Joe Battaglia, NBC Olympics
LONDON –– The question was straightforward. The pause before answering spoke volumes.
Ashton Eaton was asked simply if he thought he could top the 9000-point plateau again just weeks after setting the world record of 9039 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene.
After some considerable thought, Eaton replied, “I don’t know. It’s an elevated competition where we’re all going to rise to the occasion, but I don’t know if 9000 is possible again here.”
That Eaton is tempering expectations here ahead of the start of the Olympics isn’t quite the same as the muted tones he used in the days leading up to the Olympic Trials in June when everyone and their mother sensed that he was on the verge of something extraordinary.
And boy did he capitalize on the perfect storm of being the local kid competing on his home track in front of all the American decathlon dignitaries in the biggest competition of his young career. Eaton couldn’t have gotten a greater charge had he borrowed jumper cables from Bruce Jenner and hooked himself up to the battery of Kim Kardashian’s Rolls Royce.
But this is his first Olympics, and Eaton knows that that is a different beast to slay entirely.
“It’s unrealistic to think that I am going to get another world record, especially at the Olympic Games,” Eaton acknowledged. “There are a lot of things that happen mentally and physically that I don’t even know about yet. I’m just not going to go for a world record. I don’t expect it.”
History would indicate that Eaton’s approach is the right one.
Of the last five world records set in the decathlon, three have preceded another decathlon for the record setter. Each has seen a substantial drop in their scores the second time around.
In 2001, Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic set the previous world record of 9026 at the Hypo Meeting in Gotzis on May 27. At the World Championships in Edmonton on Aug. 7, he finished 10th with 8174 points.
In 1999, Tomas Dvorak of the Czech Republic set the world record of 8994 at the European Cup in Prague on July 4. At the World Championships in Seville on Aug. 25, his winning score dipped to 8744.
In 1984, Jurgen Hingsen of Germany set the world record of 8832 in Mannheim on June 9. He then scored 8673 in a runner-up finish at the Los Angeles Olympics exactly two months later. Brit Daley Thompson repeated as Olympic champion with a world-record score of 8797 in his only dec of that year.
Eaton said that the biggest hindrance he expects is the actual size of the field, which tends to drag out the length of the field events and makes for longer competition days than decathletes become accustomed to at invitational or national competitions.
“Typically there are 12-hour days and then you are getting up at 5:30 and competing the next day for another 12 hours,” he said. “Those really aren’t conducive to top performances.”
Then there is the foreign factor to consider with Eaton. Of the 10 best decathlon performances of his life, six have come at Hayward Field and only one, his runner-up finish with 8505 points at the World Championships last summer, has come outside the United States.
“There is something special about me competing in Eugene in front of the crowd that knows me really well,” he acknowledged. “All of my best performances have come from there. I have only had one other opportunity to prove myself outside of Eugene. That was in Daegu and that didn’t go well. Mentally, I kind of broke myself down because I was looking for the 10.2 100m and the 26-foot long jump. Once those didn’t happen, I got down on myself and thought for sure that any medal was out of reach.”
Eaton said he has learned a lot since then and enters the Games positive about his gold-medal chances. After the Trials, he set up a training base in Germany and, in a final pre-Olympic test at the Thorpe Cup in Marburg on July 21, he produced personal-bests in the javelin (61.68m/202-4) and shot put (14.78m/48-6), and a season-best in the discus (46.54m/152-8).
“It’s never going to be perfect in the decathlon,” he said. “That is the eternal struggle with the multi-events. You’re striving to get 10 perfect events and it never happens, but, of course, you work toward doing that. My throws are going well, which is where I obviously get the least amount of my points. I think I will be ready. I like to consider myself a championship performer.
“I guess we’ll see.”
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.