04 October, 2016

The battle of the sexes: heptathletes and decathletes

Both are athletes competing in combined events. Thus the obvious assumption is that heptathletes and decathletes have similar profiles. In a sense they do, but it is interesting to have a closer look. It goes without saying that I am talking here about the world elite, combined events athletes who have garnered international distinctions and/or whose best performance figures among the all-time top-ten best.

Let me start with men. The typical decathlete is an all-around athlete who performs equally well on practically all nine events (I will come back to the 1500 m in my next post). However a top decathlete's performances, although at times excellent, do not suffice for him to compete with the specialists of the various events. Among the best decathlon performances only Tim Lobinger's 5.76 m record at pole vault could earn a podium position at some major international competition. But then Lobinger is not a real decathlete, but just a pole vaulter who dabbed at decathlon occasionally. If we discard Lobinger's record the only one that could stand outside a combined event competition is Eaton's 8.23 m long jump and perhaps his 45.00 s time in the 400 m. But more on Eaton later.

I went through the list of top decathletes. None of the giants of the discipline like R. Sebrle, T. Dvorak or D. O'Brien had ever had any success in non-combined events. The only minor exception is D. Thompson who was member of the 4x100 m UK team that in 1986 won bronze at the Europeans and silver at the Commonwealth Games. He had after all a 10.26 s personal record in the 100 m.(Today the decathlon 100 m record is held by D. Warner with 10.15 s).

I like this photo of D. Thompson. It looks as if he has exterminated his opponents

The one exception to the rule that decathletes are just superlative all-arounders is A. Eaton. I have written about his 400 m hurdles 2014 season in an older postInitially Eaton planned a season away from decathlon as a means of "doing something fun" but also to get away from the strenuous multi-event training. Not only did he realise his plan but he ended the season with a superlative 48.69 s record and, what is more important, with a victory at a Diamond League meeting where he beat the event's specialists. (The only decathlete I can think of who has a better performance in the 400 m hurdles is Norway's K. Warholm who ran at the Rio Olympics a 48.49 s in his heat before exiting at the semis. But then 20 years old Warholm can hardly be considered as a top decathlete).

A. Eaton may not be the perfect stylist over the low hurdles but he is definitely efficient

It is now interesting to ask the same question about women. Are they also great all-arounders who excel at heptathlon or do they perform differently from men? One has to look no further than the current world record holder to find differences. Jackie Joyner-Kersee had won two gold medals in heptathlon in the Olympics (1988, 1992) and another two in the World's (1987, 1993) but on top of this she had one olympic gold in long jump (1988) and another two in the world championships (1987, 1991). Eunice Barber was also a great long jumper. Her heptathlon gold medal in the 1999 World's was complemented by a long jump gold in the 1995 All-Africa Games and another one at the 2003 World's. And for both  Joyner-Kersee and Barber I am not counting the "lesser" medals.

C. Klüft was also a good triple jumper and could have been the best decathlete ever

Carolina Klüft is certainly the second best ever heptathlete after Joyner-Kersee. Her palmarès includes one olympic (2004) and three world (2003, 2005, 2007) gold medals plus one indoor in the pentathlon (2003). (And I am not counting her continental medals). Like the two champions mentioned just above she was also a long jumper. She won a bronze medal in the long jump of the 2004 World's (and finished 5th in the 2011 World's in what turned out to be her last major championship). But she was a much more complete athlete than the previous two. She was also a triple jumper with a quite respectable 14.29 m best (but she failed to qualify for the triple jump final of the 2008 Olympics, where she finished 9th in long jump). As I already wrote Klüft could have broken the world record of women's decathlon with a performance of over 9000 points. Curiously she was never tempted by this event. (And, by the way, I wonder if she had ever tried a 400 m hurdles. I wouldn't be astonished if she had).

By now the pattern becomes clear. Contrary to decathletes, heptathletes can excel at  non-combined events. And the list does not stop with the three athletes we mentioned. Jessica Ennis-Hill, 2012 olympic and 2009 & 2015 world champion is an excellent hurdler. She holds the best heptathlon performance over 100 m with 12.54 s. While competing at the heptathlon of the  2006 Commonwealth Games she jumped a 1.91 m personal best, a performance that would have sufficed for a gold medal in the individual event. (Anika Smith, of South Africa won the high jump with 1.91 m which she managed at her second try, just like Ennis-Hill. However Smith had one miss at the opening height of 1.78 m, while Ennis had no misses till 1.91 m). The 2006 Commonwealth's heptathlon was won by Kelly Sotherton who has an olympic bronze medal (2004) and a world's one (2007), to which we should add her World's 2008, silver in the pentathlon. A remarkable athlete, Sotherton reinvented herself as a 400 m runner, when a back injury made it impossible to pursue her career as a combined event athlete. She obtained a silver medal as a member of the UK team in the 2011 european indoors.

