August 21, 2005

King Of Athletes

I was on my way to writing a few not-very-enlightening comments about the decathlon at the World Athletics Championships, along the lines of "isn't it funny how slow they look running the 400 m, compared to the real runners? What's up with that?"

This reminded me of a famous quote (at least, it was once famous in my house), attributed to Steve Ovett, that the decathlon is nothing more than "nine Mickey Mouse events followed by a slow 1500." I was doing a Google search trying to find a definitive source, when I came upon a left-brain special extraordinaire. It's not out of my left brain, but I wish it was.

The piece is Challenge Decathlon: Barriers on the Way to Becoming the "King of Athletes," by Gunther Tidow. Tidow begins by quantifying the gaps between the world's best decathletes and the world's best single-eventers ("specialists"). There are a couple of nice graphs and some interesting conclusions. Here's an excerpt:

It is a general fact that the superiority of the specialists varies considerably from discipline to discipline. For decades, as far as velocity is concerned, decathletes have come closest to the specialist level in the long jump and in the (hurdles) sprint (93%), while in the throws and in the 1500m decathletes are farthest away from the specialists (ca. 75%) … The comparison between 1980 and 1996 shows … [that] the difference has become smaller in the throws, whereas it has become clearly bigger in the high jump as well as in the 1500m race.

Tidow goes on to attribute this change to improvements in doping control and changes in the decathlon scoring tables. Later on he also tries to explain, physiologically, why the 1500 is the most difficult event for the decathletes to excel in; he rephrases Ovett's quote above to note that "the decathlon consists of nine anaerobic speed-strength disciplines and a primarily aerobic endurance contest."


Sean said...

Of course, the anaerobic vs. aerobic comparison is totally correct, but to me the interesting comparison is to the specialists. I mean, *holy shit*, these athletes can come within 75-93% of what the specialists are capable of??? That is amazing.

I always thought that the decathlon should be a more exciting event on television than it is today. Arguably, if the Dan/Dave competition had ever materialized, it may well have become so.

Amateur said...

Along the lines of my original thought -- these guys are very, very good at all of the events. And yet, it's obvious to the semi-trained eye that they are inferior. It's a bit surprising.

Anonymous said...

well -- I think that the steve Ovett quote is certainly biased... but I am more likely to agree with Sean that to come with 7-20% of the world bests in each event when you have to train for all ten is amazing... maybe they should add a 10 000m race and deep six the 110 hurdles... which doesnt really differ much from the 100 in regards to the energy system it is testing... k1-91

Amateur said...

Welcome back, K1-91!

I believe Ovett originally said it to get under Daley Thompson's skin (in a humourous way).

Even better, replace the 110 hurdles with the 3,000 steeplechase. Of course, the more diverse you make it, the farther the decathletes will get from the specialists.

John said...

I have no time for these multi-event buffoons. *cough*

I should really set that up, shouldn't I? A percentage rating of my performance in each one compared to the winning time in the last Olympics. Nice idea, Am.

So far, in the measurable ones:

20km Walk = 57%
50km Walk = 58%
Triathlon = 53%

Better than half every time. I deserve a medal, frankly.