In a dazzling display of his all-around athleticism, American Ashton Eaton ran faster, jumped higher and threw farther than his decathlon rivals to become one of the few men in Olympic history to repeat as winner of the 10-event competition.
Eaton, 28, has dominated the challenging event throughout the decade, and led almost start to finish in the two-day competition on Wednesday and Thursday.
Still, going into the 1,500 meters, the final event, Eaton had a slim 44-point lead over Kevin Mayer of France. That meant that Eaton didn’t have to beat Warner, but he did have to stay within about seven seconds of him.
Eaton ran just behind Mayer for the first three laps, then sprinted past him on the final lap to finish in a time of 4:23:33.
“If I have to run to put myself in the hospital, if I have to run that hard, that’s how hard I’ll have to run,” Eaton told NBC afterward.
Eaton tied the Olympic record of 8,893 points and defended the title he won in London. Unlike many winners who exuberantly launch into a victory lap, Eaton was bent over and grimacing, as were most of the other decathletes after two long days.
He then slowly walked to the stands, where he was greeted with a hug from his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, a Canadian won the bronze in the women’s heptathlon last Saturday.
“To share this moment as Olympians, as Olympic medalists, with her is awesome,” Eaton said.
They met in Eugene, Ore., a decade ago when they were both track stars at the University of Oregon, and they still live in the city, where they share the same coach, Harry Marra.
Eaton took the lead on Wednesday in the second event, the long jump, with a leap of just over 26 feet, and he never trailed after that. In the fifth and final event on Wednesday, he ran the 400 meters in a very strong time of 46.07.
Decathletes get points based on their time or mark in each event. Eaton’s score after the first day was 4,621. That’s a huge number, though a bit less than the 4,703 he had after day one when he broke his own world record a year ago.
On Thursday, Eaton produced a solid performances throughout the day, though he was a bit off his best times and marks. Warner, meanwhile, kept producing personal bests to keep the competition close.
Eaton already belonged to the pantheon of great American decathletes, which began when Jim Thorpe won the first time it was held at the Olympics, in 1912 in Stockholm. Sweden’s King Gustav V then told Thorpe, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
That unofficial title has stuck, and the U.S. has now won 14 gold medals in the event, far more than any other country. The list includes Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, Dan O’Brien and Bryan Clay.
Mathias is the only other American to repeat as a gold medalist, winning in 1948 and 1952, and Britain’s Daley Thompson is the only other two-time winner, taking gold in 1980 and 1984.
Eaton, who has broken the world record twice, in addition to his two Olympic golds, is considered by many to be the best ever.
Eaton even looked like a superhero with a strange blue hat he donned between event during the long hours at the track. However, it was a special cooling cap designed by Nike to help reduce an athlete’s body heat.
“Why does it feel good, after running, to pour a bottle of water over your head? I don’t know the physiological answer, but the fact that it does feel better makes me perform better,” Eaton said last year.
The decathlon only receives broad attention once every four years at the Olympics, and even then, the spotlight is fleeting. As a result, Eaton is relatively little known outside track circles.
And picking the world’s greatest athlete is an open debate, but it would be hard to find a better athlete anywhere in the world who is less well known in his homeland than Eaton is in America.
Perhaps his second decathlon gold will change that.