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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

The Decathlon

Is it just me or is it really kind of ridiculous that almost a third of the events that go into determining "the World's Greatest Athlete" fall into the category of "throwing weird objects as far as you can"?

Not too long ago I was listening to a radio interview with Olympic decathlon winner Dan O'Brien, an astonishing athlete by anyone's measure, and it was mentioned that the decathlon is supposed to be the event that determines the world's best all-round athlete. This notion is just silly. Fully three of the ten events, the shot put, the discus and the javelin throw, involve taking a strange object and throwing it. Now I'm just as likely as the next guy to admit the importance of being able to throw weird objects (I find myself sorely tempted every time my computer crashes) and throwing is certainly a fundamental athletic skill. But 30% of the decathlon? Get real.

Let's look at the modern Olympic Decathlon. The ten events are: The shot put, discus throw, the Javelin throw, the high jump, the long jump, the pole vault, the 100m run, the 1500m run, the 400m run and the 110 m hurdles. If we really want to determine the World's Greatest Athlete, this is going to need some changes in order to remain relevant in the 21st century, and I'm just the guy to lead the way.

Let's start by trimming the "throwing weird objects" events down to one. And let's make it an object more relevant to modern society. How about a failed hard disk drive...or a color television. As long as we can pick one standard hard drive or TV for everyone to throw so it's fair.

The high jump and long jump are pretty basic so those can stay unaltered.

The pole vault is simply magnificent in its absurdity: Using a fiberglass pole as a giant leaf spring to catapult oneself eighteen feet into the air. Devoid of the connections to real life inherent in the basic running/jumping/throwing sports, it's such a bizarre event that it should be included for that reason alone. Oh, I'm sure someone will try to tell me how it originated with a technique for getting over castle walls in the heat of battle in the middle ages and it's included in the Olympics because of this great warrior tradition or some such. Nonsense. One day long ago some guy did it...and someone else saw him and said "Wow, that's cool!" This second guy was right. It is cool. And that's enough.

The 100 meters is so fast, brutal and simple that it has to stay. That the world record holder in this event is called "the World's Fastest Human" is reason enough.

The 1500 meter run. Does anyone in the world care about this event? Even in this metric system age you have to wonder who decided that three and three quarters of a lap of the track made for a nice, round figure. (No one's ever tried to metric-ify the marathon, for cryin' out loud.) Since we're going to be odd let's just say four laps plus nine-point-something meters and make it a mile and be done with it. It's the classic middle distance running event.

The 400 meters is the orphan child in the decathlon's running events, which brings up a more fundamental problem: The most profound inadequacy of the selection of events in the modern decathlon is not so much what kind of events are and are not included in the competition, but how long they last. In short (pun intended), the "World's Greatest Athlete" doesn't have to have the endurance to compete in any event that takes over about 5 minutes!

5 minutes is enough time for the longest event in the decathlon, the 1500 meter run, isn't it? That's pitiful. Endurance is such a fundamental notion in sports that completely ignoring it in a competition to determine the "World's Greatest Athlete" is simply preposterous. If we divide athletic ability into four basic classifications -- speed, strength, agility and endurance -- the decathlete is allowed to skip over one quarter of these. Now the last time I went to school, 75% might not have been a failing grade, but it sure didn't get you on the honor roll.

But wait, there's more...The World's Greatest Athlete can't swim either. This might naturally make you think I'm leaning towards the triathlon as a more accurate gauge of who's the World's Greatest Athlete, but that's not the case. The triathlon suffers from the opposite problem of the decathlon: It focuses on endurance to the exclusion of strength and speed. The so-called "sprint" triathlon consists of a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike and 5k run, the last of which is considered an endurance event all by itself. Still, swimming is a pretty basic athletic concept and bicycling almost as much so.

So let's make sure The World's Greatest Athlete has a bit of endurance by replacing the 400 meter run with a 10,000 (and let's make it cross country so we don't have just another "running around in circles on a track" event) and let's throw in a swim and bike event to make sure he's got some versatility.

The 110m hurdles are a pretty good combination test of running, jumping and general coordination, but, besides falling too far towards the sprint end of the spectrum, they're not quite demanding enough for someone who holds the title of "World's Greatest Athlete", in my opinion. Let's substitute the 3000 meter steeplechase, which has some serious barriers to jump over and a water pit to soak you if you don't jump quite far enough.

So here's my proposed decathlon to really determine who's the World's Greatest Athlete:

Of course, this is sure to ruffle some feathers among the traditionalists, not the least of whom will be those who now excel under the current decathlon event structure. In fact, I might make some real enemies among that crowd. Knowing them they'll start throwing weird objects at me.

Copyright © 1999 Mark Roberts

The next time you participate in all ten events of the (official) decathlon, you can calculate your overall score with the convenient on-line program at

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