decathlon is an athletic competition containing ten different
track and field (athletics) contests and won by the
participant amassing the highest total score. It is an Olympic
multi-event sport for men. The women's counterpart is a
seven-event contest called "Heptathlon". Virtually all that we
offer here about the decathlon can also be applied to the
women's heptathlon. The decathlon has its ancestry in the
Ancient Greek Games and reveals the Greek model of a balanced,
The decathlon is a two-day miniature track meet designed to
ascertain the sport's best all-around athlete. Within its
competitive rules, each athlete must sprint for 100
jump, heave a 16-pound shotput,
jump and run 400 meters
-- all in that very order -- on the first day. On the second
day the athlete runs a 110 meter
hurdle race over 42 inch barriers, hurls the discus,
vaults, tosses a javelin
and, at the end of the contest, races over 1500
meters, virtually a mile.
All-around contests abound. Many individual sports from
gymnastics to rodeo to Nordic skiing to equestrian have
all-around contests designed to measure versatility within
that sport. But since track and field (athletics) is the most
fundamental (some say the first or basic) sport where its
participants run, jump and throw, it's all-around test -- the
decathlon -- measures those elementary athletic talents.
Speed, strength, agility, spring and endurance are embodied
within its measurable objectives. While one athlete may be
faster, another stronger and yet a third a better jumper, the
decathlon attempts to determine who, among the three, is the
best all-around or general athlete.
The skills of the decathlete are not specific to any sport.
Although all sporting contests need fast, strong and agile
athletes, they also demand specific skills. Although those
skills (e.g., making a 20-foot jump shot, hitting a curve
ball, or kicking a field goal) are difficult to master, they
are specific to each sport and not general in nature. This is
why there can be no doubt that decathlon champions are the
best all-around athletes in the world. Making a case that
decathletes are the "world's best athletes" is harder since
some athletes with honed specific talents, for example Michael
Jordan or Ken Griffey, Jr., may be so proficient in their
unique skills as to overshadow a decathlete with terrific
The decathlete does not have to be exceptional in any one
event to be the champion in the ten events. He must range from F
being at least adequate in his weak events to being
outstanding in his stronger events. Because he must do well in
three running, one hurdling, three jumping an and three
throwing events he has inadequate chance to perfect and polish
any one of the events. So he must compromise. And therein
lies the nature of the decathlon. It is a compromise where
concessions must be made in preparation for the sake of
maximizing the total score. In his training he must strive
to improve his technique, gain strength without sacrificing
speed or spring, (and vice versa) and acquire the
endurance that will escort him through a competition which, in
many cases, lasts 8-10 hours each day.
An international scoring table is provided to evaluate and
award points for each performance. The winner is the athlete
who has the most points after ten events. So the decathlon is
the only event in which it doesn't really matter if the
athlete finishes first, third or worse in a particular event.
The score is the thing and the decathlete competes against
a scoring table, and in reality, against his own ability and
standards. A score of 8000 points (averaging 800 points
per event) is a rule of thumb cutoff for a world-class
decathlete. Few major international meetings will ever be won
with a score of less than 8000 points. There is some
subjectivity within the scoring tables.
Mental factors play a greater role than
they do in other events. Many coaches talk of a "decathlon
mentality," meaning the athlete's ability to stay focused
throughout the ten events, to get psyched up for each attempt
or race, and to shrug off disappointment and get on with the
next trial. In the decathlon there are chances to recuperate
Decathletes also differ from most athletes in their
reaction to a completed meet. Ask a decathlete to assess his
recently completed performance and invariably they are seldom
satisfied, in fact, often frustrated. Rarely does a decathlete
achieve personal record (PR) performance in every event. No
matter how well he does, whether he wins or sets a record,
the decathlete can always find room for improvement. There
is always a "wait until next time" attitude.
Additionally the decathlon is the most neighborly of all
track events. Because the same athletes are together for the
better part of two days and the rules require a minimum of 30
minutes rest between events there is much time to chat on the
field. And much of the time is used in helping one another,
appraising technique, verifying takeoff points, giving advice
and reassurance, even using others' equipment.
In the decathlon the opponent is rarely another athlete.
The struggle is against time, distance, fatigue and ones
inner fear of weakness or failure and the scoring tables. The
opponent is oneself. Other decathletes are comrades,
friends who help others do their best. Rarely are they
hostile. Every decathlete concentrates on doing his utmost
without attempting to diminish the efforts of others.
Decathletes Come In
All Shapes & Sizes
wrestling or boxing, there are no weight classes in the
decathlon. Its combatants come in varied shapes and sizes.
World-class competitors have been as small as Jeff Bennett who
was 5'8" and weighed just under 150 pounds when he first broke
8000 points back in 1970, or as tall as Rick Wanamaker, a
6'8", 210 lb center on the Drake University basketball team.
