U.S. decathlete Ashton Eaton has only competed in two decathlons this year, and both were performances that will resonate forever.
Eaton’s first decathlon of the season was at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., where he scored a world-record total of 9,039 points. His second decathlon, which concluded Thursday at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, scored only 8,869 points, but enabled him to achieve his most important goal, winning Olympic gold.
Eaton’s lower point total was a result of playing it safe late in the competition, as he preserved a comfortable lead, which at the end of the day was 198 points over U.S. teammate Trey Hardee, by focusing only on what he needed to do to win, rather than trying to improve upon his record and potentially risking injury or fatigue.
Even in playing it safe, Eaton just showed how incredible of an athlete he is, putting up the eighth-best decathlon score in history while distancing himself from even his nearest competitor among the world’s best decathletes. Each event played an integral and important role in how he earned gold.
Eaton’s decathlon got off to a tremendous start, running the 100 in 10.35 seconds, the fastest-ever 100 time in an Olympic decathlon.
Eaton’s time earned him 1,011 points, making him the only decathlete in the field to earn more than 1,000 points in the event.
His time was, however, .14 seconds slower than his trials time, earning him 33 less points than he started out with in Eugene. Nonetheless, he got off to a great start toward winning gold by running the event faster than anyone else in the field.
Eaton finished first again in his second event with a mark of 26 feet, 4 1/2 inches in the long jump. Once again, by earning 1,068 points, Eaton was the only decathlete in the field to surpass the 1,000-point mark, giving him a commanding lead through two events.
Long jump may be Eaton’s best event. His best jump would have actually been far enough for a seventh-place finish in the individual long jump.
It is very rare for a decathlete’s performance in any single event to be strong enough to contend in that open event, and Eaton’s Olympic jump was actually far from his best. He had a superb 27-foot jump at the U.S. trials that would have earned him silver in this year’s Olympic final, so even with a very strong mark at the Games, he earned 52 less points in the event.
While Eaton is fantastic in the running and jumping events, the three throwing events are his weakest. He improved upon his trials performance, however, in the shot put, with a best throw of 48 feet, 1 1/4 inches, a 1 1/2-foot improvement from his best in Eugene.
Shot put may be a weaker event for Eaton, but his 769-point performance in the event was more than enough to keep him in position for a gold medal. He made a 28-point improvement from trials, which kept him just 55 points off his world-record pace through the first three events.
Eaton matched his trials performance exactly in the high jump, as both times his best clearance was 6 feet, 8 3/4 inches, a performance which earned him a solid 850 points.
Eaton cleared every height on his first attempt through 6’8 3/4”, but missed on three consecutive attempts at 6’9 7/8”. Considering Eaton also went out at that height in trials, it is clear that his current ceiling does not go past 6’9’’, but as the 24-year-old continues to improve, expect him to work his way up to greater heights.
Eaton finished first in his third event of the decathlon’s first day by completing the 400 in 46.90 seconds. However, although Eaton’s time was very fast for a decathlete, it was the first sign that Eaton may play it safe rather than pursue a new world record.
Eaton appeared to take the first 300 meters of the race easy, then exploded down the final 100-meter straightaway to finish with what was still a very fast time. It appeared, however, that Eaton had saved too much for the end, and as a result, he was .20 seconds slower than his trials time, which earned him 10 points less this time around.
Eaton may have simply kicked too late, but in retrospect, this race looked strategic, as he saved his energy for a final sprint so that he would still run the fastest time, but felt no need to push any further than he did.
The 110 hurdles of the Olympic decathlon was a rare occasion of Eaton being at his best, but actually being beat by another competitor. Eaton ran a very fast time of 13.56 seconds, a .14-second improvement from trials, but was beaten to the line by Hardee by .02 seconds.
Eaton may not have crossed the finish line first, but he had every reason to be perfectly content with his performance. He still earned 1,032 points, an 18-point improvement over trials, and came out of the sixth event still holding a 217-point lead over Hardee.
Discus was, without a doubt, the weakest performance of Eaton’s Olympic decathlon. He only had the 22nd-best throw out of 27 decathletes who threw, managing a best throw of only 139 feet, 6 3/8 inches.
Eaton’s performance was only a 10 5/8-inch decrease from his best throw at trials, and earned him only six less points, while still enabling him to hold a 99-point lead over Hardee. That said, if there is an event Eaton needs to work on most, discus has proven to be that event.
Eaton cleared 17 feet, 3/4 inch on his first attempt at the height, and it appeared likely that he would continue working his way up at least to his trials height of 17 feet, 4 1/2 inches, the height he would have attempted next. Instead, he made a surprising but smart decision to stop vaulting in order to keep himself rested for his final two events.
By deciding to discontinue vaulting at 17’3/4”, a 32-point decrease from the next height, Eaton firmly made his decision not to pursue a new world record. Knowing that Olympic gold was most important, he made a smart decision to stop, avoiding the risk for injury and keeping himself further rested, knowing that 17’3/4” was more than enough for him to win gold.
Eaton now entered a stage of maintaining his comfortable lead, which extended to 222 points over Hardee after the pole vault.
Eaton may not have needed to improve upon his javelin throw to win gold, but he did anyways. For the first time in his career, Eaton threw for more than 200 feet, with a best throw of 203 feet, 3 3/8 inches, which earned him 767 points.
Eaton’s improvement was very significant from trials, as he threw a full 10 feet, 2 3/8 inches farther, and earned 46 more points.
While Eaton was not to contend for a world record in these Games, his javelin improvement certainly increases his future score possibilities, and helped him keep a comfortable lead of 151 points. Throws are still Eaton’s weakness in comparison to his other events, but he is certainly taking big strides with javelin.
Coming off of his strong javelin throw, Roman Sebrle’s Olympic record of 8,893 points was well within Eaton’s reach, but rather than putting everything on the line for the decathlon’s final event, he made the 1,500 a four-lap glory run. Eaton eased his way through the 1,500 in 4 minutes, 33.59 seconds.
At the trials, where Eaton ran a time of 4:14.48, he ran a very fast final 400-meter split of 62 seconds (according to The Oregonian), which allowed him to finish in a time fast enough to break the world record. On Thursday, Eaton attempted no such acceleration, pacing himself through an even race just to safely secure his spot atop the Olympic podium.
The biggest takeaway from Eaton’s gold-medal performance is that because he is so far ahead of every other decathlete in the world, he can work his way comfortably through a decathlon, and still win by a convincing margin. Additionally, Eaton’s decisions to play it safe in multiple events leaves anticipation toward just how high Eaton can score at his best.
Eaton broke the world record in cold, rainy conditions at the trials in Eugene, and in London, he had better performances in three events, including two of his throws. As Eaton, still 24 years young, continues to progress in all of his events, he is very likely to not only become the first decathlete to break 9,100 points, but go well beyond that.
Eaton did not pursue either the world or Olympic record this time around, but with his first Olympic gold already in hand, expect Eaton to make an assault on the record books at the 2016 Rio Games.
Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.