LONDON -- Once upon a time, the decathlon was a very big deal.
Winning the event at the Olympics earned an athlete the title of "world's greatest athlete,'' plus cereal box covers, "Saturday Night Live" parodies and entire marketing campaigns. You were a household name.
But quick: Name the gold medalist in the decathlon from 2008. Yeah, you know. Just four years ago. Hint: He's from the United States.
There was no Clay-mania and no Clay-tastic headlines across the country when Brian Clay won the decathlon in Beijing. I doubt most Americans could even name him. We have grown bored with the decathlon.
Why is this?
Bruce Jenner, the 1976 gold medalist, blames TV, saying the networks don't build up the decathlon the way they did in the past.
"ABC really featured the event in 1976," Jenner said. "If you look at it, we didn't win the 100 in '76, we didn't win the 200, we didn't win the 400, we didn't win the 800. They were looking for something to do and here I was, the world-record holder going in. So ABC really featured my event, they spent a lot of time on it; it was the highest-rated games of all time."
In contrast, Jenner says, when Clay won the decathlon in 2008, he had trouble even finding the decathlon results on TV.
That's part of it. But there are other factors as well.
1. We aren't as interested in generalists: As sports have become more specialized, as high school athletes are increasingly directed into competing in a single sport full time, we have lost interest in an athlete who is very, very good in many things but not great in any one event. We would rather watch Usain Bolt blaze down the track in 9.63 seconds than Ashton Eaton run a 10.35 before he long jumps 26 feet, 4 inches an hour later and tosses a shot put 48 feet an hour after that (as Eaton did Wednesday).
2. No time: Attention spans have always been short, but they're getting shorter. If we're going to be pulled away from our fantasy league draft preparations to watch track and field, we want events that are over within one hour, if not 10 seconds. Hey, we live busy lives. We need to get back to updating our Facebook pages and checking our tweets and texting our friends to tell them that we are updating our Facebook pages and checking our tweets. We don't have the time for an event that stretches over two days.
3. We're not good at math: Decathlon's scoring system is baffling. Eaton is the world-record holder in the decathlon with 9,039 points. After the first three events Wednesday, he led the decathlon with 2,848 points. Who outside the sport knows what that means? You literally need a scoring table to figure out how well an athlete is doing.
"I don't think the fans really understand how it works,'' Eaton said. "But I think they're learning because close to an entire stadium was staying for a decathlon shot put, which isn't too exciting.''
Hey, the shot put in the actual shot put isn't too exciting, either. But many of the other events in the decathlon are.
Imagine being able to run down a path carrying a pole, planting the pole in a small box and vaulting yourself over a 17-foot-high bar. Most of us couldn't even fall from a 17-foot height let alone vault to it. Now imagine being able to do that and run 100 meters in just more than 10 seconds and jump over a 6-and-a-half-foot bar and run close to a four-minute mile and throw a javelin almost 200 feet.
Decathletes are the very definition of the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It's time to give credit back to the complete, well-rounded athlete rather than just the ones who can do one thing well. Marrying a Kardashian should not be a prerequisite for decathlon fame.
Eaton and his U.S. teammate Trey Hardee are the world's greatest athletes. The two may very well win gold and silver. (Had Clay not messed up in the hurdles at the U.S. trials and not qualified for the Olympic team, America might have had a sweep.) If you don't follow them, you are missing out on a tremendous competition.
Instead of viewing the decathlon as a drawn-out event with a confusing scoring system, we should look at it as a series of reality shows, as an "Amazing Race" of athletic skill, where the drama doesn't end in 10 seconds but steadily builds event by event. Consider it August Madness.
Track and field officials might want to modernize the decathlon by replacing the shot put with the basketball slam dunk. Now, that would draw back the fans. There could be frequent delays, though. These guys are so strong, so fast and can jump so high that they probably would destroy the basket with each dunk.