When Jim Thorpe was one of the world’s best baseball players, best football players, and best track and field athletes he was overseas, having just completed the second day of the 10-event decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
Thorpe was approached by King Gustav V of Sweden. The king gave the Sac/Fox Indian a gold medal for winning the decathlon at those Olympic games. And during the ceremony Gustav V said to the mighty Thorpe: “You, sir, are the world’s greatest athlete.”
Nobody argued with the king. Thorpe was the world’s greatest athlete by virtue of his winning the gold medal in the decathlon at those Olympic games held 100 years ago.
A man of limited means, Thorpe continued as a professional athlete until he was 41.
In the century that has followed Thorpe’s giving the United States an athlete the whole world could toast, America has won 11 gold medals in Olympic decathlons.
The decathlon has 10 events to test the body’s endurance and the athlete’s mind. Five events come on the first day and then five more the next day. And the second day has the 1500 meter run as its last tortuous test.
Athletes have their mettle tested in the 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400 meters. Back they come to be tried by the 110 hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin throw . . . and as a final try at wearing away the last bit of energy and will . . . there comes the demanding 1500 meter run.
Jim Thorpe, the man so famous a small town in central Pennsylvania was given his name, was such a stellar all-round athlete that he played major league baseball, professional football for the Canton Bulldogs before that team joined the NFL in 1920, and even barnstormed with a professional basketball team. Thorpe bettered the world in the decathlon in 1912. He was America’s first Olympic decathlon champion.
But he wasn’t the last.
For decades, training for the decathlon was a lonesome proposition. There were no national coaches. There was no money provided by the United States Olympic Committee. Decathletes lived a lonely existence. Even finding meets in the United States in which to compete was difficult.
In 1924, Harold Osborn and Emerson Norton finished first and second in the decathlon. Neither earned a penny for their work, training, and time spent on getting to be the world’s best.
James Bausch gave the USA a gold in the decathlon in 1932. As if to instruct German dictator Adolf Hitler that his Third Reich did not have the super race he touted, Americans Glenn Morris, Bob Clark, and Jack Parker finished 1-2-3 in the decathlon at the 1936 Games staged in front of the fuming Fuhrer in Berlin.
With much of the world fighting against Hitler and the Axis powers in World War II there were no Olympic Games staged in either 1940 or 1944.
When The Games convened again in 1948, an American teenager from California named Bob Mathias scored 7,139 points to win the decathlon at the London Games. American Floyd Simmons was third.
Mathias was a student at Stanford University when he repeated as the decathlon winner in 1952 at Helsinki, Finland. His 7,887 points were a world record. And New Jersey teenager Milt Campbell was second with American Floyd Simmons finishing third again.
Mathias went on to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Campbell was in his early 20s when he was the 1956 gold medal champion at the Melbourne Games. Teenager Rafer Johnson from California finished second to Campbell.
In 1960 in Rome it was Rafer Johnson so dominating the shot put and discus that he was able to outpoint UCLA teammate C. K. Yang (Taiwan) for the gold medal. Johnson totaled 8,392 points while Yang, who trailed by over 500 points in those two events to Johnson, finished with 8,334 points for the silver medal.
In Mexico City in 1968, it was America’s Bill Toomey giving the American television audience a full view of what it took to win a decathlon in the Olympics. The 1968 Games were held when sports had the country’s attention and the time zones in the U.S. were comparable with Mexico’s so events could be seen live.
It was eight years later when American Bruce Jenner was the decathlon winner at the 1976 Montreal Games. Again, live television was prominent because the U. S. time zones were the same as Canada’s.
Jenner was the last American to even medal until the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
In Spain, Dave Johnson gave the United States a bronze medal for his third-place finish.
Atlanta hosted the 1996 Games and American Dan O’Brien scored 8,824 points to give the U.S. its first decathlon gold medalist in 20 years and five barren Olympic Games.
In more recent times, Chris Huffins was third in the 2000 Games held in Sydney, Australia. In Athens, Greece in 2004, youngster Bryan Clay gave America a silver medal.
Clay returned to the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing. And he totaled 8,791 points to earn America’s first gold in 12 years.
Clay won’t be in London for this year’s Games that will open in late July in the English city’s East End. Already one of the few athletes in history to win two Olympic decathlon medals, he would have been the first man to ever own three medals should he have qualified for the United States team. And Clay would have been the favorite to repeat his past glories, so formidable has he remained.
At age 32, Clay had shown the resolve to do the constant training to maintain his supremacy in the event. The United States Olympic Committee now maintains a training center in Colorado Springs that can be used by possible Olympians to keep up with the rest of the world.
But in last week’s United States trials in Eugene, Oregon Clay fell in his heat of the high hurdles and that one misstep ruined his chances of even qualifying. His chance for a third medal were gone as he lifted himself from the track’s surface.
It was Huffins who most impressed Clay. While a high school sophomore in Hawaii, Huffins presided over a track and field clinic in the islands that was attended by the 16-year-old Clay. Huffins talked extensively with the youngster and indicated the possiblities the decathlon held. Later, Huffins arranged a meeting between Clay and Azusa Pacific University coach Kevin Reid. Clay went to Azusa Pacific. And Reid is still Clay’s coach here in 2012.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Clay scored best in the long jump, discus, 110 hurdles, and 100 meters.
Jim Thorpe caught the attention of the King of Sweden in 1912.
Bryan Clay would have caught the attention of historians across the world if he had medaled this summer in London. And if he had repeated his 2008 gold medal-winning performance, he would have been without doubt the modern day “world’s greatest athlete”.
Instead of Clay being cast as the event’s most-talked about athlete, America will have Ashton Eaton as its best hope for gold in the decathlon.
In Eugene, Eaton set a world record with 9,039 points. He ran a personal best 4:14.48 in the closing 1500 meter grind to beat the old record by 13 points. He defeated the defending world champion, Trey Hardee, by 656 points. Hardee will also be going to London’s East End for the late-July Olympics.
Eaton was so dominate last week that he set world-best decathlon records in his first two events — the 100 meters (10.21) and the long jump (27-feet). The last event of the first day — the 400 meter sprint — saw Eaton running in a pelting rainstorm . . . and he still finished his day’s work with a time of 46.70.
America has been a major player in the decathlon ever since Jim Thorpe ran, threw, jumped, and vaulted past the world’s best in 1912. Now the United States has the current world-record holder in Ashton Eaton going to London town to grind out the 10 events in two days.