Mon. May 27th, 2024
Stephen Pond/Getty Images for World Athletics

Finally, on the 7th and 8th days of the World Championships, it’s time to decathlon.

“This will be the BEST Decathlon competition in history. 100%.” said double world decathlon champion Trey Hardee earlier this month. “Write that down (I wrote it down, Trey, here it is) So many guys at 8600+ and much to prove going into 2024.  Young guns, older vets, & all the talent in between!”

So far in Budapest, Noah Lyles has won the 100m. We’ll find out tonight how Simon Ehammer does in the long jump. Ryan Crouser took the shot title, Gimbo the high jump. The 400m is wide open. Grant Holloway blasted the hurdles, Daniel Stahl the discus. The vault will be decided on Saturday night, the javelin Sunday. And the Scotsmen continue their 1500m world championships domination.

Over the next two days, we’ll see the athletes who tackle all those ten events over two days. We might expect Damian to run away in the 100m and long jump. Kevin and Lindon to boss the shot. Sander and Kyle springing close to 2.20 in the high jump, Ayden and Ash bothering 45 seconds in the 400m. Back to Damian for the hurdles, Lindon the discus.  ZZ loves a big vault, Niklas a mighty javelin and then a tussle with Ayden in the 1500m.

But individual event domination means nothing in decathlon. A first day splash can win you the competition but so can a second day kick. And don’t rule out the power of a steady ten-event slog.

For this year’s decathlon, and with a nod to Trey’s characterisation, there are four different groups of dynamics to look out for, and almost certainly more once we get going.

We’ve got the 8700+ guys, the natural favourites for the event. All of them have 9000 in their sights, if not right now, in their foreseeable future or their recent past.

We have the 8400-8600 athletes, some of them new into that space this year, some comfortable in that territory, all of them with the potential to catch the 8700+ guys.

Then there is the 8100-8300 cohort, unlikely to be in the mix for medals here, but bringing both experience and fresh improvements to the field.

And finally, there are the athletes who perhaps wouldn’t have expected to find themselves in the field, but who earned their opportunity to gain experience from participating at the highest level of the sport.

The 8700+ guys

Let’s start with the Big Five: Kevin Mayer of France, Damian Warner and Pierce LePage of Canada, Leo Neugebauer of Germany, and Kyle Garland of USA. These are the men who would expect to be scoring over 8700, either because they don’t know how to do anything else, or because they’ve made significant improvements over the last year.

Kevin Mayer, the world record holder and current world champion, was pushed hard to the world title in 2022 by Pierce LePage and Zach Ziemek, and to his European Indoor title this year by Sander Skotheim. On both occasions he was able to find his inner champion when needed.

Kevin is, as ever, an enigma. A complex puzzle, his every decathlon a proprietary mix of anticipation, determination, devastation and jubilation. To Kevin is to keep us in delicious suspense, unsure whether we will witness a masterclass in human achievement or a wrenching tragedy worthy of Jean Racine.

On the eve of the World Championships decathlon, Kevin has revealed some achilles problems, following hamstring issues earlier in the year. At the time of writing, he is scheduled to start the competition. As to whether the world record holder will indeed commence the decathlon, and whether he’ll finish, and to whether that will be in glory at 8700+ or in devastation along the way, we know not.

For those new to decathlon, Mayer is an athlete who has the most balanced decathlon in history, to quote Trey Hardee. He scored exactly the same number of points on each of the two days of his 9126 world record decathlon in 2018. He has plenty stand out events – his shot, his hurdles, his vault and his javelin – but he is consistent across both days. The “Kevergy” is high, and we are here for it, whatever it looks like.

Meanwhile, the Olympic champion Damian Warner has had more than his fair share of drama over the last 12 months. The sight of him pulling up as if shot by a sniper in the 400m in Eugene can still, a year later, induce instantaneous nausea in the stomach of every decathlon fan. His path back to full fitness has been bumpy, minor injuries in the spring interrupting his run of victories in Götzis (second with a mere 8619), and less than ideal competitions in individual events. But Damian is a championships performer and is rumoured to be in good shape coming into the event. Because his last two decathlons were not his greatest, many have discounted him and turned their attention to newer, shinier arrivals. That, dear reader, would be a mistake.

Equally it would be a mistake not to get excited about the newer arrivals into the mix for global medals. Pierce LePage’s potential has been clear internationally since he won in Decastar in 2019, and last year he had a phenomenal competition in Oregon to take silver behind Mayer in 8701 points. He scored almost the same in Götzis this year to beat Warner, with 8700. Pierce was nowhere near maxing out his score when he did so, so has plenty more left to come if things go well for him.

