Jim Thorpe during the 1912 Olympic Decathlon competition (Getty Images) © Copyright
"The greatest athlete in the world"
Twenty thousand spectators in the stadium witnessed a historic competition, not because the new event was held for the first time at the Olympic Games, but moreover the presence of the Sac and Fox Indian, Jim Thorpe. His supremacy in the new event was so overwhelming that at the end of the competition the gap with the second best athlete, Hugo Wieslander from Sweden was almost 700 points. The total score of 8412.955 points (6564 with the 1985 scoring table) would not be surpassed for 14 years.
The final events of the Decathlon were held on the last day of the fifth Olympiad in the presence of the Swedish King Gustav V. When Thorpe appeared later that day in front of the monarch to receive the awards for his victories in the Decathlon and the Pentathlon the King spoke the historic words to Jim Thorpe: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."
Months later a local newspaper published a story that Thorpe had played professional baseball during the years 1909 and 1910 and that he was paid amounts up to US$ 35 a week for this. Due to the strict amateurism rules at that time he was declared a professional and stripped from his Olympic titles. During the 70-ties a campaign started to restore Jim Thorpe, but IOC President and former teammate, Avery Brundage, refused to accept these attempts. It was only in 1982, 29 years after his death, that the new IOC President, Lord Killanin reinstated Thorpe and declared him as co-champion of the 1912 Olympic Pentathlon and Decathlon titles.
A pointed debate
One of the most difficult questions for the sub-committee for Athletics at the Stockholm Games was to decide on the determination of the principle for calculating points in the Decathlon. From the beginning it was fully understood that each competitor would be given points for the results gained, irrespective of the place figures, but its was exceedingly difficult to fix a norm for the proper evaluation of the results reached. It was thought to award 1000 points for the World record, but at that time no International Federation existed that registered World records, and no one knew whether the best performances were achieved under the same and legal conditions. Only one month prior to the start of the Games the committee decided to award the actual Olympic records with 1000 points.
During the following years many discussions on the correctness and fairness of the scoring tables arose. Changes in rules, different techniques or the use of different materials changed performances significantly. Also discussions whether scoring tables should be progressive or regressive lead to the introduction from new scoring tables again and again. Till today six different scoring tables have been in use, of which the 1985 scoring tables are the most recent ones.
Despite the huge success of the 1912 Olympic Decathlon competition the event was hardly practiced further outside Scandinavia. The Americans preferred their own all-around, and it was therefore not strange that at the next Olympics, eight years later the Norwegian soldier Helge Lövland became the winner. The 30 years old athlete was the oldest ever to win an Olympic decathlon crown, but his Decathlon score was far below the total of Jim Thorpe eight years before.
Formal World record list
On the 17 July 1912, just after the conclusion of the 1912 Olympic Games representatives of 17 countries met to establish a world wide governing body for Athletics, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) was born. One of the first decisions of the new body was to set up a committee of six persons to decide a formal World record list.
Although the first Decathlon with the actual events was held in October 1911 the first World record in Decathlon was only confirmed by IAAF in 1922 when Estonian, Alexandr Klumberg totaled 7485.610 points with the 1912B scoring tables. This total was still far below the scoring of Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics. It was only in 1926 when Finnish athlete, Paavo Yrjölä surpassed the total of Thorpe in 1912.
Osborn uniquely wins Olympic individual and Decathlon titles
During the years before World War II the decathletes had little opportunities to compete in international meetings. Mostly this was limited to the Decathlon at the Olympic Games and as a result of that often specialists in individual events tried the 10-eventer only on few occasions. In 1924 at the Paris Olympics the Decathlon was won by USA-athlete Harald Osborn. The World record holder and Olympic champion in High Jump is the only Decathlon champion in Olympic history to have won also an individual title. It was also at these Games that for the first time all six continents were represented in the Decathlon competition.
Harald Osborn retired from Decathlon competitions in 1926 and was succeeded as World record holder in this event by Finnish athletes Paavo Yrjölä and Akilles Järvinen, who dominated the event during the next six years. Finland not only dominated the athletic world at that time in long distance running events and Javelin, but also in the Decathlon. Nevertheless the Finns were beaten at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, where USA-athlete, James Bausch surprisingly took the Olympic gold medal with a new World record performance. The Decathlon career of Bausch lasted only 16 months, but this was even longer than his successor Glenn Morris. The latter competed only in three Decathlons within four months. This included the Olympic title in Berlin, where he also bettered the World record in this event.
In London in 1948 the world saw a new Decathlon hero at the start. Seventeen year old Bob Matthias surprised the world. For the inexperienced school boy it was only the third 10-eventer in which he competed. Under horrible weather conditions he competed the last three events in darkness. Cars were driven into the Wembley Stadium to illuminate the Pole Vault and Javelin runways with their headlights, but Matthias went on and by the time he dragged his body over the finish line of the 1500m he had become the youngest men’s track and field winner in the history of the modern Games.
