Imagine their admiration if they knew the extent of what Ashton Eaton did on Saturday night.
Eaton broke the world record for the decathlon Saturday, amassing 9,309 points at the U.S. Olympic trials. In his final event, the 1,500 meters, he not only surpassed his personal record but also cleared it by several seconds. (And that was after he said he was so tired already he wanted to fall asleep.)
On a cold, rainy day that was a challenge for even elite athletes, Eaton set the new standard in the sport that is the pinnacle of athletic achievement. The decathlon is not for those who merely run fast or jump high — it incorporates every part of the body in a string of demanding events that tests the true mettle of a complete athlete.
The decathlon, however, is one of many sports that, while possibly the most physically demanding, is not among the most popular for spectators. Like professional swimming, marathon running or almost all of the sports that pop up every four years at the Olympics, the decathlon is only remembered every few summers.
But Eaton caught the nation's eye early this time around, and for good reason. In a sport whose last big hero was Bruce Jenner — more famous now for his Kardashian connections — Eaton is the leader of a crop of American talent that could redefine the decathlon for American fans in the same way Michael Phelps has redefined swimming in recent years.
The decathlon and swimming aren't as popular for fans as, say, baseball and basketball — and for obvious reasons. In the most popular spectator sports, fans get to watch entire teams work together in fast-paced games in which they already understand the rules and stakes. People have been groomed for years to know what to expect or who to watch for in big-name sports, even if they have little understanding of the deepest nuances of the game.
But that can also be the case for Olympic sports, if fans give them a chance. When Phelps took the swimming world by storm in 2008, winning a record eight gold medals, most people knew the basics of the sport. But very few knew the intricacies of Olympic qualifying, relays or the significance of what Phelps was doing. His accomplishment — and the coverage and analysis that went along with it — not only furthered the sport among those more interested in athletics but also attracted legions of fans to a basic understanding of swimming.
Eaton and his decathlon comrades have a chance to do the same this summer at the Olympics. While track and field has strong followings in high schools and colleges across the nation, it has mostly lost the imagination of millions of spectators. But seeing a man who owns his craft come out and dominate the sport could change that.
Rather than being accustomed to seeing professional leagues that are often filled with players who aren't really athletes, sports fans this summer can feel free to introduce themselves to a new wave of events, where an American who has a chance at being one of the greatest ever will be giving firsthand lessons.
Few can swim like Phelps, and few can run and jump like Eaton. But the Summer Olympics offer a chance to see why swimming and the decathlon are so compelling, even for the casual fan.
Photo via Twitter/@EricRoeske