The Jack of all trades

The Jack of all trades

Decathlon : Ashton Eaton, with his second straight Olympic gold, has proven that he's a legend in his own right

The Jack of all trades

The decathletes, long ago a source of greater fascination, were in no position last Thursday night to be anything more than a warm-up act for the headliner Usain Bolt. There is no dishonor in that. Bolt, with his easy charm and easily understood talents, is an irresistible force in the attention-grabbing department.

Even before the Rio Olympics, he was considered the greatest sprinter ever. Now he is the first, and quite possibly the last, to sweep the 100 metres and the 200 metres in three consecutive Games.

But there is potential all-time greatness at work in the decathlon, too, and Ashton Eaton has a very different task and style than Bolt.

Bolt's events are over in a flash: 9.81 seconds in the 100, then 19.78 seconds in the 200. Eaton's work unfolds over two days and nights and 10 events, some of them contested in the heat of the day with few spectators in the stadium.

Bolt is playful and brash, mugging for the cameras, pounding his chest and merrily reminding his frustrated opponents of their lot in life during and after the racing. Consider last Thursday's comment about the 200-metre silver medalist Andre De Grasse, made with De Grasse sitting next to him: "You should always want to be the best," Bolt said. "I respect him for that, but I tell every youngster, I don't allow young kids to beat me.'"

Eaton is measured and modest and would no sooner talk smack than he would turn down a chance to meet Elon Musk, the tech entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, who is Eaton's true aspirational figure.

"I think Ash might prefer being an engineer sometimes; I really do," said Don Butzner, Eaton's physical therapist.

For now, he remains a decathlete, and though the focus on Thursday was on Bolt's eighth career gold medal, Eaton joined an elite club of his own by successfully defending his Olympic title.

"The decathlon is exclusive company," Eaton said after beating the fast-improving Frenchman Kevin Mayer for gold with a total of 8,893 points. "I'm just happy to be part of the family, the decathlon family, regardless of the records."

“It does feel more like a brotherhood than a guild, and one of the more reaffirming moments in sports is when the decathlon's final event, the 1,500 metres, is done and the exhausted contestants -- when they've finally picked themselves up after collapsing -- congratulate one another for simply finishing. We are competing against ourselves," Eaton said. By that standard, Eaton lost on Thursday, failing to surpass his own world-record score of 9,045 points, set last year at the world championships in Beijing. But by purely Olympic standards, it was a more successful night, one that also gave the Eaton family its second track and field medal of these Games.

Eaton's wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who trains with him under their coach Harry Marra, won a bronze medal last week for Canada in the heptathlon, the seven-event women's competition.

She was there in the Olympic Stadium on Thursday night, just as Eaton had been there for her when he took some seriously out-of-line internet flak for wearing a Canada cap as a show of support.

"She is a massive, massive inspiration for me," Eaton said Thursday. "And for us to have done this together is. ..."

His voice began to break. "I can't word it," he said, moving down the line in the interview area.

Eaton had a string of injuries -- nagging and more significant -- this season. He tore a quadriceps muscle during a meet May 20 in the Czech Republic, which gave him little more than a month to heal before the US Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, in early July.
"It was scary," Marra said. "I didn't know whether that muscle would stay together at the trials. One event? OK. But 10 events? Come on."

The problem, Marra said, was "a big blood clot" that was restricting Eaton's range of leg motion.

"Less than a week before the trials, they went in with a needle," Marra said. "And the doctor says, 'Here we go,' and he pulled on this thing, and the clot pulled right out into the syringe, and you could just see the muscle go back to its normal position."

Marra said Eaton, by compensating for the quad injury, then strained a hamstring early in the trials and made just one attempt in the long jump. That jump, according to Marra, was Eaton's only one between May 20 and the Olympics, in an effort to protect his leg.
That should help explain why Eaton never seriously challenged his world record in Rio, although he did tie the Olympic record.

Afterward, there was -- as is now customary at major championships -- considerable discussion of why the decathlon, once the de facto method to determine the world's greatest athlete, has dipped in prestige since the American Bruce Jenner won it in 1976.
"I don't think it has the reverence from the public that it used to, and I think that's part of the problem," said Ato Boldon, a track analyst and former sprinter.

Eaton and others agree that there is a lack of understanding of the decathlon's rigors and particulars. Eaton said that he liked the comedian Bill Murray's suggestion that they put "an average Joe" into every event to provide a frame of reference.

For now, ask the average Joe to name the world's greatest athlete, and the odds are good that they would come up with LeBron James or Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or even Bolt before they came up with Eaton.

"It all depends what you're talking about when you say greatest athlete," said Karl Robert Saluri, a decathlete from Estonia. "In my view, Ashton is the best all-around athlete."

That seems a smarter way of phrasing it. Who else has to get so good at so many diverse athletic skills, and then spend four years building to their major moment?

Marra, now 69, said he would not be coaching the Eatons for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Eaton, 28, said he put the chances at "less than 50 percent" that he would even be competing by 2020.

All the more reason then for coach and pupil to savor the moment Thursday night, even if it had to be savored in the shadow of Bolt.  Not that there was bitterness. This was Ashton Eaton, after all. "It has been a pleasure being in the same era," Eaton said. "I mean the guy's last name is Bolt, and he's the fastest man ever. You can't write a story like that, and so to be in the pages in there is nice."

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