‘Decathlon chooses you’

“I keep competing and performing for the fans. If there is even one person in the stands appreciating me, that’s enough for me,” says the champion decathlete, Ashton Eaton. By G. Viswanath.

Ashton Eaton is among the long list of distinguished American sportsmen who have carved a niche for themselves in the world of the gruelling multi-event, decathlon. Having won the decathlon gold at the IAAF World Championship in Moscow last year, Ashton, 26, became the first athlete to hold all major titles — the World Indoor heptathlon (Istanbul, 2012) and the Olympic decathlon (London, 2012) being the others — at the same time. He also holds the world records in both heptathlon and decathlon.

Moreover, Ashton is only the second athlete, after Czech Republic’s Roman Sebrle, to cross the 9000-point mark in decathlon. He can truly be called the best all-round athlete.

There have been other greats like Daley Thomson and Dan O’Brien of Great Britain. Only time will tell whether Ashton will match their feats, but the American has truly conquered the multi-event discipline that consists of the 100m, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400m, 110m hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1500m.

“From the first time I tried decathlon, I loved it. The decathlon chooses you; you never choose it,” was how the 1.85m tall American, born in Portland (Oregon), reacted after scoring a world record 9039 points at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June 2012.

Born to an African-American father and mother of European stock, Ashton is all set to defend his heptathlon title at the 2014 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot (Poland) from March 7-9. He holds the world record at 6645 points.

“I took a big break after Moscow because 2011, 2012 and 2013, that chunk together, really taxed me. I have started training late, but based on the two competitions I’ve done so far this year, I don’t really feel I’ve lost very much. I did an indoor personal best in shot put and I did a decent 60 even though I had a bad start and a couple of weeks ago I was one-hundredth away from my indoor hurdles personal best. I think I’m going to Poland doing pretty good,” said Ashton during an IAAF worldwide conference.

He also took questions from Sportstar.

Question: Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce stole the thunder at the London Olympics and the Moscow World Championships. How difficult was it to hold your own in such circumstances?

Answer: It was actually not difficult because my goal was never, necessarily, to be considered as one of the stars of the London Games and the Moscow World Championships. I don’t think those things (Bolt & Co. taking the centre stage) affected my performances. I go out and do the best I can every time; of course as an athlete, I keep competing and performing for the fans. If there is even one person in the stands appreciating me, that’s enough for me. I don’t need all the attention. It does help to have the fans interacting (with you) and involving themselves in your competition, especially by clapping when you go for the long jump.

There were major doping issues in the run-up to the Moscow World Championships. Did that distract you? How would you respond to doping issues?

I think doping issues are there in every single sport. As an athlete, the way I deal with them is like the way most people I talk to deal with them — talk about it for a while and then it’s gone. Essentially, as part of being an elite athlete and as part of our training, as soon as it (the competition) gets into the line, nothing comes in the way of my performance. Nothing affects me. It (doping issues) does affect the sport, which I think is unfortunate. What can I do? I can only go out and compete well, and try to bring the sport some good news.

What made Daley Thompson such a great all-round athlete?

I have actually met every single decathlete except Daley Thompson. But I have heard a lot about him and have watched his videos. What makes him great, first of all, is that he is one of the only two athletes to have won back-to-back Olympics in decathlon. (American Bob Mathias won the decathlon gold in London 1948 and Helsinki 1952). So that makes him (Thompson) great. It’s just his personality; he’s not afraid to be himself. That’s what I think makes him a great icon and such a great decathlete. Daley is one among some who are not acting for the cameras and are just by themselves; they just do what they love, and do them well.

You are at the top and the only American decathlete in the Top 10 rankings…

I am happy to be in the Top 10, but I would love to see more Americans in the Top 10. I think decathlon is hard, especially in the USA because we have so many other sports like football and basketball that get popular attention. A lot of kids see them on TV; they are easily accessible and so they like trying them. You don’t see lot of kids trying decathlon. So it is tough for Americans to have a lot of those decathletes. I would like to see more of them.

You have given sufficient hints of going for the 400m hurdles. Are you serious?

I am pretty serious with everything I attempt. When I start focussing on the hurdles after the World Indoors, I am going to be pretty serious. I am pretty excited about it. Like I said before, my focus will be to defend the title at the World Indoors. Then after a bit of relaxing, I will set about on the 400 hurdles.

You have also talked of seeing 2014 as a ‘light’ year because there is nothing major other than the World Indoors. How does a champion athlete like you prepare for 2015 (the 15th World Championships in Beijing, China), 2016 (the Olympics in Rio, Brazil) and 2017 (the 16th World Championships in London)? It would be like dominating decathlon for seven or eight years?

It is really important to be fit. After doing 2011 (World Championships in Daegu, South Korea), 2012 (World Indoors in Istanbul, the U.S. Olympic Trials and the London Olympics) and 2013 (the Moscow World Championships) I have realised the amount of mental and physical stress the body takes and the kind of preparation I need as I get older. I will be 28 by the time the next Olympics come. I need to have a ‘light’ year in 2014; just take a break to reflect, not having to do any decathlon and the stress to perform well in those events. It is going to be important to set me up well for 2015-17.

Which discipline of decathlon do you enjoy the most?

I think I would say I like… Oh my gosh!… I will say jumping because probably hurdles (110) and 400m are my favourite running events, and my favourite jumping events are pole vault and long jump. Between all, I like the long jump more than the hurdles and 400m.

Are you anxious before the 1500m, especially in the event of a tight finish?

I am always nervous. For a World record and lining up to run the 1500 faster, I am really nervous. I was the most nervous while going for the World record points (two years ago).

Which other sport do you follow closely?

I think American football is probably my second favourite.

CHAMPION AMERICAN DECATHLETES IN THE OLYMPICS

1912 Stockholm: Jim Thorpe 1924 Paris: Harold Osborn 1932 Los Angeles: James Bausch 1936 Berlin: Glenn Morris 1948 London: Bob Mathias 1952 Helsinki: Bob Mathias 1956 Melbourne: Milt Campbell 1960 Rome: Refer Johnson 1968 Mexico City: Bill Toomey 1976 Montreal: Bruce Jenner 1996 Atlanta: Dan O'Brien 2008 Beijing: Bryan Clay 2012 London: Ashton Eaton

IN THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS 1991 Tokyo: Dan O'Brien

1993 Stuttgart: Dan O'Brien 1995 Gothenburg: Dan O'Brien 2003 Saint-Denis: Tom Pappas 2005 Helsinki: Bryan Clay 2009 Berlin: Trey Hardee 2011 Daegu: Trey Hardee 2013 Moscow: Ashton Eaton

ESSENTIAL EATON Personal best and world record Decathlon: 9039 points Heptathlon: 6645 points Gold medals

Heptathlon — 2012 World Indoor Championships, Istanbul

Decathlon — 2012 London Olympics; 2013 World Championships, Moscow