01 March, 2016

On Decathlon variants

Those who follow this blog of mine know that I like a lot combined events. In fact the first "technical" post of the blog was devoted to what started the combined event saga, the ancient pentathlon.

In this post I would like to talk about decathlon variants and first of all what is sometimes called the "speed decathlon". While researching for this post I came across a reference in the message bords of Track and Field news to a 30 minute decathlon. 

This sounds amazing. I have trouble believing that one can complete the 10 (in fact 9 since the rule is that one must start for the 1500 m before the end of the 30 min) events in so short a time. Still there it is, and the performances are quite decent. To my eyes the greatest difficulty is how to manage the 400 m followed by the 110 m hurdles. In a normal decathlon one has a full night for recovery. In a 30 min one (or even in its longer versions) one should make clear strategic choices.

I do not think the 30 min decathlon is being contested today. What did replace it is the one-hour decathlon, which is still a gruelling event. The problem with  the 400 m-110 m hd is always present. You can find below a comparison of personal records and the ones registered in a speed-decathlon of two great champions. R. Změlík is the 1992, Barcelona, Olympic champion and current world record holder of the one-hour decathlon with 7897 points. 

R. Sebrle is the 2004, Athens, Olympic champion and former world record holder. The performance of Sebrle was not realised in an one-hour event but rather in a a 100 minutes one where, following a disastrous 1500 m, he failed to break the 8000 points barrier by a handful of points at 7989. 

It is remarkable that both champions adopt the same strategy concerning the 400 m: they run it at some 7 seconds slower than their record time so as not to exhaust themselves before the 110 m hurdles. It would be interesting to know how mush time did they take off to rest between the first and second half of the decathlon. Still, their performance in the second half was comparatively worse than the one in the fist half: 0.89 vs 0.86 for Změlík and 0.87 vs 0.84 for Sebrle.

Overall, Změlík is the best performer with a ratio of one-hour vs two-day decathlon equal to 0.915 (7897/8627). Compared to this, R. Sebrle does rather poorly with a 0.885 ratio (7989/9026) despite the fact that he competed in a 100 min event. 

On the other hand, R. Barras, the 2010 European champion is doing almost as well as Změlík with a ratio of 0.907 (7671/8453). (Since there is a detailed video of his attempt one can see that there is an extended break between the 400 m and the 110 m hurdles, of almost 15 min. I can only guess that this must be typical and, in any case, it is the logical choice). 

Quite naturally, the women's equivalent to the one-hour decathlon does exist. It is a 45 min heptathlon and the world record is held by S. Braun with 6214 points and a 0.89 ratio (6214/6985).

I like the idea of one-hour decathlon quite a lot. It must be a very spectacular event (but I had never had the chance to attend one). It goes without saying that it is very tough also as far as the organisation is concerned. The athletes can participate only in very small groups of 2 or 3, the track and field must be laid out for all events to be held in parallel (for the various groups). Rule-wise the only change to the standard rules is that the athletes have only 6 attempts in the high jump and pole vault events.

On the other hand there exists a combined event that I find absurd: the double decathlon or eicosathlon (and a double heptathlon for women). Since there are just 8 field events the remaining 12 slots of the eicosathlon are filled by track events. Here is the composition of the eicosathlon

First day
100 m, long jump, 200 m hurdles, shot put, 5000 m
then a break of at least one hour
800 m, high jump, 400 m, hammer throw, 3000 m steeplechase

Second day
110 m hurdles, discus throw, 200 m, pole vault, 3000 m
then a break of at least one hour
400 m hurdles, javelin throw, 1500 m, triple jump, 10000 m

While in the decathlon the proportion of field to track events is 6 to 4 in the eicosathlon it gets inverted becoming a 8 to 12. 

I have a better proposal, one that is not based so strongly on running: a decapentathlon (purists would say a pentekaidecathlon but I prefer to avoid this mouthful), with the 10 events of the decathlon (with one small change) plus five more. First; replace the 1500 m of the decathlon by a 1000 m one. Then add triple jump, hammer throw, 400 m hurdles, 2000 m steeplechase and 3000 m. Moreover organise the event over three days. Here is a possible organisation

First day
Morning: 100 m, discus throw, triple jump
Afternoon: pole vault, 2000 m steeplechase

Second day
Morning: 110 m hurdles, hammer throw, 400 m
Afternoon: long jump, 1000 m 

Third day
Morning: 400 m hurdles, shot put, high jump
Afternoon: javelin throw, 3000 m 

And, of course, this proposal would concern both men and women. I am a fan of women's decathlon, after all. (And since we are edging into the domain of fancy proposals, how about a two-hour or even a 100 min decapentathlon).

