Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Here are some of the most commonly-asked questions about decathlon for women.

They start with practical questions and answers, and then develop into addressing some of the challenges faced by female decathletes. The answers reflect the views of the author but are drawn from numerous discussions with female decathletes and their support teams.

If you found this useful and have further questions, please do get in touch and we can add any popular queries to the list.

1. How are the points calculated in women’s decathlon?

The points tables for women’s decathlon are included in the IAAF/WA scoring tables, alongside those for men’s decathlon. The heptathlon tables are used for those disciplines that feature in in both heptathlon and decathlon (long jump, shot, high jump, hurdles, javelin) and there are additional tables for the different/additional events. You can find a link here (page 138 for the women’s decathlon-specific tables).

However, despite there being tables for men’s indoor heptathlon and the rare men’s indoor pentathlon, there is no 1000m scoring table for women’s indoor heptathlon. World Athletics have recently indicated a willingness to remedy this.

2. Are the events in a women’s decathlon in the same order as in the men’s decathlon?

A decathlon is ten events designed to run in this order: 100m, long jump, shot, high jump, 400m (Day 1), 110/100mh, discus, pole vault, javelin, 1500m (Day 2).

The only differences between the men’s and women’s events are the height/weight of the implements used and the 110m/100m distance for the hurdles, mirroring the individual events.

There is a misconception that women’s decathlon was designed to have events in a different order from the men’s.

That misconception refers to a clause relating to the practicality of holding two decathlons at the same time, with the women’s decathlon considered less important and therefore to be adjusted to fit around the men’s event. This protocol for competition is over 20 years old, and its discriminatory nature would be highly unlikely to survive if challenged, given the direct conflict with World Athletics’ otherwise exemplary record on equality in track and field, which you can read about here.

Although it was envisaged to keep Men’s and Women’s decathlon identical, problems would appear when these two events should be organised at the same stadium at the same time. It was therefore proposed to keep the men’s order of running events and inverse the order of field events between the two days.

Extract from IAAF combined events tables:

3. What is the decathlon world record?

The world record is held by Austra Skujytė of Lithuania, who scored 8358 in 2005.

Austra’s record was set using the protocol set out by the IAAF and would therefore have likely been much higher if she had done the events in the correct order (and you can read about her experience here). In 2021 Jordan Gray of the USA scored 8246 (with the events in the correct order).

The Women’s’ Decathlon Association has a comprehensive decathlon all-time list, which you can view here.

4. Why do women want to do decathlon, given that they already have heptathlon?

This is a common question asked of women involved in decathlon, and there is a practical answer, and an answer which relates to principle.

First, from a practical perspective, decathlon is a different event to heptathlon. Decathlon is commonly described as the greatest test of all round ability, and the ultimate track and field event. As well as the additional/longer Day 1 sprint and Day 2 middle distance run, the discus and pole vault take the event to a different level of complexity. In the men’s event, we often see the entire dynamic of the competition change on the second day, as those with greater skills in those events challenge the stronger sprinters and jumpers from Day 1.  

Athletes who are good at heptathlon may not be good at decathlon, and vice versa.

Second, if we were to lift this question out of the context of track and field and put into any other profession, we get a useful perspective. For example, we would never say to women “why do you want to work in this new profession when women already have that profession?”

Clearly, in that context it would be unthinkable to question why women might want to pursue a career in a profession previously undertaken only by men. It’s the same for decathlon.

5. Isn’t in unfair to expect heptathletes to switch to decathlon mid-career?

This is another question commonly asked of female decathletes and has a practical element and an element of principle.

If, at some point in the future, there is a choice to be made about whether heptathlon or decathlon is the combined event for women at major championships, any switch away from heptathlon to decathlon would have a long lead-in time. That was the case when the idea was first mooted in the early 2000s.

No-one is asking, or expecting, current heptathletes to suddenly learn discus and pole vault and switch to decathlon.

However, at the moment, the choice is not a fair one. While teenage boys and teenage girls may learn the same track and field events as they are growing up, there comes a point at which a door closes for girls that remains open for boys. Girls are not permitted to pursue their potential as decathletes and are directed into heptathlon. Boys have no such limitations placed on them.

It is unfair to deny girls the opportunity to even try decathlon. At such point that women have the choice to do both, there can then be an informed decision – in consultation with female combined eventers – about which one should be the championships event (if both are not possible).

6. What about the legacy of the heptathlon – Jackie Joyner Kersee, Carolina Kluft and so on? We may not have seen the success of athletes like Jessica Ennis if we had not had the heptathlon.

Allowing women to compete in decathlon does not erase the legacy of the heptathlon, any more than the evolution of heptathlon erased the legacy of Mary Peters and her colleagues in the pentathlon.

Again, if we take this question out of the context of track and field and into other professions, we would never suggest that women breaking into new fields are undermining the legacy of women in previous fields. Women are not a homogenous group, and they are permitted to excel in different events.

There was a time in recent memory where women were not permitted to compete in the pole vault, triple jump, steeplechase and hammer, and many other events before that. If the women who lobbied for those changes hadn’t been successful, we wouldn’t have a Sandi Morris or Katie Nageotte, a Catherine Ibarguen or a Yulimar Rojas, an Emma Coburn or a Beatrice Chepkoech. There would be no Anita Wlodarczyk.

We don’t know how many more Austras there might have been in decathlon because they didn’t get the chance to emerge and shine. The successes of one group of women in one moment in time – in track and field or elsewhere – does not undermine the successes of others in another time.

7. Isn’t women’s decathlon too low quality to be included in major championships?

This question places female decathletes in a Catch-22 situation, and sets them up to fail.

Women have limited opportunities to compete in decathlon and therefore limited opportunities to improve on their potential.  Talented athletes like Austra Skujytė and Jordan Gray were able to set significant, 8000+ marks despite only having the opportunity to compete in a handful of decathlons. Many more would likely reach this standard if they had the chance to compete more. Criticising women for the quality of their marks without giving them the opportunities to improve places them in a no-win situation.

This is, unfortunately, a common experience of women in male-dominated professions outwith track and field. Woman are expected to demonstrate merit without having the opportunities that were afforded to their male colleagues to achieve that merit.

The efforts of competitions such as the US women’s national championships, and the multiple decathlon opportunities emerging in France, will therefore help female decathletes build a portfolio of quality scores.

8. Decathlon is expensive and time consuming. Wouldn’t a shift to decathlon exclude more women from the combined events?

Decathlon is expensive and time consuming, but it is not a barrier for the thousands of male athletes who compete in decathlon, at all standards. Federations and clubs are choosing to invest in those male athletes – if they choose not to invest in those athletes’ female counterparts, then that would be a worrying situation.

It is not women’s responsibility to restrict their growth and development in sport to remain within the budgets of federations and other organising bodies.

In the 21st century we would not expect women to be barred from entering new professions because it is too expensive to train them as well as men.

We would not tell a male athlete, or indeed any man in any profession, that he cannot break new ground because he has the responsibility to ensure that the rest of his sex has opportunity.

And therefore, telling female athletes who are breaking new ground that they shouldn’t do so because it will mean that women become more expensive to support is something we should also leave in the past. Women are of course excluded from sport, but there is a very long list of reasons why that is the case, and none of them are about female decathletes.