The changing of the guard: 2004 Olympic decathlon champion Roman Sebrle salutes the new champion, Bryan Clay (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Beijing, China

Clay hopes example will help others turn their backs on ‘all that kind of stuff’

Somewhere back in the United States, perhaps in California, perhaps even in Glendora, where Bryan Clay lives, a young boy on the wrong side of the tracks was watching. And perhaps the world’s greatest all-round athlete has made him think.

Clay returned the Olympic Decathlon title into American possession here in the National Stadium last night for the first time since Dan O’Brien’s 1996 victory in Atlanta. And he did so with the biggest margin of victory since 1972 despite running the last event, the 1500m, at a leisurely 5:06.59

The Decathlon has produced more Olympic gold medallists for the United States than the number of disciplines that go to make it up and Clay was asked how it felt to join a roll of honour that includes such legends as Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias and Bruce Jenner.

Clay took a while to get to his point about hoping to inspire a future decathlete but he got there in the end. But, as it has been a marathon journey to the top of the Olympic podium for the 28-year-old Clay, he was entitled to take his time. 

“This has been an amazing journey, something we (he and his team) have been working hard on for the last eight years,” Clay said. “We have been saying all along that 2008 was going to be the Olympics where we were going to make it happen. We were lucky enough to win a silver medal in Athens (2004 Olympics) but we still said 2008 would be the Olympics to make it happen.

“The thought of some little kid saying: ‘I want to be a decathlete like Bryan Clay’ blows my mind. It’s probably one of the most amazing things in the world.” Or at least so it seemed to Clay in his euphoria last night.

Back on the right side of the tracks

Clay holds himself up as an example of how a young miscreant can turn his life around through athletics.

With his gold medal around his neck, Clay explained: “I grew up in Hawaii and got into a lot of trouble at school. It was nothing really, really bad but nothing good either. I just made bad decisions - graffiti, fighting and all that kind of stuff. But I was able to get into a college – Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles – and I had some coaches and faculty staff there who really helped to turn me around.

“My mum and dad were a huge part of my life, making sure that they were always on top of me. I think my mum probably prays more than any woman on the planet and she prayed for me to make sure I did what I was supposed to do and that I would sit here (at a medallists’ Press Conference) and do this kind of stuff.

“I got my start because I did a lot of events in high school and from there, once I was at Azusa Pacific University, where I started doing Decathlon, things took off. I enjoyed doing it. It was something I figured I could be good at and so I kept doing it. And the more I did it the more I fell in love with the events and the better I got.”

Thus an Olympic champion was born. And, between then and now, Clay’s fortunes have been mixed. He failed to finish at the 2001, 2003 and 2007 World Championships but won Olympic silver in 2004 and gold at the 2005 World Championships and 2008 World Indoor Championships (Heptathlon).

The goal is to win. The scores take care of themselves

The son of a Japanese mother and American father, Clay had a strong family presence in the Olympic Stadium to witness his triumph. It included his mother, father, brother, wife, grandparents, father-in-law, two uncles and two aunts, two cousins and “numerous people from Hawaii in the crowd.”

Clay claims “the biggest posse in track and field – my three coaches and my manager “ - but the biggest score in a Decathlon will have to wait. The World record of 9026, set by the Czech Republic’s Roman Sebrle, remains intact for now but Clay believes it is within his range.

After scoring 8791 here, he admitted that he had considered the possibility of a World record over the two days.

“Of course I thought about the World record,” said Clay, whose personal best stands at 8832. “It is something that is always at the back of my head but it’s a very tough World record. When Roman set the World record he was almost perfect in every event and it is very rare that a decathlete will have 10 perfect events. I think the day that I do have 10 perfect events I will break the World record.”

“There are a few meets where the setting is a little more Decathlon friendly. When you come to the Olympics, you really aren’t thinking about records because it’s a very tough schedule with the long breaks – we only got four hours or so of sleep last night.”

 “One is the Gotzis (Austria) meet, which is perfect for a decathlete. Usually it has very good conditions and a very good fan base so that’s the type of meet that I might be able to break the World record. It’s the place where Roman set the (existing) World record.

“But the goal at the Olympic Games – and I remember Roman saying this when he won the gold medal in Athens – is to win. The scores take care of themselves.

“You have to come out to the Olympics ready to compete, ready to deal with whatever Mother Nature has to throw at you and whatever the best athletes from other countries have to throw at you. You’ve got to come out on top from all of that and I think that’s what we did.”

David Powell for the IAAF