Remember When Decathletes Were Cool?
Why the world stopped caring about track and field's most grueling event.
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Once upon a time, no greater authority than King Gustav of Sweden proclaimed Jim Thorpe "the world's greatest athlete" after the Native American superjock won the decathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. In the middle of the 20th century, decathletes such as Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson became superstars after winning the gold medal. And who could forget—although, given his recent reality-show foray, we might wish to—Bruce Jenner pounding down the home stretch in Montreal in all of his red-white-and-blue glory?
But in the last few decades, the decathlon has lost its spot as the Olympics' glamour sport. It's now in the middle of the pack, somewhere between synchronized diving and the women's air rifle. Quick, can you name the American who won silver in Athens and is favored to win gold in Beijing? Thought not. His name is Bryan Clay, and despite his presence in a Morgan Freeman-narrated Visa ad, he's pretty far down the list of athletes NBC wants you to care about, behind several beach volleyball players and about 800 gymnasts.
What explains the decathlon's precipitous fall? Along with every event in track and field, there's a one-word reason for the decline in popularity: drugs. Clay, like most track stars—and pretty much any athletic overachiever, for that matter—is tainted by the cheating of others, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones. (To wit: Slate's Jacob Leibenluft reports from Beijing that mere seconds after Usain Bolt's latest record-setting track performance, fans at the Bird's Nest were openly speculating about whether he's a product of doping.) Frank Zarnowski, a decathlon historian and blogger, told me that everyone in the sport believes Clay is clean as a whistle, and he offers himself up for aggressive testing. Nevertheless, track and field is, like the Tour de France, forever sullied, carrying a "yes, but" after every world record and gold medal.
But what about the decathlon specifically? Certainly, the specter of 1992 looms over the event. That year, Reebok's Don Drapers decided to spotlight a pair of American decathletes, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, building up their rivalry with a series of ads that promised the pair would "battle it out in Barcelona for the title of world's greatest athlete." Unfortunately, the ads started running before the U.S. Olympic Trials, where O'Brien blew the pole vault and didn't make the team. The ads instantly became a national joke, giving a legion of bad stand-ups the opportunity to yelp, "Who are the ad wizards who came up with that one?" O'Brien rebounded to win the gold in Atlanta, but the damage had been done—he'd be forever known as the guy who screwed it up in 1992.
Back in Bruce Jenner's day, Olympic stardom came more organically. The 1976 decathlon champ appeared on the front of a Wheaties box a year after he won gold, not as part of a marketing campaign in the run-up to the games. These days, stars are made before the Olympics even begin. In the 16 years since O'Brien's flameout, sponsors have backed away from a sport with so much opportunity for failure. A gymnast can miss out on gold if she falls off the beam. A decathlete can lose if he makes one tiny error in any of 10 different events.
Robert Weintraub is the author of The Victory Season: The End of World II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age.
Photograph of Bryan Clay by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.