Bennett was an Olympic competitor while Wanamaker was the
first NCAA decathlon champion. Few have been heavier than Rudy
Ziegert's 235 pounds or Russ Hodge's 225. The former, a
Russian soldier, scored over 8000 points on numerous
occasions. Hodge held the world record in 1966.
Since decathletes score over a wide range of points on the
scoring tables there is a wide range of shapes, sizes and body
types. But as one gets closer to world-class level the sizes
get remarkably similar, averaging about 6-0 to 6-3 in height
and 180 to 200 pounds. This may be an "ideal" size. But
many decathletes with variations or prototypes from the
ideal size (small and wiry, tall and rangy, short and bulky,
tall and bulky) have all been successful and do not fit the
Like training, height and weight
are a decathlete's compromise. Athletes who are tall have a
leverage advantage in the throwing events and a high center of
gravity for the hurdles and high jump. On the other side of
the ledger, tall athletes have a more difficult time unwinding
from starting blocks and staying within the throwing rings.
Heavier athletes obviously have more bulk to push the
weights. But for running and jumping events they must carry
and lift that bulk. The pole vault and 1500 meter run are
particularly difficult for heavier athletes. Youngsters should
not be concerned with height and weight. Nature will take care
One game some decathlon fans play around with is to assign
points on a per pound basis. Just divide your best score by
your weight. Anything over 45 points per pound is exceptional.
The results may be interesting but the exercise is just for
fun. The conclusion is obvious. Although many coaches look for
an ideal size decathlete, any size will do. Decathletes
come in all shapes and sizes.
A Quick Look at the
Here is some basic
information about each of the ten decathlon events:
METERS This event measures basic leg speed and
each race/heat will have between 3 and 8 runners. You will
push off a set of starting blocks at the start as a reaction
to a starters pistol, sprint for 100 meters and lean at the
finish line. The race can be timed with a hand held stopwatch
to the tenth of a second, or by an automatic timing device
which will catch the runners in 1/100ths of a second.
LONG JUMP The athlete runs
toward the landing area, plants his takeoff foot on an 8-inch
'toeboard' (named for obvious reasons) and leaps into a sand
filled pit. The distance is measured from the mark made in the
pit which is closest to the takeoff board. Speed and accuracy
are secondary to leaping ability. Each athlete will have only
3 chances and only the best jump will count in the scoring.
SHOT PUT The shot put measures
basic arm strength. Again, three tries counting only the best
effort for scoring. The athlete attempts to push or 'put' (not
throw) a 16-pound iron ball so that it lands within a sector
of 40 degrees. The throwing circle is seven feet wide and made
of concrete. Efforts do not count if the athlete oversteps the
throwing circle or if the shot lands outside of the sector
JUMP Yet another explosive event where the
athlete must approach the bar and landing area, gather himself
and leap (always off one foot) over a crossbar. The landing
pit is usually made of foam rubber. The crossbar is raised,
usually 3cm (@ 1 1/4inches) and an athlete is eliminated after
three consecutive misses. The highest height cleared is used
400 METERS A
century ago, a quarter mile (440 yards) race was deemed an
endurance test. Today its metric equivalent is almost an all
out sprint. The athlete runs the entire distance in lanes, and
like the 100 meter race, may have anywhere from 2 to 7
competitors. The 400 meters tests both speed and stamina and
ends the first day's competition.
110-METER HURDLES The initial
event of the second day combines speed and agility. The
athletes must sprint (not jump) over a series of ten barriers,
42 inches high (39 inches at the high school level), which are
placed 10 yards apart. The athlete must both sprint and
stretch his stride pattern so as to only take 3 steps between
hurdles. Hurdles may not be deliberately knocked down.
DISCUS THROW The discus,
which weighs 2 kilograms (4 1/2 pounds) and is 8'2.5" inches
in diameter, has aerodynamic qualities. Again, only three
tries are allowed and the athlete, while turning 1 1/2 times,
must stay within an 8'2.5" concrete circle. The discus must
land within a 40-degree sector. Only the best throw counts in
POLE VAULT Technically this
is the decathlon's most difficult event. While grasping the
upper end of a 14 to 15 foot fiberglass vaulting pole, the
athlete races toward the pit, plants the pole in a takeoff box
and swings himself up and over a crossbar, eventually landing
in a foam rubber pit. Sound easy? It takes lots of practice.
The javelin is a metal spear approximately 8½ feet in length
and weighing 800 grams (just under 2 pounds). It must be held
by a grip and the throw made behind an arc. At all levels
except the high school the javelin must land point first
within the sector, which is 29 degrees wide. Each athlete is
given three attempts and the best throw is scored.
METERS The final test is one of endurance, 3
3/4 laps around the 400-meter track. Rarely does the
decathlete have the luxury of loafing during this event since.
He must give his best effort since, at approximately 6 points
for every second, places, scores and records (personal or
otherwise) will be at stake.