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Decathlon crowns 'world's greatest athlete'

If the Olympic 100m champion is the world's fastest man then the winner of the decathlon is the 'world's greatest athlete.' Ten events contested over two days, it's as much a mental challenge to stay focused as it is an athletic test.

Competitors must stay focused during ten events over two days

Carolina Kluft of Sweden competes during the 200 Metres discipline in the Women's Heptathlon at the 2007 European Athletics Championships. ((Michael Steele/Getty Images))

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If the Olympic 100m champion is the world’s fastest man then the winner of the decathlon is the "world’s greatest athlete." Ten events contested over two days, it’s as much a mental challenge to stay focused as it is an athletic test. 

The heptathlon is a seven-event competition for the world’s greatest all-round athletes.

Performances in each of the events earn a set amount of points according to a scoring table. The better the performance, the more points are awarded. Points scored in each event are totalled  and the cumulative amount is announced at the conclusion of every event. It is not unusual for the medal favourites to trail in the early part of the competition as each will have strong events and ones that they are not so strong in.

The first day events in decathlon, in order, are 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400m. The second day begins with the 110m hurdles followed by the discus, pole vault, javelin, and finally the celebrated 1,500m. Generally there are 30 minutes between the conclusion of one event and the start of the next for each athlete.

'Ten chances to screw up'

Some learned scholar once said of the decathlon, "It’s ten chances to screw up" because  a poor performance in one discipline can affect the overall points total.

Some of the greatest sportsmen have been crowned Olympic decathlon champions: Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner, Daley Thompson, Dan O’Brien and Roman Sebrle among them. American decathlon champions, especially, do well financially from endorsement deals. The 1,500m offers relatively fewer points compared to the other events, therefore the athletes don’t train hard enough to run a fast time. Most just want to end the competition. 

The women’s equivalent is the seven-event heptathlon which has been dominated by Carolina Kluft. But having won world titles and the 2004 Olympic gold, the Swede has decided not to contest this event in Beijing. She has made it known she wants to chase after a long jump medal.

The events of the first day of the heptathlon are, in order: 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m. Heptathletes begin the second day with the long jump, followed by javelin and the final event of the competition, the 800m. A lap of honour follows the conclusion of the 800m event.

There are marked differences in the rules governing the multi-event competitions. For instance, a wind reading of 4.0 metres per second is allowable in the sprints and hurdles during decathlon and heptathlon, whereas the maximum allowable tail wind in regular competition is 2.0 m/s. This is so a potential decathlon or heptathlon record is not discounted because of a slightly elevated wind reading in one event. 

Throwing events

In the throwing events, decathletes and heptathletes only get three attempts. As a result, they won’t risk fouling out of the competition with a great effort on the first throw. Most will be content to land a fair throw to at least get some points on the board. Three fouls in any one event would effectively put them out of competition. 

In the shot put event, the decathletes and heptathletes usually don’t use the spin technique employed by most world class throwers. Again,  they won’t spend a lot of time on this technique as they must be good in ten events.

The false start rule is more lenient. A false start is charged to the offending athlete and not to the field. So an athlete will only be disqualified if he himself false starts twice.

Camaraderie between the athletes is very noticeable. Often the athletes can be seen talking amongst themselves and offering advice to one another on the field events. Following the conclusion of the 1,500m, the decathlon champion will normally accept congratulations from the others before setting off on a lap of honour. In recent years the heptathletes have also joined the champion in a lap of honour.

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