In 1912, King Gustav of Sweden handed a prize to Jim Thorpe, winner of the decathlon, declaring, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world”, to which Thorpe is reputed to have said, “Thanks, King.
Thorpe was an extraordinary athlete. In the Olympic Games Thorpe competed in the high jump, the long jump, the pentathlon in which he also won the gold, and the decathlon. He ran the 100 yard dash in 10 seconds flat, and the mile in 4:35. His long jump record was 23 feet, six inches; his best in the high jump, six feet, five inches.
And those were perhaps the least of his attributes. Thorpe had emerged as a prodigy upon entering Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania as a sixteen year old Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma. Legend has it that in 1907, Thorpe walked by the school’s track, saw students practicing the high jump, and cleared five feet, nine inches in his street clothes. By 1912, he had became Carlisle’s best track athlete, played lacrosse and baseball, and competitive ballroom dancing, winning the intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship.
He was also pretty good at football, starring as a running back, defensive back, and kicker; by pretty good, I mean the best player of his time, stunning a powerful nationally ranked Harvard team in a major upset, and devastating Army by reeling off a 92 yard run that was called back and following it up on the next carry with a 97 yard touchdown romp. Carlisle won the national championship and Thorpe was named an All-American in his junior and senior years.
Football was his first love, but his coach, Pop Warner, was also his track coach, and it was Warner who convinced Thorpe to begin training for the Olympics. Competing in several events with shoes he had found in a trash bin after his own shoes had been stolen, Thorpe commanded the attention of the world and returned to the U.S. honored by a ticker tape parade down Broadway.
Within months, however, the International Olympic Committee discovered that Thorpe had been paid to play baseball during the previous summer. They stripped him of his medals, declaring that he had lost his amateur status. Now branded a professional, Thorpe accepted a contract with the New York Giants, playing major league baseball within months of having won the decathlon. Thorpe would continue to play baseball until 1922, but he jumped at the chance to play football once again, eventually playing for the Canton Bulldogs , one of the strongest professional teams in the pre-NFL era.
Jim Thorpe won a place in the Football Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Olympic Hall of Fame, and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame; his Olympic medals were eventually returned to him. It hasn’t been easy to follow Thorpe; he was named one of the top three athletes in the 20th Century (Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan make pretty good company).
The winner of the 2016 Olympic decathlon, Ashton Eaton, is a double gold decathelete, sunny, generous, and entirely representative of the spirit of the Olympics. Does he climb into the pantheon after his second Olympic victory? Probably not, although he has found a place on my shelf of athletes I respect.
Part of the issue, I think, is in the way the decathlon is televised, or in this case, not televised. We checked in with Eaton at a few points along the way, kept track of his Canadian wife, also an Olympian athlete, winner of the bronze medal in the heptathlon, and watched the entirety of the 1500, the final test of the decathletes, but we did not have the opportunity to see one of the rarest of all athletic undertaking with anything like the attention the drama deserved. Commentators seemed assured that Eaton would win again, gave us about eight minutes of mild uncertainty, and went back to Eaton, his mom, and his wife, Brianne Theisen Eaton.
What makes a decathlete so extraordinary? Why do we assign them the tag of greatest athlete in the world?
Imagine a race horse, maybe not the fastest in the world, but among the top hundred fastest, who climbs trees, tosses boulders, plays darts, and skis. Over the course of two days. Against other equally able equines.
The events that make up the decathlon starts with a sprint, the 100 meter dash, then moves to the sand pit for the long jump, to the field for the shot put, back to the high jump, and finishes the day with a 400 meter race.
Day Two The decathletes warm up with the 110 meter hurdles. Hurdlers at this level have a fairly specific skill set, combining a sprint with the clearing of hurdles that are about 42 inches high. Hurdlers do not generally sprint or run distance races; I’m just about a thousand percent sure that they don’t put the shot or sail into the high jump.
OK, hurdles hurdled. Next up is the flipping, hurling, throwing, spinning of the discus. Again, not for everyone. In the first place, the discus is described as a lenticular disc weighing about four and a half pounds; in the second place, the thrower has to spin anti-clockwise in order to get this lenticular disc up and away. Think about that for a few moments; try an anti-clockwise spin and see in which direction you end up.
Same day, few minutes later they jog to the pole vault where the decathlete runs with a pole that can be as long as seventeen feet. I say run, because the key to vaulting is in the speed of the approach (well, and the sheer guts it takes to hang on while a bending pole carries you the the height of a second story building). I’m no physicist, but I have been assured that the trick of the pole vault is to translate energy (1/2 x mass x speed) to vertical propulsion (mass x height x gravity ) or something. In any case, pole vaulters, too, are a special breed.
