RIO DE JANEIRO — A sprint and a sprinter — say, the 200 meters, featuring Usain Bolt — offer a thunderclap of energy, 20 seconds of pure athletic competition easy to decipher. One man ran faster than the others. He is the winner. At the Olympics, he wears gold.
The decathlon takes two days, four competitive sessions and 10 events. It involves a scoring system that might confuse college mathematics professors. And yet, when Ashton Eaton finished the final strides of the 1,500 meters Thursday night — a combination wince-and-smile crossing his face, surely representing exhaustion and elation — who’s to say he’s not a better athlete than Bolt?
Does Eaton bring the flair of Bolt? No. Rather, he delivers a calm, understated sense of accomplishment.
“If you watch him compete,” said fellow American Jeremy Taiwo, “he’s always rooting for everyone else. Just to see that person, that character, be at that high level of performance and be the best athlete of all-time, that’s awesome, right?”
These are, of course, wholly different pursuits. But as Bolt completed his unprecedented triple double — winning the 200 meters Thursday night to sweep the individual sprint golds at the last three Olympics — Eaton had a claim to history as well. He not only tied an Olympic record with 8,893 points, but he became just the third man to win back-to-back decathlon titles, putting a gold next to the one he won four years ago in London, putting his name alongside Great Britain’s Daley Thompson and the U.S.’s Bob Mathias in decidedly distinct company.
But couldn’t he have squeezed out one more point for the Olympic mark, thus shoving aside Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic, who tallied the same score in 2004?
“To equal it, it’s like, ‘Seriously?’ ” Eaton said. “When you look at 10 events, and you look at all the little centimeters over 10, it’s like, ‘How can there not be one stinking point in there somewhere?’ But it’s the decathlon, I guess.”
And it is glorious, anyway. Eaton’s two-day scratch-and-claw to the title, which finished with the javelin throw and 1,500-meter run Thursday night, came on just the latest electric night for the American track team. Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs went gold and silver in the shot put. Dalilah Muhammad joined her male counterpart, Kerron Clement, as a gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles.
All have their place in history, because they are Olympic medalists.
Only Eaton was certified as a legend. Before these Games began, Eaton had accomplished everything the sport had to offer. He was the decathlon world champion in 2013 and 2015. He owned the gold from London. He set the world record point total, then topped it. He appeared last month on the cover of “Vogue” with supermodel Gigi Hadid.
“I’ve always known that he would be able to set Olympic records and world records,” said Taiwo, who competed at the University of Washington when Eaton was at Oregon. “. . . But to see what he’s done and how he handles himself, especially in these situations — when things don’t go that well in the meet itself or when there’s a lot of expectations, like, ‘You need to break this Olympic record. You have everything else. This is the time for you to do it to cap it off’ – to see the way he handles himself is amazing.”
In Rio, too, he had to handle what amounted to seven more events: Eaton’s wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, won bronze in the heptathlon for Canada.
“She is such an inspiration to me,” Eaton said.
So a theme for the night: family. Crouser certainly drew inspiration from his. His father was an alternate for the 1984 Olympics, his uncle a two-time Olympian javelin thrower. They stood behind the shot put area at the stadium Thursday wearing Team Crouser gear.
“It was really a special night from the moment I walked through that tunnel onto that field,” Crouser said.
Special, too, because Kovacs pushed him. Kovacs had four of the top six puts of the year, including a season-best 22.13 meters; Crouser had the other two. But after Kovacs took an early lead with a put of 21.78 meters (71 feet 5½ inches) on his first attempt Thursday, Crouser took over. He set a personal best of 22.22 meters (72 feet 9 inches) on his second attempt, bumped that up further on his third, and established an Olympic record — 22.52 meters (73 feet 10¾ inches) — on the fifth of his six tries. Kovacs did not outdo his initial offering — fouling on three of his attempts — and was left with silver.
“To have everything go essentially perfectly,” Crouser said, “is unbelievable.”
There was no medal available for Matthew Centrowitz Thursday, though he, too, is here trying to extend his family legacy. Centrowitz’s father Matt coaches track at American University and was a two-time Olympian in his son’s event, the 1,500 meters. The younger Centrovitz, who grew up in Arnold, ran confidently in Thursday night’s semifinal, surging only when pushed, and advanced with a time of 3:39.61, third in his heat and third of the 12 qualifiers, just 19 hundredths of a second behind Kenya’s Ronald Kemoi.
“Throughout these Olympic Games I’ve just been seeing a lot of tripping and falling, petitioning, and all that stuff — and with the trials as well,” Centrowitz said. “So it definitely puts in the back of your head just making sure you stay on both feet, and make sure none of that happens to you.”
He did that without issue, and is one of a handful of medal contenders in what should be a fascinating final that includes both Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop, the gold medalist from 2008 in Beijing who qualified fourth, and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the gold medalist from 2012 in London who qualified fifth for Saturday’s final.
“These championships can go a lot of different ways,” Centrowitz said. “. . . The best the guys on paper made it through. It’s going to be, obviously, quite a final.”
That could be true, too, of the women’s 800, but for different reasons. The favorite in that event — indeed, a contender to set a world record — is South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who is believed to have an intersex condition called hyperandrogenism, which could leave her with higher levels of testosterone, a potential advantage. Semenya won her heat, the third of three semifinals Thursday, posting the fastest time of the 24 competitors, 1:58.15, within five seconds of both the world and Olympic records, each of which have stood since the early 1980s.
“There’s definitely not an easy solution,” said American Ajee Wilson, who finished third in her heat and did not qualify for the final. “There’s a saying that you shouldn’t really come hard at a problem unless you have a solution. I don’t, so at this point, it’s kind of just like go with the flow of things. You can’t change anything. So you just have to do what you have to do to try and win and do the best you can.”
The best Eaton could do was that improbable tie. That, of course, was good enough for gold, good enough for history. He is 28. If he has left debate about who is the best decathlete of all-time, couldn’t he quash that over the next four years?
“I’m not quite sure what’s next,” Eaton said. “I will say it’s been a pleasure doing everything I’ve done up until this point. As for anything after, I can’t say.”