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Once upon a time, no greater authority than King Gustav of Sweden proclaimed Jim Thorpe “the world’s greatest athlete” after the Native American superjock won the decathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. In the middle of the 20th century, decathletes such as Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson became superstars after winning the gold medal. And who could forget—although, given his recent reality-show foray, we might wish to—Bruce Jenner pounding down the home stretch in Montreal in all of his red-white-and-blue glory?
But in the last few decades, the decathlon has lost its spot as the Olympics’ glamour sport. It’s now in the middle of the pack, somewhere between synchronized diving and the women’s air rifle. Quick, can you name the American who won silver in Athens and is favored to win gold in Beijing? Thought not. His name is Bryan Clay, and despite his presence in a Morgan Freeman-narrated Visa ad, he’s pretty far down the list of athletes NBC wants you to care about, behind several beach volleyball players and about 800 gymnasts.
What explains the decathlon’s precipitous fall? Along with every event in track and field, there’s a one-word reason for the decline in popularity: drugs. Clay, like most track stars—and pretty much any athletic overachiever, for that matter—is tainted by the cheating of others, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones. (To wit: Slate’s Jacob Leibenluft reports from Beijing that mere seconds after Usain Bolt’s latest record-setting track performance, fans at the Bird’s Nest were openly speculating about whether he’s a product of doping.) Frank Zarnowski, a decathlon historian and blogger, told me that everyone in the sport believes Clay is clean as a whistle, and he offers himself up for aggressive testing. Nevertheless, track and field is, like the Tour de France, forever sullied, carrying a “yes, but” after every world record and gold medal.
But what about the decathlon specifically? Certainly, the specter of 1992 looms over the event. That year, Reebok’s Don Drapers decided to spotlight a pair of American decathletes, Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson, building up their rivalry with a series of ads that promised the pair would “battle it out in Barcelona for the title of world’s greatest athlete.” Unfortunately, the ads started running before the U.S. Olympic Trials, where O’Brien blew the pole vault and didn’t make the team. The ads instantly became a national joke, giving a legion of bad stand-ups the opportunity to yelp, “Who are the ad wizards who came up with that one?” O’Brien rebounded to win the gold in Atlanta, but the damage had been done—he’d be forever known as the guy who screwed it up in 1992.
Back in Bruce Jenner’s day, Olympic stardom came more organically. The 1976 decathlon champ appeared on the front of a Wheaties box a year after he won gold, not as part of a marketing campaign in the run-up to the games. These days, stars are made before the Olympics even begin. In the 16 years since O’Brien’s flameout, sponsors have backed away from a sport with so much opportunity for failure. A gymnast can miss out on gold if she falls off the beam. A decathlete can lose if he makes one tiny error in any of 10 different events.
Another reason for the sport’s declining Q rating, according to Frank Zarnowski, is that fans like to see world records get smashed. On account of the size of the field and the event’s grueling schedule, breaking the decathlon world record is virtually impossible at the Olympics. With approximately 40 entrants, the two days of decathlon competition are a grueling 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. slog, with the occasional burst of activity. The Olympic champion is the athlete who best manages the endless waiting for his next jump, throw, or run—in other words, the world’s greatest athlete needs to have the world’s greatest iPod playlist.
Compare that with the conditions under which Roman Šebrle of the Czech Republic set the current world record in 2001. At a meet featuring only a dozen entrants, Šebrle was asked by the meet director how long he needed before he was ready for the next event. Šebrle replied, “90 minutes,” and it was granted. Needless to say, the Olympic decathletes won’t be competing under such boutique circumstances. (One oft-cited reason for the sport’s decline is the spectacularly confusing scoring system. That rationale is completely bogus. For one thing, the point system was just as arcane when the sport was at its zenith. For another, gymnastics just introduced an impossible-to-follow scoring methodology, and that hasn’t seemed to hurt Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin’s popularity.)
Bryan Clay in particular has another huge problem. His worst event is the 1,500 meters, the decathlon’s 10th and final discipline and the one performance guaranteed to be shown in its entirety by NBC. Viewers who tune in to get a look at this incredible all-around athlete will see him loping through the four laps like a weekend jogger. Mind you, this will still be good enough to bring home the gold, should Clay be leading after nine events. But it will hardly be an inspirational sight, a la Jenner, who ran across the finish line and into the warm embrace of an American flag.
If Clay does break through, it will likely be thanks to the futility of his teammates. One of the keys to Jenner’s popularity was the fact that the U.S. team had a poor meet, until Bruce came along with a sterling performance that earned him a career as the star of cheesy commercials. Just as in Montreal, the U.S. track team is so far “getting its ass handed to it,” as Zarnowski delicately puts it. If this keeps up, perhaps Clay will get some honors by default—and a larger commercial presence than a single, lightly rotated Visa ad. Sure, that’s a backhanded way to gain recognition as the world’s greatest athlete, but at this point the decathlon will take anything it can get.