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Sports

Is the decathlon champion still the 'world's best athlete' in 2019?

Ogden column: 10-event competition seems to have lost some luster

Dan O'Brien once was the “greatest athlete in the world” after winning Olympic and world titles. Now he's doing TV work for the USATF championships in Des Moines this weekend. (Team USA photo)
Dan O'Brien once was the “greatest athlete in the world” after winning Olympic and world titles. Now he's doing TV work for the USATF championships in Des Moines this weekend. (Team USA photo)

Who won the Olympic decathlon gold medal in 2016?

No cheating. No Google. Do you remember?

How about in 2012? 2008?

How about 1996?

The point of this little exercise isn’t to test your decathlon knowledge, or even your Olympic wisdom. The point is to see how important the decathlon is these days.

There was a time — and it doesn’t seem that long ago — when the Olympic decathlon champion was the “greatest athlete in the world.” That was the actual title bestowed upon the likes of Jim Thorpe (1912 winner), Bob Mathias (1948 and ’52), Rafer Johnson (1960) and Bruce Jenner (1976).

And Dan O’Brien — the answer to one of the above questions.

O’Brien is in Iowa this week for the U.S. outdoor track and field championships. The four-day event began Thursday at Drake Stadium in Des Moines. It will include the greatest track — and field — athletes in our country today, all competing for a shot on Team USA for the world championships later this year.

O’Brien will be doing interviews with the national champions during NBC’s multiplatform coverage. The meet will include the likes of 2016 Olympic gold medalists Christian Taylor and Dalilah Muhammad (they won the men’s triple jump and 400 hurdles), as well as Justin Gatlin, Allyson Felix and rising sprint star Christian Coleman, who could set American records in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

“This is going to be a good year,” O’Brien said last week in a telephone interview, previewing the meet. “We’ve got a ton of young athletes.”

He said he’s looking forward to seeing “a star in the making” in 110 high hurdler Grant Holloway, who is ranked No. 1 in the world.

He mentioned several sprinting events and even some of the distance races.

He didn’t mention the decathlon.

What has happened to the 10-event competition, which kicked off the weekend meet with the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400 dash Thursday? Friday’s schedule includes the final five events — 110 hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500.

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That question may be hard to answer, but it may have something to do with the short attention span in today’s sports world, in today’s society. The 100 dash? Fast and furious, over in the blink of an eye. A 10-event, two-day competition? Not so cool.

For those of a certain age group, though, the decathlon was — and maybe still is — cool.

O’Brien was a star and, along with Dave Johnson, was the centerpiece of many Reebok commercials heading into the 1992 Olympic Trials. The two seemingly were everywhere. But when O’Brien failed to make the team — he no-heighted in the pole vault at the trials — the marketing campaign died. Johnson went on to win the bronze medal in Barcelona.

The two relived their story in an ESPN Radio “30 for 30” podcast.

“It’s tough to go back to that time in my life,” O’Brien said. “Ninety-two was pretty traumatic.”

These days O’Brien spends his time working out and working with other athletes, even a rising decathlete. He misses the competition and being “the greatest athlete in the world,” which he bounced back to become in 1996.

“The thing I miss the most in the pursuit,” he said.

There are talks about a documentary about “Dan and Dave,” too.

Maybe the decathlon can do what O’Brien did four years after his “traumatic failure” in 1992 and rise once again.

Maybe.

For the record, Ashton Eaton won the last two Olympic decathlon golds.

l Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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