Surely, you say, that is enough. Let them go, for God’s sake, let them go.
Ah, no. Having vaulted several stories, the athletes then repair to the tossing of the javelin. There’s no way around it; a javelin is a spear. This spear, however, is about eight feet long. Eaton, who is not a javelin specialist, chucked the eight foot long spear a distance of roughly 200 feet, about what I hit with my driver on a very good day.
As has been the case in every interesting Olympic decathlon, victory depended on performance in the 1500 meter run, and it was in that race that Eaton pulled ahead for good and secured his second gold medal. It’s just a race, slightly less than a mile. Decathletes, however, describe it as torture, not because the stakes are high, but because they have spent about 36 hours in athletic competition at the highest level, and things are starting to cramp and fall off.
So, as I say, there is more than enough drama in any decathlon to absorb the attention of the world. Ashton Eaton, who is both handsome and fashioned with the physiognomy of a real mortal, will smile at us from a box of Wheaties, and I will be happy to see him.
When it comes to heroes, I’m embarrassed to admit, my clock stopped in 1952. I was six, and Bob Mathias won the decathlon for the second time, at the age of 21. He had won the decathlon at the 1948 games in London, taking time off from high school to start training in ten events, eight of which he had never seen performed until his track coach suggested that he might want to give it a try. He said goodbye to his pals, gave up his job loading sacks of sulfur into crop dusting planes in Visalia, and at the age of 17, took a flight to London, where his lack of expertise in the shot put was so unfortunate that he nearly fouled out of the event; he had learned how to pole vault out of a manual. A quick study, Mathias plugged along, staying in contention until the discus toss, an event he knew very well. Rain pelted London on the second day of the decathlon, pushing the events so far into the early evening that cars had to be brought in so as to provide illumination for the javelin area. Rain continued, darkness was thick by the time the athletes set off on the 1500 meter race. Mathias finished not knowing how he had done, but by the next morning he was crowned the winner of the 1948 Olympic decathlon. Reporters asked Matthias what he intended to do to celebrate the victory. “I guess I’ll start shaving,” he said.
Pretty good story, but it doesn’t stop there.
My favorite chapter happens in the fall of 1948. Bob Mathias, decathlon champion, decides he wants to go to Stanford. He had attended Tulare High School, and his preparation had not been up to Stanford’s standards, so Mathias enrolled at Kiskimentas Springs Prep in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. Now known simply as Kiski, the school provided Mathias with a good academic foundation and allowed him to continue to participate in the sports he loved.
In a prominent place on my bookshelves is the Kiski yearbook for the year 1949. Bob gets the sort of senior write up any nice kid from California might earn in a goofy yearbook – good guy, played football, helped the track team.
Helped the track team? He’d just won the Sullivan Award as the best athlete in the country, beating out some pretty good college athletes. Among the runners-up were Norm van Brocklin of Oregon, Doak Walker of SMU, and Jackie Jensen who played both football and baseball at Cal.
I like to imagine what it felt like for the kid from Hill, or Peddie, or Mercersburg who lined up next to the Olympic gold medal winner on a frosty April day in central Pennsylvania. Once again, Mathias is mentioned among the members of the track team. “In the first meet of the year, Kiski was edged out by a good Central Catholic High School team, 60 -65. ..Mathias was first in high hurdles… took the shot put …won the discus …” I sense some real restraint by the Kiski coach; the winning vault in that meet was 10 feet, 6 inches, and Mathias had already cleared 12 feet.
It’s hard to remember that there had not been an Olympic Game since the Third Reich had welcomed Jesse Owens to Germany. As the first Olympic champion in more than a decade, Mathias stayed out of the limelight, quickly shedding the mantle of celebrity to slog through math and chemistry in Saltsburg, PA. Upon entering Stanford, he decided to concentrate on track and field, giving up football and basketball. Pigskin fever at Stanford was building, but Mathias held out for two years, directing his efforts toward setting the world record in the decathlon in 1950. In his last two years, Mathias played fullback, returning a 97 yard punt by Frank Gifford of USC and taking Stanford to the Rose Bowl in January of 1952.
Then, he was off to Helsinki, another set of Olympic Games, another gold, another world record. Once again returning as a global hero, Mathias quietly finished up at Stanford, turned down a bid from the Washington Redskins to play in the NFL, and served as a captain in the U.S. Marines before taking up a life as an actor, the director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and from 1967, serving four terms as a member of the House of Representatives, a congressman representing the San Joaquin Valley District in California.
The U.S. has produced remarkable athletes, including twelve gold medal winners of the decathlon, from Jim Thorpe to Ashton Eaton. My hope is that the Tokyo Olympic Games will allow us to see the struggle, event by event, as the greatest athletes in the world contend for the gold in 2020.