K. Sotherton at the end of the 800 m ordeal

I have already written about the feat of Nafissatou Thiam, 2016 heptathlon olympic champion, and Katarina Johnson-Thompson at the 2016 Olympics. Their performance of 1.98 m at high jump (a heptathlon world best) was better than the one of the individual event winner. Both Thiam and Jonhson-Thompson are great jumpers. Thiam was second the european U23 2015 championships at high jump while Jonhson-Thompson, the 2012 world junior champion in long jump, won a silver medal at the 2014 indoor World's.

N. Thiam can become a 2 m high jumper

Here I would like to mention two more heptathletes, because of their unusual profile. The first is the women's decathlon world record holder Austra Skujyte.  She obtained a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics as well as two bronze medals in the world indoor pentathlon in 2004 and 2012. She has the world's best heptathlon performance in shot put with 17.31 m. (The pentathlon world record holder, 2012 indoor world champion  and 2008 heptathlon olympic champion Natallia Dobrynska is not very far behind with a personal best of 17.29 m. In fact Dobrynska participated at the 1999 World Youth championships as a shot putter). To my knowledge Skujyte is the only heptathlete to have participated as a thrower at a major championship: with 17.86 m she was 17th at the 2009 World's, 15th at the 2010 indoors with 17.55 m, 12th at the 2010 European's with 17.72 m and 11th at the 2012 ones with 16.53 m. The second is the 1996 olympic and 1995 World champion Ghada Shouaa from Syria. She used to participate at several individual events at the Arab Championships winning most of the time but the most unusual, for a heptathlete, was her 1993 victory over 800 m. (She went on to win also the 100 m hurdles, long and high jump as well as javelin throw at the same championships. She would have won the heptathlon easily, had she participated).

A. Skujyte is an excellent shot putter but also a very good discus thrower

The list could go on and on but I think that I have proven my point. I would just would like to mention a few more exceptional heptathletes. They started their careers as combined-event athletes and went on to become number-one in individual events. Heike Drechsler, two times olympic and also two times world champion in long jump (to say nothing of her world indoor title in 200 m) started her career as a combined-event athlete, under her maiden name of Daute. In 1981 she obtained a world junior record with a performance of 5812 points( 5891 with the current tables). After world records in long jump with 7.45 m and the 200 m with 21.71 s she came back to the heptathlon, winning the 1994 Decastar in Talence with 6741 points. A look at her performances (13.34, 1.84, 13.58, 22.84, 6.95, 40.64, 2:11.53) would suffice to convince even the most sceptical that she could have had an equally brilliant career as heptathlete. 

H. Drechsler at the 95 World Championships. 
She dropped out of the heptathlon after the shot put

Barbora Spotakova, 2008 and 2012 olympic and 2007 world champion in javelin throw started her career as heptathlete. She was 4th at the 2000 world junior championships, won by C. Klüft. She was of course first in the heptathlon javelin. Her 54.15 m performance would not give her a medal in the individual event but with the winner's throw at 54.82 m everything would have been possible. Spotakova has also participated at a decathlon in 2004, but her 6749 score is rather mediocre. In 2012 she participated at a heptathlon again, improving her personal best by 7 points to 5880, but registering a world's best in heptathlon's javelin with a throw of 60.90 m. High jump 2008 olympic champion Tia Hellebaut also started her career as a combined-event specialist. In 2008 she competed at the World's indoor pentathlon winning the competition and registering a world's best of (indoor) pentathlon high jump with 1.99 m (jumping 15 cm more than the second athlete). Naide Gomes is another exceptional athlete. After a career in combined events where she won the world indoor title of pentathlon in 2004, she specialised in long jump winning another world title in the 2008 indoors. As a national of São Tomé e Príncipe she had participated at the 2000 Olympics in the 100 m hurdles but she gained portuguese citizenship in 2001 and her international distinctions count for Portugal. To my knowledge she did not pursue her heptathlon career beyond 2005 although she continued jumping till 2013. And I will be closing this list with the 2015 200 m world champion Dafne Schippers. Already a world junior champion in heptathlon she won a bronze medal in the 2013 World's. Her 22.73 s is the best performance, post Joyner-Kersee. The latter ran a 22.30 s in 1988 in Indianapolis with a supposedly 0 m/s wind, but when one remembers the zero wind in F. Griffith-Joyner's 100 m, one starts to wonder whether JJK's 200 m performance is really not wind-aided.

