Putting Ashton Eaton's feat into perspective

AP Photo/Eric Gay

EUGENE, Ore. -- If you care about Olympic sports at all -- heck, if you care about sports, period -- then Ashton Eaton's world record in the decathlon here at the Olympic trials is not a one-day story.

It all came together Saturday evening at his home track at Hayward Field, the Fenway Park of American track. To witness the crowd of 21,000 on its feet for the entirety of Eaton's final 1,500 meters, urging him on to greatness, was to witness, viscerally, sports history being made.

So, let's savor his 9,039-point performance a while, with some more perspective on what Eaton accomplished.

First, the numbers

• Here's what Eaton posted in each of the 10 disciplines:

Day 1:

100 meters: 10.21 seconds (fastest ever in a decathlon), 1,044 points

Long jump: 8.23 meters, or 27 feet (best ever in a decathlon), 1,120 points

Shot put: 14.20 meters (46, feet, 7 inches), 741 points

High jump: 2.05 meters (6 feet, 8 ¾ inches), 850 points

400 meters: 46.70 seconds, 973 points

Day 2:

110 hurdles: 13.70 seconds, 1,014 points

Discus: 42.81 meters (140 feet, 5 inches), 722 points

Pole vault,: 5.30 meters (17 feet, 4 ½ inches), 1,004 points

Javelin: 58.87 meters (193 feet, 2 inches), 721 points

1,500: 4:14.48, 850 points

The takeaways: For a man to sprint that fast and run distance that well is just plain unfair. And this record has room to grow. Eaton, the greatest all-around runner in the history of the event, is still learning how to throw.

This is no fluke

No one sets the decathlon record by accident. Look down the list of the decathlon record's progression and every record holder is among the sport's greats. This is also a good portent for Eaton in London. Every American decathlon world-record holder has also won a gold medal (though not always while they held the world record) -- James Bausch in 1932, Glenn Morris in 1936, Bob Mathias in 1948 and 1952, Rafer Johnson in 1960, Bill Toomey in 1968, Bruce Jenner in 1976 and Dan O'Brien in 1996.

OK, one fluky thing … the weather

Runner-up Trey Hardee said Eaton's record deserved "an asterisk," not because something should be taken away from it, but because something should be added. Hardee, the two-time defending world champion, called it the wettest decathlon he has ever competed in, and he got no argument from Eaton. The often driving rain, especially during the first day, plays havoc with this event, in which one error can kill a whole meet.

"You need skills, but you also need a consciousness to deal with chaos," said Harry Marra, Eaton's coach, who trains him in Eugene. "Rain like that is chaos. Throwing it in a circle where it's slippery, it's chaos. You don't practice that. Well, we do in Oregon. It definitely is an advantage."

Why people are excited

It's not just the record; it's how Eaton carries himself and the context of what he's doing.

First, at 6-feet, 180 pounds, he's normal sized, with none of the linebacker bulk usually associated with decathletes. He's not a cyborg, he's not a robotic corporate-sponsored product, at least not yet. Suitably for Oregon, the home of Steve Prefontaine, Eaton says things like, "The beauty is the pursuit of the limit, not the limit itself." And he has the personality of a decathlete, athletes who tend to be the student-council presidents of the sports world: organized, diligent, focused on the long term, optimistic and outgoing, with a healthy dose of humility. Eaton is damn glad to meetcha, yet he seems sincere about it.

He is also from a long line of diverse American champions in this most diverse event. One of the most touching aspects of the weekend was that Eaton achieved the record in front of living American gold medalists Bryan Clay, O'Brien, Jenner, Toomey, Johnson and Milt Campbell, along with the surviving sons of the first great decathlete, Jim Thorpe. Clay was competing, of course, and the rest came to Eugene for a ceremony celebrating 100 years of the event at the Olympics.

Thorpe, the first champion, was a Native American, and Johnson and Campbell represented the U.S. in the 1950s, when many states wouldn't have allowed them to drink at the same fountains as whites because they are African-American.

Like Clay and O'Brien, Eaton has a mixed-racial heritage and fits right into the cultural continuum of the event, whose champions always seem to be a bellwether of social forces. And like O'Brien and other former U.S. champions Dave Johnson and Tom Pappas, Eaton comes from a small town in the Northwest, creating a back story that was perfect for the weekend, and one that is likely to hold appeal as America, and the world, get to know him.