RIO DE JANEIRO – Ashton Eaton has a monopoly on the title “world’s greatest athlete.”
He won the grueling 10-event decathlon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, becoming the first U.S. athlete to repeat as champion in the event since the great Bob Mathias in 1948 and 1952.
Eaton also won world championships titles in 2013 and again in 2015 when he set the world record of 9,045 points, making him the undisputed king of the decathlon.
On Thursday night in Olympic Stadium, Eaton scored 8,893 points to give Team USA its 14th decathlon gold medal, tying the Olympic record posted by Roman Sebrle of Czech Republic at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
No man has repeated as Olympic champion in the decathlon since Daley Thompson of Great Britain in 1980 and 1984.
Eaton’s longtime coach, Harry Marra, knew Mathias and Milt Campbell before they passed away and also knows Thompson and the other decathlon legends in U.S. history, including Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, Dan O’Brien and Bryan Clay.
“It is big-time historic,” Marra said. “Unfortunately track and field is not as high-ranked as it used to be. Those guys were folk heroes. And Ashton Eaton is the best there ever was. Holy cow!”
It was a great week for the whole Eaton family as his wife, Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, won the bronze in the heptathlon earlier this week.
“The second time around?” Eaton said. “So far it feels about the same. I would say the lead-up was quite a bit more difficult the last four years. I’m not quite sure what’s next. I will say that it has been a pleasure doing everything I’ve done up until this point. As for anything after, I can’t say.”
As for competing in Tokyo in 2020, he said, “I’d say there’s less than a 50 percent chance.”
Although Eaton entered the final event, the 1,500-meter, with only a 44-point lead over Kevin Mayer of France – 8,104 to 8,060 – Eaton ran a season best of 4 minutes, 23.33 seconds, while Mayer ran 4:25.49, losing another 15 points on Eaton. Mayer finished with a new French record of 8,834 points while Damian Warner of Canada won the bronze at 8,666 points.
“I’m glad that this wasn’t just an easy walkthrough,” Eaton said. “I guess the decathlon is never just an easy walk through, but Kevin Mayer was there to push me to the test and I think I passed the test. I’m glad he was there to do that.”
Team USA’s Zach Ziemek finished seventh at 8,392 points and Jeremy Taiwo was 11th at 8,300.
Eaton put himself in an unfamiliar position in the pole vault, the eighth of the 10 events, needing three attempts to clear 16 feet, ¾ of an inch.
“That was the moment I thought, ‘All right, your whole life has been about this. Getting ready for this. What are you going to do?’ So, that was a good test.” He cleared that and the next two heights as well.
But then the ninth event, the javelin did not start out well, either.
“The first javelin throw, I said, ‘That’s not good. You’re going to have to do better than that,’” he said. “The second javelin throw, ‘That’s a little better. But you’re not doing yourself any favors here, Ashton.’ And after the third one, I thought, ‘OK, that is within reason to where I can push myself to win it.’”
Going into the 1,500, Eaton’s personal best was 4:14.48 compared to 4:18.04 for Mayer. With one second equaling about 7 points, he needed only to stay within 6.5 seconds of the Frenchman.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Eaton said. “I was willing to run myself into the hospital if I had to. I remember I was taking a cold shower after the javelin and I was thinking, ‘Yeah. I would do it, I’d run into that.'”
After Eaton passed Mayer with about 220 meters to go, he chased the Olympic record.
“One stinking point,” he said.
“In the multi-events,” said Marra, “there’s way more ways to screw them up than there is to win. So for a kid to go on out and basically be shooting better than par in golf every single time out, he’s won worlds indoors and outdoors, the Olympic Games and has the world record. That’s uncanny. He’s done it all.”
But it takes a toll.
“My left hamstring is sore,” Eaton said. “My back hurts. I think I did something to my shoulder.”
But he’ll be all smiles on Friday when he's on the victory podium to receive his second gold medal.
“It’s super impressive,” Warner said, “a testament of how great of an athlete Ashton is and how great a competitor.
“The last two days he got the best out of me and Kevin. What more can you say about him? He’s won everything and he’s great for the sport.”