Four years later Matthias returned to the Olympic rostrum, but now as an experienced athlete. In Helsinki the weather conditions were much better than four years earlier. Matthias this time was superior to all his fellow competitors. At the end of the second day he had broken the World record and his margin over the silver medallist, Milt Campbell, was more than 900 points. He was the first decathlete who successfully defended an Olympic Decathlon title. At age 21 he retired from Decathlon undefeated in all 11 competitions he participated.
Chuan-Kwang Yang – World Indoor Pole Vault record
During the fifties a new generation of decathletes arose with USA-athlete Rafer Johnson and Chuan-Kwang Yang from Taiwan on top. As there were still few Decathlon competitions on the calendar, both athletes were also specialists in individual events. When the Olympic movement in 1956 went for the first time to the Southern Hemisphere Rafer Johnson had been qualified for Long Jump and the Decathlon. An injury withheld him from starting in the Long Jump, but despite his handicap he managed to take the second place in the Melbourne Decathlon behind compatriot Milt Campbell. Later it would turn out to be his last defeat in the event.
Yang started his Decathlon career isolated from the mainstream of competitions, but despite this he came in eighth at the Melbourne Olympics. These Games were a turning point in his career where he met Rafer Johnson and his coach Ducky Drake. The latter one pursued Yang to come and train in the United States alongside Johnson at UCLA. There he made rapid progress and by 1960 he was a serious challenger to training-partner Johnson. In 1963 Yang broke the World indoor record in Pole Vault (4.96m). His mastery of the controversial fiberglass pole earned him such an overrated scoring in the event that he broke the existing World record in 1963 already after nine events. He became the first man to exceed 9000 points on any table (9121 points). Yang was also the first athlete who scored above 8000 points on the 1985 scoring table.
Cold War rivalry leads to 'complete’ decathletes
Although the cold war reached its climax during the sixties more international combined events meetings entered the calendar. Famous were the meetings between USA-USSR, GDR-USSR and meetings of these countries against Poland and Federal Republic of Germany. These meetings were not only a struggle between the world top decathletes, but they were also influenced by the battles between the free West and the communist East. Later these country meetings in Europe were replaced by the European Cup Combined Events and from the mid seventies invitation meetings like in Götzis and Talence entered the calendar.
The Decathlon was not any more the territory of a specialist in one or two events, but complete Decathlon athletes entered the stadium. Kurt Bendlin (FRG), Bill Toomey (USA), Nikolay Avilov (URS) and Bruce Jenner (USA) all broke the existing World record and the three last ones all captured an Olympic Decathlon title in these days. Yet, the political boycott of the Moscow Games had a negative impact on the USA-decathletes. For them the Olympic Games was one of the few opportunities to perform in the international limelight. Many of them retired after the 1980 Olympics. For the Americans it took 20 years to recover before Dan O’Brien - who will be inducted to the IAAF Hall of Fame this year - took the Decathlon gold for USA in 1996.
Thompson’s aura of invincibility
Yet, the winner of the Games in Moscow was one of the greater decathletes in the 100 years history of the event. Briton Daley Thompson had broken the World record in Decathlon two months prior to the start of the Games in the Austrian village of Götzis, nowadays known as the Mecca of combined events. Although the Americans and West Germans were not at the start here he had proven already that he could beat them all. During his career he won two Olympic titles, one World championships gold medal, two European and three Commonwealth Games titles. Between 1978 and 1987 he was unbeaten in the Decathlon. During those years he built an aura of invincibility. Famous were the battles with German Jürgen Hingsen. Although the German bettered the World record three times during these years he could never beat the Briton in a direct confrontation.
It was the era that the Decathlon got the interest of a big audience. The names and faces of the decathletes became familiar to anyone watching in the stadiums and on television. Also business got interested in the event. Reebok started a US$ 30 million commercial project towards the 1992 Games in Barcelona featuring Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson, but this project was ruined when O’Brien missed the opening height in Pole Vault during the Olympic trials in New Orleans.
With three World and the 1996 Olympic golds in his trophy cabinet on retirement O’Brien was to make up for that unfortunate blip.
Czechs and now Eaton
Meanwhile athletes from the Czech Republic entered the top of the Decathlon lists. It started with Robert Zmelik, who surprisingly took the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Just before the turn of the century Tomas Dvorak broke the World record that O’Brien had owned since 1992. The three times World champion narrowly missed the 9000 points mark in his home town Prague. But two years later his compatriot, Roman Sebrle wrote history when he became the first athlete to score above that mark (9026 points) in Götzis, an achievement which as only surpassed this summer by Ashton Eaton’s 9039 total.** The decathlon career of Sebrle has already lasted 21 years in which he has won all major international titles at least once.
On 20 July 2012 a Gala evening will be conducted in the German city of Marburg to celebrate the centennial of the Decathlon. All Olympic medal winners still alive in this event are invited by the organizers to attend this Gala. During the weekend the combined events Thorpe-cup meeting between Germany and USA will be conducted in this city.
Hans van Kuijen for the IAAF
**World record subject to usual ratification procedures