LONDON — Following the final event of the men’s decathlon, the competitors posed for a group photo on the track. It is tradition for athletes more invested in fraternity than rivalry. In the center of it all, amid jubilant Olympians flashing thumbs-up and victory signs, Ashton Eaton posed with an American flag around his shoulders. He flashed the exhausted smile of a gold-medal winner.
“There’s really not much I can say,” said Eaton. “I worked really hard for this. I just can’t believe it. All the guys have put in a lot of work. I wonder why I deserved the gold because all these other guys worked so hard as well. It’s like a family out there, all wanting to succeed.”
Eaton led from start to finish in the 10-event competition, capitalizing on his strength in the running events and collecting 8,869 points. The total was well short of the world-record 9,039 points he earned at the US Olympic trials in June. Teammate and defending world champion Trey Hardee earned silver with 8,671 points. Both were models of consistency throughout the competition, making them the fifth American pair to finish 1-2 in the decathlon. Milt Campbell and Rafer Johnson last accomplished the feat at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
Hardee called the 1-2 finish the “exclamation point” on the US decathletes’ Olympic mission.
Attending a centennial celebration of the first Olympic decathlon several weeks ago, Eaton. 24, and Hardee, 28, gained a greater appreciation for the event’s history. The celebration brought together all the living medalists in decathlon, as well as current competitors. Hardee met Johnson and Campbell at the affair.
“I was tearing up watching the video of all those guys,” said Hardee. “I left there that night with a newfound resolve and a newfound kick in the butt on what this really means. It’s not just another meet. This is the Olympic Games. Representing the United States in that is so much bigger than you realize.”
Going into the final event, the 1,500 meters, Eaton had a shot at the Olympic record. But fatigued from two days of competition and already assured of gold, he finished in 4 minutes 33.59 seconds. Not quick enough to add the points needed for a new record.
“I knew going into that race I was going to get the gold,” said Eaton. “I just thought, ‘What’s going on?’ This is my dream, but it’s happened so fast.”
Former gold medalist Dan O’Brien believes Eaton can add another 100 points to his world record with improvement in the throwing events.
“He’s absolutely the best ever,” said O’Brien. “That’s not the last time we’re going to see 9,000.”
An elbow injury kept Hardee from consistent training this past year and nearly kept him from his second Olympics.
“Less than 10 months ago, I was waking up from [elbow] surgery,” said Hardee, who threw a season-best 66.65 meters (218 feet 8 inches) in the javelin. “Ten months ago, I didn’t know I would be here. Looking back, I couldn’t have worked any harder. This was the most challenging year of my career and this was the performance that I have earned over the last year. There’s nothing more gratifying than to be in this moment.”