N. Gomes  flying in a long jump competition

One can ask, justifiably so, why this difference between men and women combined-event specialists does exist. I must admit that I do not have a convincing explanation. One possibility could be that the men's decathlon is an event more mature than the heptathlon and thus in order to shine one has to be a real all-arounder while in the women's event there may still be a place for dilettantes. Still, I find this improbable given the very high level of women's performances. Another possibility could be that the preparation for the heptathlon leaves some place for specialisation while for the decathlon, with three additional events among which one highly technical (the pole vault), there is simply no spare time in training allowing the athlete to prepare an individual event.

I would like to conclude this article on a more personal tone. While compiling the data for the article I was impressed by the exceptional, for a heptathlete, 800 m record of Nadine Debois and tried to find a photo of hers in the web. Alas, with no success! The wikipedia page in french gives very few details. Curiously the page in finnish is more detailed. We learn for instance that N. Debois had the french indoor record of long jump with 6.81 m in 1986 (hey! this is one more example that heptathletes can shine at individual events) and that in 1987 she ran a 400 m hurdles in 56.54 s. But still no photo. I continued searching and found a Nadine Debois, professor of Sport Psychology at INSEP (which is the french National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance). I could locate some published works of hers (if you can read french I suggest that you read her excellent article on the Evaluation of the Athletes' Mental Strategies here) and an email address. Without hesitation I sent her an email and an hour later I got an answer: yes, she was indeed the ex-heptathlete and she attached the photos she could round up in short notice to her email. 

N. Debois participating at a cross-country competition

So from now on at least some photo of N. Debois, who is one of the rare french world record holders, will be available on the web. We exchanged some correspondence and I forwarded her the first version of the article (before I decided to split it in two parts). It was Mme Debois who pointed out that in that first version I had forgotten H. Drechsler. She had also taken the time to elaborate on the differences between male and female combined events specialists. I reproduce her arguments (which are more detailed and deep than mine) below, translating from french in (hopefully) the most faithful way.

"Concerning the reasons that could explain why women can distinguish themselves at individual events better than what men manage to do, I would suggest that this is essentially due to the nature and the number of events which distinguish heptathlon from decathlon and have an influence on the versatility necessary in order to meet with success at very high level. In the decathlon one must find a a harmonious equilibrium between speed, force, springiness, resistance, endurance and coordination. In the heptathlon, the reduced range of events as well as their nature favour athletes with abilities of speed, springiness and coordination. This is the reason why heptathletes are often highly competitive at 100 m hurdles, long jump and high jump. The 200 m is equally a speed event. Women's shot having a weight of just 4 kg, the heptathletes may count on their speed in order to compensate a lack of force (something more difficult for decathletes with a shot of 7 kg). As for the 800 m, despite the fact that it does "scare" the heptathletes, it is easier than a 1500 m, since the 800 m is an event at the limits of prolonged-speed and middle-distance while the 1500 m is really a middle-distance event. Moreover the heptathletes are less tired when they participate at the 800 m, having contested fewer events, while the decathletes have faced 9 events, among which the 400 m of the first day (a demanding race) and the pole vault which requires lots of energy. Thus we can really qualify the decathletes as "complete" athletes while we can encounter heptathletes who can reach a high international level thanks to strong events compensating a weak one. This is for instance the case of E. Barber who shined in the 100 m hurdles and the long jump (including in the individual events) but had a serious weakness in the shot put. This had not prevented her from becoming world champion in the heptathlon. Myself [N. Debois], at my level of 6333 points, had a weakness in the javelin throw. Of course, there also exist heptathletes of very high level who have a profile well balanced over the various events".

It goes without saying that I am really indebted to N. Debois for her most valuable contribution to this article.

No comments:

Post a Comment