The Nature of the Decathlon


Start of a 100-meter race

The 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, all-around athlete.

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 meters, long jump, heave a 16-pound shotput, high 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, pole 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 general competency.

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.

Decathlon is the art of waiting 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 from mistakes.

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. top

Decathletes Come In All Shapes & Sizes

Olympic Champion Dan O'Brien Unlike 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 ideal description.

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 of that.

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. top

A Quick Look at the Events

Here is some basic information about each of the ten decathlon events:

100-meter take-off 100 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.

Dan O'Brien sets American record in the long jump 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.

Getting ready for the shot put 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 lines.

HIGH 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 for scoring.

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 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.

Moment of release 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 the scoring.

Dave Johnson vaulting at the 1992 Barcelona Olymics 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.

JAVELIN The javelin is a metal spear approximately 8 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.

Bruce Jenner, setter of three world records 1500 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.