LONDON — It took a long time for the scoreboard to figure out what the Olympic decathletes knew after the final heat of the 1,500 meters late Thursday night. After 24 grueling hours of competition in 10 events over two days, American Ashton Eaton had secured the Olympic gold medal and his U.S. teammate, Trey Hardee, had claimed the silver.
Eaton and Hardee already had shared an exhausted embrace and high-five, and then a second embrace, by the time the result flashed in Olympic Stadium: Eaton had scored 8,869 points, just 24 short of Roman Sebrle’s 2004 Olympic record in the event, and Hardee, 8,671.
Nearly all of the decathletes, standing near the finish line after the 1,500, offered simultaneous, seemingly choreographed, we’re-not-worthy-bows when the totals appeared.
“He’s the best ever,” said Dan O’Brien, who won the Olympic gold medal in 1996. “He’s absolutely the best ever.”
Hardee, who has won the last two world titles, offered a pretty impressive second best. The two led from start to finish, and Hardee easily topped Cuba’s Leonel Suarez, who scored 8,523. The pair became the first Americans to finish 1-2 since the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, when Milt Campbell and Rafer Johnson did it.
“I understand I’m young,” said Eaton, who is 24. “It’s super-hard to grasp. The good thing is, I’ll get older, and I can look back on it.”
Ashton also collected his gold on a special anniversary: 100 years after Jim Thorpe became the first American to win gold at the event.
Legend has it that King Gustav V of Sweden told Thorpe, when awarding him the gold medal, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Ever since, the winner of the event at the Olympic Games has earned that unofficial distinction. Yet Eaton, who fell well short of the world record of 9,039 that he set in the event in June, did not feel nearly that spectacular.
“For me to consider myself the ‘world’s greatest athlete,’ I have to really, really amaze myself in every event,” Eaton said. But “I don’t want to discredit what King Gustav told Jim 100 years ago.”
Entering these Olympics, Eaton said he was chasing a gold medal, not a world record. And given that the event was stretched out over two days — unlike at the Olympic trials when the event was carried out in 12 hours total — it was hardly surprising that Eaton could not match his performance in Eugene, Ore., which also happens to house his home track.
That, however, did not diminish the appreciation of his rivals, or O’Brien.
“That wasn’t the last time we will see 9,000 points,” O’Brien said. “Roman Sebrle did it once. I think Ashton Eaton is going to do it once a year until we get to Rio” de Janeiro for the 2016 Games.
Eaton entered the day leading by 220 points, and was never seriously threatened. In the day’s first event, the 110 hurdles, Hardee posted the best time, 13.54 seconds, but Eaton was right behind with 13.56. Eaton slipped in the discus, his 139-foot-6-inch heave no better than 22nd, as Hardee put forward a throw of 158-4, third-best of the day.
But an excellent performance in the pole vault, the day’s third event and last of a long morning, seemed to seal the gold. Eaton walked off after clearing 17 feet, 3 / 4 inches, even though he could have continued. Hardee cleared just 15-9, missing three times at 16-43 / 4.
Eaton, who broke into a grin as he fell toward the mat in the midst of his final jump, seemed to know it was over. He didn’t attempt anything higher to save his energy for the evening session.
“Once the pole vault is over, then you can kind of determine where you stand,” he said.
Eaton put forward a decent heave in the javelin throw, 203-3 as Hardee went 218-8.
That left the 1,500 final. The finish did not offer half the drama of the U.S. trials, when Eaton needed a personal best to set the world record. In the homestretch, as he chased that mark, the leading runner stepped aside to let him cross the line in glory.
Thursday, Eaton chugged home in 4 minutes 33.59 seconds — considerably slower than the 4:14.48 he managed in Eugene as Hardee crossed the line in 4:40.94. Eaton stood with his hands on his knees for nearly a minute, his back heaving.
This was no Usain Bolt finish. But it was nonetheless something to appreciate
“I’ve been the best in the world now a couple of years,” Hardee said. “I think it’s safe to say my reign is over.”