Ask an athlete representing their country at Rio 2016 what Olympic sport they think is the most grueling, and we’d bet a podium finish they’d say their own sport. Well, maybe except the mariners gunning for gold in the Sailing event (they are braving those extra-terrestrial waters in Brazil, though).
So how about the opinion of one of the greatest non-Olympic athletes to ever grace his sport?
His Airness, the mercurial Michael Jordan himself, feels one sport is so difficult, the six-time NBA champion couldn’t see himself competing in his prime.
“I asked Jordan about that once,” says Frank Zarnowski, a commentator and historian who’s authored seven sports books.
“He said, ‘Oh, I could do OK in the running and jumping’ but he said he would be absolutely fearful of the pole vault. He said, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ “
MJ was of course referring to the hydra-headed, two-day decathlon event.
It isn’t difficult to see why the Chicago Bulls legend chose the strenuous 10-event competition, where performance is pushed to its peak. It’s the penultimate test of human ability, assessing an athlete’s strength, endurance, accuracy, power, and intelligence.
Becoming a ‘jack-of-all-trades, master-of-all’ is certainly difficult, but decathletes aren’t competing with Usain Bolt in 100m, or Mike Powell in the long jump. Still, the ability to perform in 10 events at near-Olympic individual sport capacity is impressive and demanding.
But does the palate of skills required to compete in a decathlon make it the most difficult Olympic sport on the body?
The modern decathlon made its way into the Olympic schedule at the 1912 Games in Stockholm. The 10 event competition spans over two days, typically including the following standard events:
- Day 1: 100m Sprint, Long Jump, Shot Put, High Jump, 400m Run.
- Day 2: 110m Hurdle, Discus Throw, Pole Vault, Javelin Throw, 1500m Run.
The track & field event works on a unique points system, which we’ll simplify as much as possible. At its core, decathletes are awarded points for either fast times, or greater distance/height achieved, based on the event.Judges use the following formulas:
- Points = INT(A(B P)C) for track events (faster time produces a better score)
- Points = INT(A(P B)C) for field events (greater distance or height produces a better score)
A, B, and C, are parameters varying in discipline, and P scores an athlete’s performance. This is measured in seconds (running), metres (throwing), and centimetres (jumping). Each tier of ‘points’ accumulated by a decathlete is denoted by benchmarks, which awards more points as they’re surpassed. For example, running the 100m dash in under 11.28 seconds will award 800 points, while a 10.40 time or better rewards 1000 points.
If the athletic feats required by the body are more difficult than the scoring system, there’s no doubt it’s a ridiculously difficult sport, right?
What Makes It Difficult?
Remember when we said decathletes kind of ‘have it easy’, with the Usain Bolts of the world excelling and sticking to an individual discipline?
That’s not always the case decathletes are truly elite in every one of the 10 events.
Comparing the best, world record times against decathlon bests, many world records are only a couple seconds or centimetres better than decathlon records. While a few milliseconds are an eternity in sprinting for example, there’s no doubt decathletes would have the physical abilities to qualify for the final heat of a championship race.
So, each decathlete is performing against one another at true Olympic-levels of competition, but across 10 unique disciplines. Over 48 hours.
The training involved is encompassing, too with the peak of the body’s performance required, the workout intensity mirrors the demand. Cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, muscle twitch fibres, aerobic and anaerobic training systems almost everything you can think of is what a decathlete will call upon over their two-day competition.
Here’s how decathlete Trey Hardee, who won silver for the U.S. in the 2012 Olympic decathlon, described his training to MensFitness.com:
“There’s so much that goes into being a good decathlete, but for my daily training I’m up at 6:30 a.m., lifting weights by 7:30 a.m., and doing rehab every morning followed by a throwing session outsideeither shot put, discus, or javelin. Then a short break for lunch and after that I do my afternoon sessions, which usually has a jumplong, high, or pole vaultfollowed by my running workout for the day. Running can be something as short as 20-meter block starts, or as long as 1000m tempo runs.”
And all of that, as you can imagine, takes its toll on the body.
“I’m training about 35 to 40 hours per week. Every day, I have some kind of prehab or cooldown therapy in placemassage, chiropractic care, physiotherapy, or stretching. The list goes on and on.”
Can Any Other Event Compare?
While a decathlon is punishing, we’re not degrading other Olympic events. Like we said, other athletes from other disciplines will argue their sport is the toughest, and with good reason.
- Freestyle Wrestling: You train to be the biggest, most powerful, skilled and meanest athlete on the planet to face others cut from the same cloth. Tons of muscle and strength training here. Olympic wrestling takes two unstoppable forces, and faces them against one another in three, 2-minute periods of mano a mano brutality. And then you do it 4-5 times again each day.
- Water Polo: This is no joke water polo isn’t for the weak. Have you tried treading water for 28 minutes? This strategic sport requires supernatural muscle endurance, along with the capacity to move, catch, and throw the ball accurately. Oh, and there’s a whole other team dunking you underwater or tossing elbows in the meantime.
- Gymnastics: The strength and muscle endurance needed in gymnastics surprises most who think it’s more finesse than force. Keeping perfect control of your body (you’re scored on this, after all) while in movement and executing maneuvers is extremely challenging, and it’s all being done on a tiny, 4-inch wide beam.
Despite the meat-and-grizzle of wrestling, the draining aspects of water polo, and the combination of grace and guts in gymnastics, they simply don’t stack up to the decathlon. There are just too many skills and demands required by a decathlete that makes the sport the true test of a human’s limit. Maybe there’s a reason the winner of the decathlon is traditionally branded as the ‘World’s Greatest Athlete’.
There’s no doubt this is the toughest sport, and the most difficult to grab a podium finish in. A decathlete can have no weakness they must be a physical force in running, jumping, vaulting, and throwing. Muscle strength, explosiveness and agility must be world class on Day 1, followed by similar feats of technique and endurance on Day 2. Add in the reality the clock or measuring stick leaves no room for human error, or otherwise (we’re looking at you, Russian Federation), meaning there’s no excuse or fallback for failure.
No part of the body that goes untested in a decathlon and that includes the brain and that’s why it takes home the gold as the toughest Olympic sport today.
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