All the chatter, however, is about the NCAA college duo of Leo Neugebauer of Germany and Kyle Garland of USA, both 23-years-old. And these two – literal – giants deserve it too. In 2022, Garland catapulted himself from a modest college season around 8100 into an 8720 score at the US trials. This year, Leo Neugebauer did similarly, building on his solid suite of 8300 and 8400 decathlons to annihilate Jurgen Hingsen’s German record with 8836 at the NCAA champs. While Garland hasn’t yet repeated his 8700+ this season, he came within 6 points of Ashton Eaton’s world heptathlon record indoors and has already scored 8589 and 8630 this year.

There’s no doubt about the talent and potential of the pair, but the question is how well they can translate a brutal NCAA timetable (with Garland also having to contend US trials) into a strong late season climax.

However, it isn’t their first World Championships. Both competed in Eugene last year after their NCAA season, and so this time they will know what to expect, and how to prepare. If they can bring their best, the all-time greats will need to watch their backs.

Neugebauer is one of the few athletes who is known for having a better discus than javelin, although his scores are righting themselves this year. Garland’s nickname is “Freight Train” and watching him transition from a 16.50m shot into a 2.19m high jump is a sight that everyone should aim to see at least once in their lifetime. Much of the attention is on Neugebauer, but it could be Garland who delivers the big one.

The 8400-8600 guys

While Neugebauer and Garland are navigating their transition from college to global championships performances, their college peer Ayden Owens-Delerme of Puerto Rico nailed that step in 2022. He had been mixing it with Garland all season, but then finished fourth – with a sensational final 1500m, and 400m time second only to Ashton Eaton – in Oregon. His year so far has been much lower key, dabbling– as so many combined eventers do – in 400m hurdles in lieu of decathlon. While Owens-Delerme has been quiet, he has undoubtedly been assiduous in his preparation. Although his win at the CAC champs in San Salvador was only 8281, he may well be brewing something big.

The decathletes in the 8400-8600 range all have the potential to get into the medal mix, notwithstanding the top-heavy distribution of 8700+ athletes. Some of them have shown us that form already this year, some of them we know have that capability but haven’t yet seen them at their best in 2023.

In the latter category, as well as Owens-Delerme, there are a further four men. Ash Moloney of Australia, the Olympic bronze medallist; Lindon Victor of Grenada, the Commonwealth champion; Janek Õiglane of Estonia, the European bronze medallist and Niklas Kaul of Germany, the European champion.

Niklas Kaul had a good, solid competition in Ratingen earlier in the summer, scoring 8484 but we know that Kaul gets better as the season goes on, and the spring decathlons often arrive a little early for him. If he’s managed to stay healthy since that competition, Kaul will likely have another 200 hundred points in him. Even at his best, and with his multiple titles, he’s no longer the top German in the team and it will be interesting to watch how he adapts to that lower key status. It may well suit him and may help him move into the next tier of points he will need to medal again at global level.

Lindon Victor has had a dreadful year with undiagnosed injuries, but in his own words there are no doctors that can keep him away from decathlon. If all is well, expect him up at 8500-8600 stalking the leaders.

Janek Õiglane is perennially injury-afflicted but was looking good to go at the Estonian champs this year until he had a little hamstring trouble. Thankfully it didn’t seem to be too serious, and Õiglane has repeatedly demonstrated his strength to come back from injury and disappointment to fight again at championships. In 2017 he finished 4th, in 2019th 6th and while he had to stop in Eugene, he came back a month later to win his first major medal at the European championships.

The biggest unknown is Ash Moloney, whom we know is capable of a big score and we know will have many technical improvements under his belt (he’s still only 23). His only appearance this year has been at Götzis, where he had a little injury and withdrew before the 1500m. His individual events throughout the year so far have also looked a little uncertain. Like so many others, if his body holds up, he’ll be close to the leaders. In other news, Ash has arrived in Budapest with a moustache of which his namesake, the other ASH (Adam Sebastian Helcelet) would be proud.

On the other hand, we know exactly what sort of season Karel Tilga and Johannes Erm of Estonia, Harrison Williams and Zach Ziemek of USA, and Sander Skotheim and Markus Rooth of Norway have had, and there’s much about which we should be excited.

Karel Tilga has achieved two 8400+ scores already, in Multistars in April where he delivered an Olympic qualifying score of 8492, and a further 8403 a month later in Götzis. Johannes Erm is arguably in the best form coming into the championships, pulling out an 8424 after an unremarkable season to win the Estonian champs and seal his selection from the crowded Estonian decathlon landscape.

Harrison Williams has had a glorious season, first at Mt SAC with 8492, and then his first victory at the US champs where he went even better, with 8630. Zach Ziemek is always the quiet underdog, but again the 2022 world bronze medallist got the job done with 8508 at the US trials.

Sander Skotheim has been on fire since the indoor season, with a silver medal at the European Indoors behind Kevin Mayer and then a sensational 8590 for the 21-year- old to finish third in Götzis with a 283-point national record. He also jumped lifetime bests of 2.20m and 5.45m while competing in individual competitions in the vertical jumps. Skotheim delivered another big score at the European U23s in Espoo (8561), but this time had to yield to fellow Norwegian and 21-year-old Markus Rooth and hand back the national record he’d taken from him a few weeks earlier. Rooth’s score of 8608 for gold was all the more spectacular because it was steady across the ten events, without any single standout event, and added 300 points to his previous PB from 2022.