Having talked about eicosi- and decapentathlon it is time now to consider shorter combined events. The classic, ancient greek pentathlon, immediately jumps to the mind. It was in fact staged as an olympic competition once in modern times, during the 1906, Athens, Intercalated Olympics. It was the only time when the fifth event was a greco-roman wrestling match. Due to suspicions of an arranged result by the swedish competitors the event was removed in the 1908, London, Olympics only to return in 1912 as pure track and field event with a 1500 m replacing the wrestling. The legendary Jim Thorpe was the first winner of that new pentathlon (and of the decathlon as well). The olympic pentathlon was particularly short-lived since it disappeared after the 1924, Paris, Olympics. The current world record holder is B. Toomey (his performance dating back to 1969), with 4282 points. However R. Sebrle, during his world record 9026 performance registered a 4500+ score (obtained by taking for the points of the 200 m the arithmetic mean of the points scored over the 100 m and 400 m). Eaton, who is not as good a thrower as Sebrle would have obtained a 4400+ score. (One may wonder what a thrower extraordinaire like Mike Smith of Canada would have obtained in pentathlon but an extrapolation from his decathlon record of 1996 is still shy of 4400 points. Speaking of Smith it is noticeable that the sum of his personal records tallies up to 9362 points so that his best decathlon of 8626 points is just at 0.92 of his maximum. Had he performed at 95 % like Eaton he would have scored a world record 8894 and with 97 % like Sebrle he would have reached beyond 9000 points).

A one-time triathlon was in the 1904, St. Louis, Olympics. It consisted of long jump, shot put and a 100 yard race and was part of the Gymnastics competitions (although by now the IOC is listing it in the Athletics section). It was a one-off event, fortunately now forgotten.

So the question is now: "is there some short combined event better than the pentathlon"? In my post on combined events I am mentioning the proposal by Gaston Meyer, in his Encyclopédie des Sports, where he proposes a tetrathlon consisting in 100 m, high jump, shot put and 1000 m. I had at the time qualified Meyer's proposal as a "drab choice". Now I am going to make an about-face and acknowledge the value of that proposal. Indeed a tetrathlon with well chosen events is a perfect formula. My main divergence from Meyer is in the choice of the events. What I would prefer is a tetrathlon with 200 m, long jump, shot put and 1000 m. Having opted for 200 m it is normal to have an event like long jump best suited to pure sprinters. Choosing 200 m rather than 100 m makes the organisation of the tetrathlon equally possible indoor and outdoor (and the shot put was chosen with the same constraints in mind). Moreover such a tetrathlon would reestablish the parity between men and women in combined events. 

In a purely tele-visual logic, a half-hour tetrathlon would be the perfect event. And one could even imagine a, blitz-style, 15 min tetrathlon. Still, if I had to choose one event among all those mentioned in this post, the one-hour decathlon would be my favourite.


  1. I like your discussion of all the decathlon variations. BTW the 20-event multi is usually called the icosathlon in English. I believe you are probably using a Greek spelling. If we did have a quadrathlon I'd prefer to keep the HJ over the LJ as it is more spectacular to the audience--they ooh and ahh when someone clears the bar but a LJ distance isn't immediately obvious to spectators. Personally I like the 1500 rather than the 1000 for two reasons: it is run more often than the 1000 so it would be an easier comparison for observers and two, it stresses endurance a bit more.

  2. Hi Dale,

    Concerning the tetrathlon (and here I insist that one should not mix Latin (quadra-) with Greek (-athlon)) I prefer the LJ because it is an event for sprinters. Since there is no 100 m but rather a 200 m in my proposal, it makes sense to have an event that favours the qualities of pure speed. As for the 1500 m instead of 1000 m I will tend to agree with you. I only chose the 1000 m because it is the event of the indoor heptathlon (see, we say heptathlon and not septathlon) and I wished to propose something that could be equally contested indoors and outdoors.

  3. Just completed a half-hour decathlon this weekend at Basingstoke, UK. http://bmhac.co.uk/speed-decathlon-combined-events/ It is possible, it's very grueling, and performances are a long way off the best! Andy

    1. Thanks for the heads-up Andy. I am glad to see that the speed-decathlon is alive.
      If you would like to expand on your experience we could plan something like an email interview. If you are interested you can contact me at basigram a gmail.