Aug 9, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Ashton Eaton (USA) celebrates after winning the decathlon after the 1500m during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
LONDON - The world's greatest athlete came into room and ...
Hold it. Ashton Eaton doesn't even want to be called that.
"In order to consider myself the world's greatest athlete," said America's newest decathlon king, "I'd have to amaze myself in every event."
But he was so good at the Olympics, he and teammate Trey Hardee, who took the silver, you wonder if maybe America will start paying attention to the decathlon again.
Eaton was ahead of the pack from start to last, and once that would have gotten a man proclaimed the world's greatest athlete without dissent. But not so much anymore.
At some point - who knows exactly when? - the world grew more dazzled by simple speed than two days of athletic versatility. Usain Bolt was on the same card with the decathlon Thursday night, and while Bolt was at work only 30 seconds in the 100 and 200 finals the past week, they are the defining half-minute of Olympic track.
So the question seemed too obvious not to ask.
Which one of these two is the greatest athlete - at least this side of Michael Phelps?
"There's no fight," Eaton said. "Usain is clearly an awesome athlete. He's an icon of the sport. Titles are for books and stuff. I just love doing what I'm doing."
Bolt noted he wouldn't dream of running a 1,500, which is the final test every decathlete must look forward to. "So I definitely have to give it to (Eaton)."
Bring on the Wheaties boxes. But the issue is not to pick Eaton or Bolt - world class marathoners amaze me ever more - but this: Whatever happened to the decathlon on the American radar screen?
Somehow, the decathlon has gotten lost in the bright Olympic lights. The winners' names do not echo as loudly as they did. Bruce Jenner won in 1976, and become a celebrity. Anyone here remember Bryan Clay? He won a American gold medal in Beijing.
Maybe it's a 21st century thing. The event is hard to follow and complicated to assess. It takes forever. Thirteen hours here, just for Thursday's final five events. New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox games don't even last that long.
The public prefers its drama in simple Twitter size, and the decathlon is a term paper.
And yet there is no sterner test of an athlete, no more demanding road to a gold medal. Look at how Eaton spent his Thursday.
He hurdled for breakfast, tossed the discus for lunch, pole vaulted at tea time, threw the javelin for dinner, and finished up running 1,500 meters. He snacked on cold chicken and noodles along the way.
There is a common man folklore to the decathlon. Once, it was as if the U.S. Olympic champions came straight off Main Street.
A car salesman in 1936. That was Glenn Morris in Berlin, and he received his medal from Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress.
A teenage high school student in 1948. Bob Mathias was 17, and when asked how he would celebrate said, "I'll start shaving, I guess."
An English teacher, Bill Toomey, in 1968.
Now these two.
"I don't do it for any (fame) or riches," Eaton said. "I like what I'm doing."
Hardee added, "There are 13 gold medalists from the U.S. (in decathlon), each of them drew (inspiration) from the one that came before them," Hardee said. "You have to look down the line. If you look 20 years from now, you will have people who took inspiration from us. They will be saying, 'I was sitting on my couch, watching Hardee and Eaton win.' "
Eaton is a 24-year-old product of small-town Oregon, Hardee an Alabama native who tried track and field when he was cut from his high school basketball team and needed Tommy John surgery only last fall.
"I'm going to be completely honest, there was never a doubt in my mind I wouldn't make the Olympic team and I wouldn't win a medal here," he said Thursday, having officially done both. "From the moment I woke up, I had my mom praying over me, my family praying for me, I was praying for me."
Those are stories perfect to be lit up in the way only Olympian dominance can do.
If only they ran in the 100.
Mike Lopresti, USA TODAY