All these men have the scope to be ready to pounce if we find medals going around 8500 or 8600, and several of them have the scope to go beyond that.

The 8100-8300 guys

Last year was Marcus Nilsson of Sweden’s year, navigating the European circuit well and rewarded with a 200-point update to his ageing PB, going over 8300 for the first time, and a near miss of the podium at the European Championships in Munich. Nilsson qualified for both the Worlds and Europeans last year, but departed early in Eugene, so this is his chance to consolidate and build upon his momentum from 2022. So far this year Nilsson has not finished a decathlon, but it’s not unusual for him to pull out a good decathlon after a DNF.

Cedric Dubler does so much for the understanding of combined events through his engaging narration of the moving parts of his training, his preparation for competitions, and his performance. Dubler just scraped over 8000 points in Götzis, well below his bigger scores of 2022, but will have an eye on the Olympic qualification score and his rankings position, and even if he’s not adjacent to medals, a top 10 position would be grand for him.

Meanwhile, his teammate Dan Golubovic has had a precarious route to the World Championships.

While he’d been ranked comfortably until the summer, his 8336 from the 2021 Oceania Champs expired, and was replaced by his 8301 from Götzis (why his 8301 from Götzis wasn’t worth more than his 8197 from the Commonwealth Games is a whole other story). That caused him to drop into the danger zone for qualification, and had Simon Ehammer not chosen to compete in the long jump instead of the decathlon, an 8300 guy would be sitting at home.

Likewise, it was a stressful wait for Rik Taam, for whom Jorge Urena’s unfortunate injury troubles provided a welcome but bittersweet last-minute place in the field. Taam scored 8326 this year in Ratingen, so is primed to improve further once exposed to global competition.

The final athlete in this group is Manuel Eitel, who is very much part of the shifting in hierarchy within German decathlon. Known for his explosive speed, Eitel is slowly putting together all the other elements of the decathlon and this year in Götzis took himself to a new best of 8351.

The new guys

When it comes to reviewing the year of decathlon in 2023, Jose Fernando Ferreira Santana of Brazil will be one of the storylines. The 24-year-old Brazilian travelled to Europe and joined the 8000-point club with 8007 in Naxos. He repeated the feat to win the South American champs in 8058, with a 7900 competition at the Brazilian champs between the two. This will be the Brazilian’s sixth decathlon of the year overall. In terms of rankings – flawed as they are – between April and August Ferreira Santana climbed from 77th to 63rd, to 61st and then 50th, on to 45th and finally landing at 29th.

His win at the South American champs secured him a designated area champion place in the field. There’s plenty to be said about World Athletics’ policy of hacking field sizes while still retaining nine different ways of qualifying across major combined events competitions, but Ferreira Santana and his progression are a great addition to the field.

In 2023 we saw Ken Mullings of the Bahamas flourish into an 8k decathlete after securing a designated place in Eugene last year, and since then he and Kendrick Thompson have been pushing each other higher and higher in Bahamas decathlon lore. While neither Ken nor Kendrick are here, Jose Fernando is bringing the “Kenergy” of the designated place beneficiaries.

Likewise, 25-year-old Yuma Maruyama of Japan picks up where Keisuke Ushiro left off and represents Asian decathlon in the field, after his win at the Asian champs. He’s approaching 8000 with a PB of 7816 this year.

Notwithstanding the frustration with field sizes, the representation and inspiration that athletes like Yuma can bring to developing talents in their region is important. For example, Tejaswin Shankar of India’s entry into the discipline and Suttisak Singkhon of Thailand’s silver medal at the Asian championships shows that there are exciting but as yet untapped talents to come in Asian multis.

This route (the rules for which were amended this year to avoid well-represented countries scooping up extra places) help compensate for a lack of access to ranking circuit competitions and can be an important step in helping athletes from under-represented countries improve.

That said, the 24th spot in the field and the designated place attached to the African championships has been awarded to 35-year-old Larbi Bourrada of Algeria. Bourrada scored 8521 in 2016, after returning from a two-year ban for testing positive for stanozolol. Since 2018 his best score has been 7776, and he has generally been closer to 7300.

In other words, an ageing athlete with a doping record who has not approached 8000 points for six years can benefit from the same opportunity as improving athletes such as Ferreira Santana and Maruyama. They can be awarded a place supposedly reserved to ensure all areas are represented and able to offer inspiration to aspiring athletes of that region. Meanwhile, promising young athletes like Ondrej Kopecky and Makenson Gletty are squeezed out of qualification. It’s not a great look, frankly. Thankfully, there is much else to celebrate in this decathlon.

The action starts on Friday morning, and you can follow the results here.

Photo credit: Getty Images for World Athletics