bill Toomey, a Santa Barbara English teacher, had trained with Schirmer in West Germany for a year. Toomey, Walde and his world-record holder teammate Kurt Bendlin went 1-2-3 at the Mexico City Games of 1968. Toomey's victory stands apart from earlier prominent American decathletes. He was considerably older (his 1969 world record came just short of his 31st birthday) and he competed a great deal more. His numerous efforts proved that a well-trained decathlete could compete frequently at a world-class level. Bill competed in 38 career decathlons, compared to 26 for Mathias, Campbell and Johnson COMBINED.

At right, decathlon medalists at 1968 Mexico City Olympics, l-r: Hans-Joachim Walde/Germany, silver; Bill Toomey/USA, gold; Kurt Bendlin/Germany, bronze

Bill's training partner, Russ Hodge, had broken the world record in 1966 but was often injured. Toomey's career was even more remarkable when one learns that, as a youngster, Bill had severed all the nerves in his right wrist, losing almost all feeling. He rebuilt the wrist with therapy but the hand bothered him throughout his career. In spite of the adversity, Bill won 23 major decathlon meets including five U.S. national titles (still a record) and the Olympic gold!

Eastern European nations, especially the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany, began to emphasize and promote the decathlon in the early 1970s. At the 1972 Munich Games Toomey watched from the ABC TV platform as a Soviet, the lanky Nikolay Avilov, replaced him as both Olympic champion and world record holder. Another Soviet, soldier Leonid Litvenyenko, and Ryszard Katus of Poland, won the remaining medals. The top American, diminutive Jeff Bennett, lost the bronze medal to Katus (who later defected to the United States) by a mere ten points. Bennett, who attended tiny Oklahoma Christian College, stood but 5 feet 8 inches and weighed in at only 152 pounds. But he was a fierce competitor and had the heart of a giant. His battle for the final medal in Munich was the closest in Olympic decathlon annals. An unnoticed but respectable tenth in Munich was a little known American named Bruce Jenner. top


The Age of Boycotts

Jenner had set two world decathlon records in the months before the Olympic Games of 1976 and Montreal was to be a showdown with the defending champion, Avilov. From the opening gun it was obvious that Jenner was on a roll and after the first day, he was just a few points behind German Guido Kratschmer and Avilov. With his best events on the second day, Jenner steamrolled the field. With only the 1500 meters remaining, the question was not whether Jenner would raise his own world record, but by how much. Unlike most decathletes, he looked forward to running the last event.

Bruce Jenner set 3 world records, the first coming at this 1975 USA-USSR-Poland meet in Eugene, OR As Jenner rested on the infield, Litvenyenko tapped him on the shoulder and remarked, "Bruce, you are going to be Olympic champion." "Thanks," Bruce chirped. Litvenyenko gazed at Jenner for a few moments and then asked, "Bruce, are you going to be a millionaire?" Jenner just laughed. In the 1500 meters Jenner ran conservatively at first, then gunned it at the bell, clocking the final 400 meters in an eye-opening 61 seconds. He had recorded a lifetime best in his final event, 4:12.61, and a gaping world record, 8618 points. Someone shoved an American flag in his hand and his victory lap, on prime-time television, was fabled stuff.

Because the decathlon is an infant event in Africa, the 1976 Games boycott by many African nations left the decathlon medal placings unaffected. The burly and bearded Kratschmer won the silver medal and Avilov settled for the bronze. Jenner retired without delay, even leaving his vaulting poles in the Montreal stadium tunnel. For him there would be new worlds to conquer. But he did recall that one athlete who had finished 18th, a British teenager named Daley Thompson, had asked a lot of questions.

Another boycott reared its ugly head in 1980, this one led by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. American and German track and field contingents did not participate in the Moscow Olympic Games robbing the decathlon field of both Bob Coffman, a raw Texan who was the Pan American champion, and the new world-record holder, Guido Kratschmer. But the British team did travel to the Soviet Union and Daley Thompson was not seriously challenged. With 20-20 hindsight, it is difficult to see how either the American or German could have coped with Thompson in Moscow. Daley began his 1980s reign, now labeled, "the Daley decade".

Thompson won the European crown in 1982 in Athens with a new world record, and then captured the IAAF's initial World Championship in Helsinki in 1983. In both cases he vanquished giant Jürgen Hingsen, called the "German Hercules." The Thompson/Hingsen affairs of the 1980s were classics. The pair broke and re-broke the world record on seven occasions, but head-to-head, the Brit never lost.

In 1984, when the Summer Olympic Games returned to the United States for the first time in 52 years, it was the Eastern Block nations, led by the Soviets, who stayed at home. No matter in the decathlon since Thompson was once again supreme. Daley, like Bob Mathias before him, won a second gold medal, again broke the world record and again made Hingsen settle for the silver. West German Siggi Wentz won the bronze and it is difficult to envision any Eastern block decathletes who could have broken up the top three. Two years later at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart, West Germany, the Thompson-Hingsen-Wentz trio again went 1-2-3 in what many still consider to be the best international decathlon ever.

In 1987 an injury slowed Daley at the second World Championships in Rome. Now 29, he competed anyway and finished ninth, his first defeat in nine seasons. Hingsen, suffering broken ribs, did not finish. In their absence, East Germany's Torsten Voss, a 24-year old mechanic, held off Wentz for the win.

At the Seoul Olympic Games of 1988, favorite Siggi Wentz was also injured and could not compete. Thompson, now 30 and in his fourth Olympics, was also injured and short on conditioning. But, like a true gladiator with a competitive zest, he went to the arena. There he watched a 6 foot-6 inch East German medical student, Christian Schenk, use a 7-5½ high jump to propel him to the gold medal. Voss was second and Canadian Dave Steen, a Cal-Berkeley student, edged Thompson for the bronze medal.

