Here's Bill Toomey, running in the footsteps of Jim Thorpe and Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias. Running in the cold and the dark of Mexico City. In the breathless air. WINNING the decathlon.
—JIM MCKAY, ABC, 1968
Now three modern decathletes run in shadows, somewhere far out on the distant borders of fame. Their task hasn't changed: two days, 10 events. Upon the winner is still bestowed an unofficial title: World's Greatest Athlete. But that title has been dulled by overuse in other sports, and its value has been diminished by the shifting hierarchy of athletic achievement. Decathletes are generalists in an era of specialization, workaday grinders when celebrity springs from flash and swag. So they compete for medals, but also for relevance.
One of the three, Ashton Eaton, 24, is a little too young but headed rapidly toward historical transcendence. Another, Bryan Clay, is a little too old at 32 but already has two Olympic medals, including the 2008 gold. The third, two-time world champion Trey Hardee, 28, is in the chronological prime of his career but is contending with a surgically repaired throwing elbow. Eaton is the best decathlon runner ever, Clay the second-best thrower in history. Hardee, when he's healthy, is a ticking metronome of consistency through all 10 events.
And this too: All three are Americans. When the Olympic decathlon is finished on the night of Aug. 9 in London, if they have survived the U.S. trials in Eugene, Ore., in June—a very big if—and if form holds at the Games, Eaton, Hardee and Clay could all be wearing medals. It would be the first national sweep of the event since Bob Mathias led three Americans to the victory stand 60 years ago in Helsinki, and only the third in the 100-year history of the Olympic decathlon in its current form, the other by a U.S. trio in 1936. "A perfect storm," says Chris Huffins, bronze medalist in the decathlon in Sydney in 2000. "We have three very talented guys in stable training situations, and the European combined-event factories—the Czech Republic, Germany, the former Soviet countries—do not have that one guy. This is our time."
The future of the decathlon sits poolside at a hotel in West Covina, Calif., wearing shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops on a warm spring evening. Ashton Eaton has flown to California with his coach, Harry Marra, 64, from their home in Eugene to compete in four individual events at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in nearby Walnut. Road congestion on the way to the hotel was brutal, and the van driver didn't have any change. Still, Eaton is so cool he looks like he could be predicting a Super Bowl win over the Baltimore Colts. "I feel good," he says. "Really good."
Eaton, 6'¾" and 181 pounds, has been a decathlete for barely five years; he has never beaten Hardee or Clay in a decathlon that the others completed, and his personal best is 8,729 points, lowest of the three as measured by the event's arcane scoring table. But soon that will change, and everyone connected with the sport knows it. "Ashton is the next world-record holder," says Huffins. "The only things holding him back right now—his throws—are things that are going to get better with repetition and age." Though Eaton's best score is almost 300 points short of the decathlon world record of 9,026 set by the Czech Republic's Roman Sebrle in 2001, he has broken the world record for the indoor heptathlon three years in a row. Eaton is the fastest elite decathlete in history in the combination of the 100 meters, the 400 and the 110 hurdles, and at the World Championships last summer in Daegu, South Korea, he locked down the silver medal with a 4:18.94 in the 1,500, roughly equivalent to a 4:36 mile.
"Guys who have those great 100s and 400s," says two-time Olympic decathlete Tom Pappas, "usually run five flat in the 1,500." Eaton is 132 points better than Clay and 153 better than Hardee in the 1,500 alone, a huge mathematical and psychological edge in a sport in which medal positions are often decided by less than 100 points over 10 events. "Ashton knows he has that hammer in the 1,500," says decathlon guru Frank Zarnowski, a visiting professor of economics at Dartmouth. "And they know he has the hammer."
At the Mt. SAC Relays, Eaton long-jumped a personal best of 26'5½"; only five world-class decathletes have jumped farther. He is the second-fastest 110-meter hurdler in decathlon history, and this spring he equaled Bill Toomey's 400-meter decathlon record of 45.68 (although Eaton's was not in a decathlon). In late April, true to Huffins's prediction, Eaton threw the javelin 197'8", a scary 10-foot increase in his personal best and a difference worth 42 points in the table. "I just hope somebody can push him," says Dan O'Brien, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist and American-record holder. "Just for the drama, I'd like to see him under duress at the trials or the Olympics."
Eaton was born in Portland, the only child of Roslyn Eaton, then 22, and her boyfriend, Terrance Wilson. Though the couple broke up two years later, Eaton is close to his three half siblings from his father's side. The oldest of them, Verice Bennett, 34, is a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps; last December he received the Silver Star for his role in a battle in Afghanistan in September 2010. Eaton flew to Virginia for the ceremony and afterward wrote on his personal blog: "Until now I didn't know what gravity it held to hold the American flag at something like the World Championships or Olympics."