'World's greatest athlete' a title without the fame
LONDON — The fascination began a century ago in Stockholm when Jim Thorpe left a trio of Sweden’s best in his dust. “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” King Gustav told him. “Thanks, King,” Thorpe is said to have replied.
For decades after, whoever won the Olympic decathlon — more often than not an American — was graced with that label. “My motivation was to stand on the same stage as Thorpe, Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey and all the guys beforehand,” said Bruce Jenner, whose 1976 victory in Montreal was the biggest American story of the Games. “I didn’t even think about anything else. I didn’t care about anything else. You have to be on that stage. It is a very elite little fraternity we have, very difficult to get there.”
On Thursday night Ashton Eaton, who leads US teammate and world champion Trey Hardee by a substantial 220 points after the first day, is likely to join their number but the world’s greatest athlete likely won’t be able to cash in the way swimmer Michael Phelps did in Beijing or gymnast Gabby Douglas will after these Games or basketball player LeBron James did even before he first turned up in 2004.
In a day when amateurs largely have been crowded out of Olympus by professionals and specialists are the five-ringed demigods, the decathlon has come to be viewed as an eclectic and anachronistic sideshow by televiewers who expect live-streamed instant drama and results tweeted within a millisecond. Watching a 10-event competition across two days is beyond their attention span.
Yet the decathlon historically has been the centerpiece of the most popular sport of the Games, the embodiment of the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger. “For 100 years it has been the true standardized test of your ability to run, jump, and throw,” said Jenner, who’s here as a special correspondent for E! News. Eaton is competing in the same events as Thorpe did — the 100, 400, and 1,500 meters, 110 hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, javelin, discus, and shot put.
Yet unlike Thorpe was, at least in track and field, Eaton is a paid professional who is free to make money from endorsements. When it was revealed (by the Worcester Telegram) that Thorpe naively had played semi-pro baseball under his own name for two seasons in North Carolina, the International Olympic Committee stripped him of his gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon and didn’t restore them until 1983, three decades after Thorpe had died a penniless alcoholic.
Johnson, who’d won the silver medal in 1956, had to turn down a prominent role in “Spartacus” because it would have made him ineligible. Until the 1980s, when the IOC gave in to reality, the Games were strictly for amateurs and its decathlon champions usually came from unlikely precincts.
Thorpe, who’d been a football star at Carlisle and an intercollegiate ballroom dancing champion that year, didn’t start training until a few months before the Games. Jim Bausch, who won at Los Angeles in 1932, had been a bruising fullback (“Jarring Jim”) for Kansas. Bob Mathias had just graduated from high school in 1948. “What are you going to do now?” he was asked. “I’ll start shaving, I guess,” the 17-year-old Mathias replied.
Jenner was a football player at a small college in Iowa until he shredded a knee blocking a punt and switched to track and field. After finishing 10th in Munich, he sold insurance and his then-wife Chrystie worked as a flight attendant while he prepared for his moment in Montreal, which was a most harmonic convergence.
The Soviets had gone 1-2 in the decathlon and won both men’s sprints with Valeri Borzov for the first time in 1972, grabbing away the Americans’ two most cherished prizes. “THE FASTEST HUMAN IS A COMMIE,” read the New York Times headline. It was the country’s Bicentennial, the Games were in a prime-time site, cable TV didn’t exist to siphon off viewers and Roone Arledge had ABC’s cameras focused on America’s Top Hope. When Jenner won the gold medal it changed his life although, he observes, “it didn’t help my short game.”
“I was the right man in the right place at the right time,” said Jenner, who since has become a one-man conglomerate, doing everything from motivational speaking to selling corporate aircraft to appearing in the reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
Until Johnson went mano a mano with Taiwan’s C.K. Yang, his UCLA training partner, the Olympic decathlon never had been televised. Mathias’s two victories were featured on theater newsreels in the middle of double features. So while the champions were duly feted as the world’s greatest athlete and treated to ticker-tape parades, the payoffs were modest.
Bausch appeared in a Camels ad, testifying that the cigarettes game him a “lift in energy.” Morris, who received his gold medal from Adolf Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun in Berlin in 1936, went on to star in “Tarzan’s Revenge.” Mathias ended up on a Wheaties box (“Breakfast of Champions”), acted alongside Jayne Mansfield in “It Happened In Athens” and served four terms as a California congressman.
Campbell, who still was a New Jersey high schooler when he won silver behind Mathias in 1952, received no such goodies after he won in 1956, when the Games were at the end of November in Melbourne and the results were mostly by rumor. “I’ve always said — and I’m adamant, whether people want to hear it or not — that America wasn’t ready for a black man to be the best athlete in the world,” Campbell told Sports Illustrated four decades later.
Campbell, who subsequently was drafted by the Browns and was Jim Brown’s camp roommate, played in the Canadian league. Thorpe, who was voted the 20th century’s greatest athlete, played major league baseball with the Giants, Reds, and Braves and pro football until he was 41. Except for Mathias, once you won the decathlon, you didn’t return for a reprise.
Toomey, who was a 29-year-old schoolteacher when he won in 1968, competed for another year, set the world record, and retired. “It was time to grow up,” he later told the Los Angeles Times. “Time to leave Peter Pan behind. Time for the rest of my life.”
Dan O’Brien, whose no-height in the pole vault at the trials kept him off the 1992 team, came back to triumph in 1996, then moved on. Bryan Clay, who’d been second in Athens, won gold in 2008 but found himself overshadowed amid Usain Bolt’s triple-gold thunderclap. “NBC totally ignored his event,” said Jenner.
Clay came back from injuries to take a third shot this year against long odds but his quest ended when he hit a hurdle.
Eaton, who’d never heard of the decathlon until his high school coach suggested it, set a world record of 9,039 at trials and Clay became an afterthought.
This is Eaton’s time. He won’t get a ticker-tape parade or a Tarzan role and won’t become his own industry. But if Eaton wins the gold medal, nobody will dispute that he’s the greatest athlete in the world. “That’s all he wants,” said Jenner. “He wants to be part of that exclusive club.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.