The 1980s had seen a terrific run by Thompson, 12 consecutive wins, all in major meets. And he did it against top competition. The decade witnessed an explosion in the number of world class decathletes. A score of more than 8000 points, once almost unheard of, was bettered over 500 times in the 1980s with the Soviets and Germans (West & East) far ahead of the remainder of the world. For Americans it was the worst decade yet. For the first eight years of the 1980s Americans could scarcely be found in the annual world rankings. top


Enter Dan & Dave

Dave Johnson won bronze medal at 1992 Barcelona Games After the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games American decathlon fortunes abruptly reversed course. Californian Dave Johnson led the resurgence and his score for 1989 topped the world list. In 1990, VISA USA, the credit card giant, initiated a national program to help return USA decathlon fortunes to their former prominence. Later that year Johnson and Dan O'Brien, a former University of Idaho star, swept the Goodwill Games decathlon in Seattle. Again Johnson's best score led the world list. A year later it was O'Brien who threatened Daley Thompson's world record and who captured the third World Championships crown in Tokyo. In decathlon circles, thanks to VISA, the United States was back.

Dan O'Brien sets 1992 world record at Barcelona In 1992 shoe giant Reebok feature both O'Brien and Johnson in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign entitled, "Dan or Dave? To Be Settled in Barcelona." The campaign raised decathlon popularity in the Unites States but neither O'Brien nor Johnson was fortunate enough to win at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. O'Brien, suffering a stress fracture, was unable to clear a pole vault bar at the U.S. Olympic Trials and did not make the American team. Johnson won the Trials but suffered a broken bone in his foot just weeks before the games. He kept the injury secret, competed with a heart of gold and limped home with the bronze medal. Czechoslovakia's Robert Zmelik won in Barcelona and Spain's Antonio Penalver was second. One month later, O'Brien met Zmelik at DecaStar, an invitational decathlon in Talence, France. Not only did the American win by more than 500 points but he broke Daley Thompson's eight-year-old world record, running up 8891 points. Dan's record lasted until 1999.

A year later, O'Brien captured another world title, this time in Stuttgart, Germany where his major foes were Eduard Hamalainen of BelaRussia and Germany's tall Paul Meier. In 1994 Hamalainen had the world's top score, 8735 points, while O'Brien went undefeated with three efforts over 8700. A year later it was O'Brien with a hat trick, winning a 3rd IAAF World Championships, and once again Hamalainen was his main nemesis.

In 1996 Dan O'Brien reigned supreme winning the Olympic Gold. Frank Busemann, a 22 year old German, was a surprising second and Czech soldier Tomas Dvorak edged American Steve Fritz for the bronze medal.

In the years after Atlanta O'Brien was relatively inactive, trying (and winning) only the 1998 Goodwill Games. Fritz and Chris Huffins won the succeeding American championships, and on the world stage Dvorak won a pair of IAAF World titles and, in 1999, grabbed the world record from O'Brien with an amazing 8994 points. top


The 21st Century

Dvorak was injured in 2000 and the Olympic gold medal went to Estonian Erki Nool over yet another outstanding Czech, Roman Sebrle. Although he led after nine events Chris Huffins just did hang on for the bronze medal and teammate Tom Pappas was fifth.

2001 was full of surprises. In May Sebrle broke Dvorak's world record with an impressive 9026 total in Gotzis, Austria, the first score over 9000 points on the current tables. A month later, just 16 day shy of his 36th birthday, Kip Janvrin, already a legend for durability, became the oldest athlete to win the USA nationals with an 8241 score in Eugene. Amazingly, it was his 75th career decathlon meet. In August Dvorak captured a 3rd consecutive IAAF world championship in Edmonton.

Sebrle ruled 2002 but Pappas won the 2003 USA nationals with an 8784 score (using a 26 foot long jump, 7 high jump and 17 foot pole vault- the first time that had veer been done), then turned the tables on Sebrle at the world championships in Paris.

24 year old Bryan Clay upset Pappas at the US Olympic Trials in 2004, then won the silver medal at the Athens Olympic Games with an eye-opening 8820 effort, 73 digits behind Sebrle. A foot injury claimed Pappas.

The next ten years belonged almost exclusively to Americans. Clay dominated the 2005 season with another national title that included a 183-3 discus toss, and then won the IAAF world title in Helsinki and followed with a win at the prestigious Gotzis meeting in May, 2006 with the season's highest score.

Pappas won a 5th national USA title in 2007 tieing the record held by Bill Toomey and Dan O'Brien. A year later Clay, with an impressive performance at the Beijing Games, became the 11th American to capture the Olympic gold medal.

Clay and Pappas gave way to a new pair of US collegians, Trey Hardee of the University of Texas and Ashton Eaton of the University of Oregon. Hardee won IAAF world crowns in 2009 (Berlin) and 2011 (Daegu, KOR). Then, in 2012, after setting the 2nd of three world indoor heptathlon records, Eaton, with the help of legendary coach Harry Marra, reclaimed the world record running up history's 2nd 9000 score (9039 points) in rainy conditions at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, OR. A month later Eaton and Hardee went 1-2 at the London Olympic Games, America's first 1-2 Olympic sweep since 1956. In total American decathletes claimed 13 of history's 23 Olympic gold medals and more than one-third of all the Olympic medals.

While the US prep and Junior Olympic programs continued to pump out the likes of Curtis Beach, Kevin Lazas and Gunnar Nixon, Eaton won both IAAF world indoor (Istanbul, TUR) and outdoor (Moscow, RUS) titles in 2013. top

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