The decathlon is a supreme test of all-around athleticism, the sport competition whose champion may claim the title "world's greatest athlete."
The term is derived from two Greek words, deca, meaning ten, and athlon, signifying competition. Although there are decathlons held throughout the world on a regular basis (e.g., the annual Gotzis, Austria, competition and the biennial World Track and Field championships) the most significant elite contests, the Olympic decathlon event, possesses the most notable history. It is an irony of this sport that the almost superhuman abilities of world class decathletes are largely ignored by the international sports community in the four-year interval between each Olympics.
The men's decathlon is a ten-event discipline, conducted in five-event segments over a two-day period. The decathlon is designed as a test of all aspects of athleticism—speed, strength, power, agility, and endurance—all within the context of the traditional track and field disciplines. From the track component of athletics, the decathlon draws the 100-m sprint, the 110-m hurdles, and the 400-m and 1,500-m races. From the field aspect, the decathlon includes the shotput, the javelin, the discus, the pole vault, the high jump, and the long jump. The first day of competition begins with the 100-m sprint; the final event of the competition on the second day is the 1,500-m race.
The equivalent multi-sport competition for women is the heptathlon, a seven-part competition consisting of 100-m, 200-m, and 800-m races, and the high jump, long jump, javelin, and shotput. The heptathlon is an enduring symbol of the more historically prevalent distinctions between male and female athletics competitions. As women now compete in every individual competition that comprises the decathlon, there is no physiological reason as to why there is not also a decathlon for women.
The decathlon was first contested in the Olympics in 1912. The winner was the legendary American athlete Jim Thorpe (1887–1953), who later starred in the fledging American football leagues that lead to the creation of the National Football League (NFL) in 1920. American Bob Mathias (Olympic champion 1948 and 1952) and Daley Thompson of Britain (1980 and 1984 champion) are the only men ever to win multiple Olympic decathlon gold medals, a testament to the demands of the decathlon.
In its earliest incarnation, the decathlon scoring system was weighted in such a fashion that an athlete who dominated in two or three of the ten events would likely win the championship. The modern decathlon champion is determined through a scoring system that makes all events nominally equal in value, but where an athlete will be scored in accordance with his or her performance relative to the world standards at the time of the competition in the specific event. The athlete thus is scored by the relative quality of his or her performance, and not against the other athletes in the competition. The International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing organization of track and field, sets points totals for each event on an annual basis that are correlated to both the event as well as corresponding achievements in each of the other nine events.
The decathlon is the ultimate test of individual athleticism for a number of reasons. The nature of the ten events place stress on the aerobic energy system (the 1,500-m and the general stamina required to perform multiple events to a high standard over two days), the anaerobic lactic system (the 400-m race is the best example), and the anaerobic alactic system (the short intense generation of energy demanded in the 100-m and the high jump utilize this energy system). With events that require running, jumping, and throwing, each in more than one technique, every part of the musculoskeletal system is directly engaged at a high level in every competition.
The decathlon also places a premium on both extreme muscular power, highly developed finesse, and hand-eye coordination. The pole vault and the shotput are prominent examples of decathlon disciplines where speed, power, and grace must be effectively combined. It is for this reason that, while decathletes have tended to be large men, relative to both the general male population as well as male track and field athletes generally, the decathlon is less typecast in the effective and successful physiques than many other sports. There have been very large, highly successful decathletes such as world champion Christian Schenk of Germany, who competed at a height of 6 ft 6 in (1.95 m), weighing 240 lb (110 kg). Mike Smith of Canada was an elite international competitor in the 1990s with a build similar to
Preparation for the decathlon competition is similar to embarking on the ultimate cross training program. The athlete must practice the technical aspects of every event to a high standard; the best Olympic decathlete in any of the ten disciplines will possess a personal best in that element that is likely quite close to a world standard. For example, the world record in the 100-m sprint is approximately 9.8 seconds, and the winning competitor in this portion of the decathlon will run a time of close to 10.3 seconds. Not only will the training for these events impose significant demands on a competitor, the decathlete will be required to engage in weight training and other specific supplementary programs to ensure balance and total fitness.