EUGENE, Ore. — Bruce Jenner, before he became the guy who hung around with the Kardashians, was once the best athlete in the world. This was 1976. That was a special summer. It was the Bicentennial. Sixteen Tall Ships sailed into New York Harbor. And Bruce Jenner was larger than life.
During the Montreal Olympics, Bruce Jenner rocked. He won the gold medal in the decathlon, and ABC’s cameras followed his every move. He was the living embodiment of all that was red, white and blue, and he understood then what he understands now. As he said, “They were looking for stories.” America doesn’t really know or understand the complexities of the decathlon. Americans just love stories.
Ashton Eaton broke the world record Saturday in the decathlon at Hayward Field. He is 24. He is handsome and well-spoken. He is now heir to the title of best athlete in the world and the London 2012 Olympics beckon, in high-definition glory.
What a story.
“I think the reason the decathlon is so appealing,” Eaton said, “when you try it and you do it, is because it’s like living an entire lifetime in two days.
“You have the ups, the downs, the good, the bad. The comebacks. It all happens in two days. Everybody loves life. That’s why we love the decathlon. It’s just like life.”
Eaton scored 9,039 points over the two days, breaking the prior record — set by Czech Roman Seberle at a meet in Gotzis, Austria in 2001 — by a mere 13 points.
To break it, Eaton had to run the final event here, the 1500, in 4:16.37. His previous best had been 4:18.94. Eaton is an Oregon native and went to college here, at the University of Oregon. The locals were going berserk in the stands. Even so, he was two seconds slow with a lap to go — but then turned it on to finish in 4:14.48.
Trey Hardee, the 2009 and 2011 decathlon world champion, finished second, with 8,383 points. He is recovering from a surgically repaired right elbow and was, as he candidly acknowledged, cruising through this meet, thrilled to have thrown the javelin without ripping his elbow to bits.
Only he and Eaton qualified for London.
Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic champion, who had a solid first day, had a run-in Saturday with the hurdles. That produced a lengthy appeals process; ultimately, his time and scores were counted. But it left him so unfocused in the next event, the discus, which traditionally had been a strength, that he fouled three straight times.
With no score in the discus, he was essentially out. But he did not quit. He stayed in the event until the end, saying later, “There was a lot of hope and exception there and when you see that go out the window it’s pretty disappointing. It was important to finish. I know I needed to finish. I didn’t want to finish.
“… Between [my coaches] and my wife and my kids and everybody, I had to finish. The last thing I wanted to do is look back on things and have my kids remember the time I didn’t finish the decathlon. As much as I didn’t want to, there was really no other option.”
He also said, “It was a rough day for me. But it was fun to be part of what Ashton had going on.”
Hardee said much the same, adding that when historians assess this record they should take the wicked weather — the nasty, cold rain that has soaked Hayward over the past two days — into account.
It should come with bonus “parentheses and asterisks and everything” to denote degree of difficulty, Hardee said.
Eaton won seven of the 10 events on the program. That is genuinely impressive, and all the more so in the football weather that he had to do it in.
The world record is the first set at the U.S. Trials since Michael Johnson’s 19.66 in the 200, at Atlanta in 1996, according to USA Track & Field. It also marked the fifth time an American set a decathlon world record at the Trials; Jenner had done it the last time, in 1976.
Making Eaton’s accomplishment all the more special is that he did it in front of some of the American legends of the sport.
Here, along with Jenner: Milt Campbell, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist. Rafer Johnson, the 1960 gold medalist. Bill Toomey, the 1968 gold medalist. Dan O’Brien, the 1996 gold medalist.
Of course Eaton also broke the American record — that was 8,891 points, set by O’Brien, at a meet in France in 1992 — on Saturday. O’Brien couldn’t have been more gracious, saying, “I had the record for 20 years and I’m happy for him.”
Trey Hardee may have something to say about what happens in London. But all the signs are that it’s Ashton Eaton’s time.
And he is, genuinely, a great story. He gets it. And seemingly everyone in the sport is pulling for him.
“I really — I really, truly love this event,” Eaton said, trying to explain what the world record means.
“Not because I love running and jumping and all that stuff. Just because what it means and symbolizes for me — just what the decathlon community, the track and field world is about. And maybe it’s not about that much to the rest of the world but to me it’s my whole world. To do the best that I possibly could in my world makes me really happy.”