- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LONDON -- Midway through Thursday's post-decathlon press conference, a reporter asked newly crowned Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton who was the better athlete: Usain Bolt or Eaton. Before Eaton could answer, silver medalist Trey Hardee interrupted.
"Just so Ashton doesn't have to sound selfish or self-centered, Ashton is the best athlete to ever walk the planet. Hands down," Hardee said. "The title bestowed on the decathlon champion is 'World's Greatest Athlete,' and Ashton is the world-record holder in that event. Usain Bolt can be the fastest man on the planet because that's the title that's bestowed on those event winners. Just because you're fast doesn't make you an athlete."
Well, Bolt would certainly disagree with that last statement -- as would everyone else -- but he has no argument with the first part. "I'm a great athlete," Bolt said, "but to do 10 events, especially the 1,500? I've got to give it to him."
If Bolt is willing to concede someone is better than he is, then that makes it official: Eaton is the world's greatest athlete, even if much of the attention Thursday night went to Bolt, who won the 200-meter final just before Eaton won the decathlon with 8,869 points.
There was a time when winning the decathlon brought national fame and lucrative endorsements, but the event has fallen from American favor. Rather than the discipline that has given America such champions as Rafer Johnson, Bob Mathias and Bruce Jenner, it's now just considered an event that has a confusing scoring system and is drawn out over two days.
"I think there's just so much more things to watch on TV these days, from cooking shows to 'Iron Chef,'" 1996 gold medalist Dan O'Brien said. "The decathlon just gets overshadowed by the glamour events. I think that's what makes the decathlon guys just who they are. They're out there just doing it for themselves and for each other. It's for the gold, but it seems like it's for the pure of heart, as well."
That is certainly the case for Eaton and Hardee. A couple months ago, they attended a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the decathlon's debut in the Olympics in which all living past medalists were in attendance.
"It's such an elite fraternity and it was something Ashton and I got to experience," Hardee said. "I was just tearing up, just seeing such great athletes and representatives of their country. I left there that night with a newfound resolve and a new kick in the butt."
Suitably inspired, Eaton and Hardee added to America's rich decathlon legacy by finishing first and second, the first time two U.S. decathletes have done that since 1956.
"This is what we really, really wanted," Eaton said. "There has been a really good history with U.S. decathletes, beginning with Jim Thorpe in 1912. And Trey and I are just trying to carry it on."
Eaton is sort of the anti-Bolt, a humble, old-school athlete in an old-school event. He doesn't call attention to himself. While Bolt devours the spotlight, Eaton deflects it. "I don't really do this for any of that stuff," he said. "I don't care about the riches and all those things. I think [sponsorships are] really cool to have because I think it's important for sports promotion. ... I just like doing what I'm doing."
He is so meticulous about his preparation that before the competition he lays out all his food and clothes for the two days. "I get my food ready for both days. It's pretty much essential in between days," he said before the Olympics. "Because as soon as I finish the first day, I have, like, pajamas out and all these other things. I just want to get home, take a shower, eat and go to bed. I don't want to worry about anything when I wake up. The last thing I want to do when I wake up is have to find my socks or shoes or figure out where my warm-up clothes are."
Thoroughly prepared, Eaton led from the opening 100-meter event, which he ran in an Olympic decathlon record. As the event progressed, the only question left was whether he would break his own world record. Those hopes died when he felt a twinge in a quadriceps during the pole vault, prompting him to stop vaulting early and take the points he had.
No matter. He already had the world record (set at the U.S. Olympic trials), and now he has the title of "World's Greatest Athlete.'' And he is, even if people don't tend to agree anymore. But if you want to argue, just try to picture Bolt throwing the shot put.
Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee pulled off a rare American feat in the Olympic decathlon, a feat that warrants a very specific level of respect.