Jim Caple, ESPN Senior Writer
EUGENE, Ore. — In addition to watching fireworks, barbecuing burgers and nibbling cobs of corn, here’s something else to do this Fourth of July. Ask your friends and family to name the reigning Olympic champion in the decathlon. If they have trouble answering, point out that he’s American, as were 11 previous Olympic champions, including a two-time winner.
This is a question that would have been easily answered by many in previous decades. “Oh, you mean the world’s greatest athlete? Easy. That’s Bruce Jenner.” Or “Daley Thompson.” Or “Rafer Johnson.” You get the point. The Olympic decathlon champion used to be well-known in the old days.
Not so much anymore. America’s Ashton Eaton is the reigning champion after having won gold in 2012. He also holds the world record in the event. Despite dealing with some nagging injuries — “Most decathletes probably have something,” Eaton said. “It’s just the nature of the event” — he won the decathlon at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials Sunday, placing or sharing first in five of the 10 events and finishing with 8,750 points — 325 more than runner-up Jeremy Taiwo. Eaton has topped 9,000 points twice in his career and hasn’t lost since 2011. He’s the favorite to win in Rio, joining Thompson and American Bob Mathias as two-time Olympic champions.
“That would be cool because those guys are — well, cool is like a crappy word because that would be awesome company to be in,” the 28-year-old Eaton said.
So with that dazzling résumé, why isn’t Eaton more of a national focus? And why don’t Americans care about the decathlon the way we used to?
“The questions to ask are, why was the decathlon so popular before, and what happened to make it fade?” Eaton said. “I notice a lot of things in general tend to follow that up-and-down trend. Perhaps in four years we’ll see the decathlon become popular for some unknown reason. And for some unknown reason it started being unpopular a while ago. I’m not sure what to do to make it more popular.
“I think the media tends to have a say, so maybe if you guys trend it up?”
Eaton is right about that. We need to talk up the decathlon champions again, as we did in the past.
Just look at Eaton. Not only is he the world’s best in the decathlon, he’s married to Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who is among the favorites to medal in the heptathlon in Rio (and remember when that event was a bigger deal in the days of Jackie Joyner-Kersee?). Think about it. A married couple each competing to be the world’s greatest male and female athlete at the Olympics when most of us find it a challenge just to not snore and keep our partner awake.
“It’s pretty cool. We probably won’t fully understand until we’re older and have opportunity to look back on the experience,” Eaton said. “We’re very focused right now. She’s a massive supporter of me and I’m a massive supporter of her. I think it does make the pursuit easier because we understand what it takes in our marriage — the success of our athletic dreams comes before everything. It’s kind of tough sometimes, especially when you’re married. ‘Hey, do you want to go watch a movie?’ ‘No, I have a hard workout tomorrow.’
“Luckily I understand her and she understands me.”
The two have also been active supporters of charities, including work with organizations like Right to Play and World Vision.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Eaton said. “We feel really strongly about those organizations. As an athlete, you really see a lot of the Instagram paradigm. Where it’s just like ‘Me! Me! Me!’ When you realize you can ‘Give, Give, Give,’ it’s very interesting and it’s good.”
Eaton is also a fair teammate — after taking the first two questions at his post-decathlon news conference Sunday, he said he wouldn’t take any more until the media first asked fellow U.S. qualifiers Taiwo and Zach Ziemek to talk about their achievements.
Those are all reasons to root for Eaton in Rio — and to bring up his name today so more Americans know it as well as we did Jenner, Mathias, Johnson, Jim Thorpe …