27 January, 2016

Who is the best decathlete?

Well, everybody knows that the best decathlete ever is the legendary Jim Thorpe. But it is interesting to ask the same question concerning the contemporary decathlon heroes. This post of mine was inspired by a post in Jon Mulkeen's blog who is comparing five of the greatest decathletes of our times: Eaton, Sebrle, Dvorak, O'Brien and Thompson. Mulkeen's blog is one of the two blogs that I follow regularly (the other one is that of J.P. Vazel, a blog I am frequently referring to here).

Reading Mulkeen's analysis I started thinking and making some calculations. When you compare the world records of Eaton and O'Brien event by event you realise that O'Brien was leading this imaginary competition up to the 8th event. It was only because of below par performances in the last two events that he lost ground in the end. 

In my blog post  on Eaton's potential I was comparing the decathlon score of Eaton and Sebrle to their possible maximum, finding that they performed at 95 % and 97 % respectively. I hadn't thought at O'Brien at the time but Mulkeen's post made me repeat the calculations for him. By the way, Dvorak is at the same level as Sebrle, a 97 % performer (8994/9265), while Thompson's performance stands at 96 % (8847/9218). Concerning Thompson I cannot resist the temptation to report what a commentator on Mulkeen's post said about the great british decathlete. When asked recently about Eaton, Thompson said “Eaton’s terrific – I wouldn’t have beaten him by much”. It seems that Thompson apart from excelling in athletics is also recordman of chutzpah.

Coming back to O'Brien, here are his personal records

Event Record points
100 m 10.23 1040
Long Jump 8.08 m 1081
Shot Put 16.69 m 894
High Jump 2.20 m 992
400 m 46.53 982
100 m Hurdles 13.47 1044
Discus Throw 52.71 m 927
Pole Vault 5.20 m 972
Javelin Throw 66.90 m 842
1500 m 4:36.63 702
Total 9476

His world record of 8891 is less than 94 % of his maximum of 9476 points. 
Even Karpov whom I consider one of the biggest wasted talents in the decathlon has a 95 % score, 8725/9186, (but had he managed a decent javelin throw, things could have been different). 

Had O'Brien succeeded to perform at 96 % of his maximum we would have registered a whopping 9100 world record and been the first man over 9000. Well, to be fair, this honour belongs to the chinese decathlete Yang Chuan-kwang, who under the 1950 tables registered an impressive 9121 performance (which, in any case, is the first over 8000 points record with the current table).

Of course, had Eaton performed at 96 % of his maximum, when he established his world record, the latter would stand today at 9160 points (but then we wouldn't have had the occasion to enjoy his fantastic effort in the 1500 m). On the other hand Eaton is still active and, who knows, one day he may break the 9100 points barrier. 

So, for me the question of who is the best decathlete will remain unanswered. Eaton has probably a very slight advantage over O'Brien but I would wait for more before awarding him the title.

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