The results of the men’s decathlon—gold for Pierce Lepage, silver for Damien Warner, and bronze for Lindon Victor—were already clear before the last runner had crossed the finish line of the 1500m, the final of the ten events of the competition. As their medals got handed out, a scrum of yellow-jacketed photographers gathered around them, camera motors whirring to focus on the right frame.
The Worlds moved on and the photographers moved away, this time to focus on the men’s 4x100m relay, which was just getting underway. Lepage, Warner and Victor weren’t done yet though. They called out to the 12 other competitors, who ran the 1500m—the last race of the decathlon—up to the side of the track. Then, those with the gold, silver, and bronze around their necks and those with bare chests locked arms and got a volunteer to take one extra picture.
‘Post-competition photo, a decathlon tradition’
The post-competition group photo is a bit of a tradition in the decathlon. “I’ve always done it. Even when I was a kid. I’ve never really thought about it. But I don’t think I’ve been to a meet where it’s not happened,” says Lepage.
The group picture isn’t just the only time you get to see visible camaraderie at the Athletics World Championships. Over the course of the decathlon, especially in the long jump and javelin, you could see competitors pushing each other as they competed. It’s not just in the decathlon, either.
In the men’s pole vault, the competition is for all purposes done when Mondo Duplantis, who’s cleared 6.10m—10 cm more than the next best in the field—has the bar set at a world record height of 6.23m. All of his rivals, who might have been hoping to do better than the Swedish phenom of height, are now clapping for him as he sprints, pole in hand, towards the runway. They do this on each of his three attempts.
Players applaud each other in other sports—in cricket after someone scores a century, for example—but it usually happens once the accomplishment is over. In athletics, though, it’s common to see athletes cheering on their rivals while they compete.
It’s not just athletes whose competition is over who cheer for their rivals. In the men’s discus throw, reigning world champion Kristjan Ceh had registered a mammoth 70.02m to take the lead ahead of the final throw of the competition. Yet Ceh continued to clap as Daniel Stahl threw an even more monstrous championship record of 71.46m to snatch the gold medal off the very last throw. Ceh even had a big smile on his face later. He went on to say, “I knew after my throw that the only one who could beat me was Daniel, but it’s just great to see big throws like that.”
Setting the bar high
Ceh isn’t the only one who felt that way. Miltiadis Tentoglu, who was bidding to win his first ever Worlds title after winning everything else of note, was slapping palms alongside every spectator watching the long jump pit as Jamaica’s Wayne Pinnock stringed together massive jumps after massive jumps.
From a purely selfish perspective, this makes no sense. Why would you be cheering someone who is competing with you for the same medals and, consequently, the same rewards, sponsorship, and media attention as you? “It’s not something that’s made up,” says Tentoglu. “We genuinely want to see each other do well. I’ve won a lot of titles, but I don’t want to win a Worlds title with a 7.90m or an 8m jump. I want others to make big jumps. I want to see how far we can go. That’s why we do this,” he says.
That’s what Kurtis Marschall, who took bronze in the pole vault, thinks as well. “Track and field is a sport that we want a lot of attention on. If Mondo is getting that attention, the sport is getting it too. At the end of the day, it’s not just how far Mondo can go. It’s how far we as a community can go. The higher the bar goes, the more the sport grows. We are just happy to be a part of this. How high it goes decides how the sport evolves,” he says.
As Duplantis raises the height of the bar, Marschall says it inspires him to push himself as well. He also makes a point about the fact that cheering an opponent doesn’t make him any worse in his event. “Just because Mondo jumps that high, it doesn’t impact what I do,” says Marschall.
Friendship Games: Track vs field
That’s true for all individual sports. Why then isn’t it more common in other events in track and field? The track part of it at least.
According to athletes, part of this is due to the nature of the events. “I think in track events, there’s so much of a focus on just one instance of time. In a lot of the field events, you are competing with each other for a lot longer, and in the decathlon, you are competing with someone for two days. That’s two days in which we are competing together, eating together, and preparing together. We spend a lot of time together, rather than the 100m, where you are together for just about 10 seconds. But you do see it sometimes in the 100m (the incident actually happened during the 200m semifinal) too, when you have Usain Bolt smiling (at Andre De Grasse as they crossed the finish line at the Rio Olympics). It’s nice to see when you get that mutual respect,” says Australian decathlete Daniel Golubovic, who finished 11 th in his event.
As Golubovic says, camaraderie has taken a long time to develop, especially in a sport like the decathlon, which is spread over two days and four sessions. “You are going into battle with guys for two days. At that point, you aren’t really competing with each other as much as with the decathlon. You are rooting for each other because it’s so tough. It doesn’t make sense not to. We are the same guys who have been competing together for the last few years. Of course, I have to compete at my best. But supporting someone else doesn’t make you do better or worse,” says Lindon Victor of Grenada, who took bronze in the decathlon at Budapest.
Golubovic says, it’s athletes who can be each other’s biggest supporters because it’s only them who know exactly what the other is going through. “We are all suffering together. There is a lot of strife we experience personally and as a group. When you train as a team, you all suffer together, and when you compete, it’s a similar mentality,” he says. That group picture that the decathletes take simply reminds them of this, says Lepage. “We do this at every decathlon we take part in. Unless you do it, you won’t get why we do it,” he says.
Just because they share a common bond and camaraderie, doesn’t mean their isn’t any competitiveness. “Everyone wants to win, but we also know just how hard it is to finish. When you do that and the guys are left standing, you get to share that moment together. You wrap your arms around your competitors, say congratulations, and say, ‘See you next time.‘ End of the day all you can say is, ‘You got me this time; I’ll get you the next time,’” says Warner.
While he might have won gold in Budapest, Lepage says the group picture taken at the Tokyo Olympics, where he finished fifth might have been the more pleasing one. “All of us laid down on the track and we got a drone camera to fly up and take a shot. That was a pretty cool picture,” he says.
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