A Brief Overview of the Olympic Decathlon

A Summary of the Olympic Event

Ashton Eaton
Gold medalist Ashton Eaton of the United States competes in the Men's Decathlon 110m Hurdles at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Ian Walton/Getty Images

Jim Thorpe was dubbed “the world’s greatest athlete” after winning the 1912 Olympic decathlon. Athletes compete for the Olympic decathlon title today by competing in 10 events in a grueling, two-day schedule.

An Overview of Decathlon Events

The men’s decathlon consists of ten events held over two consecutive days. The first day’s events include, in order, a 100-meter run, the long jump, shot put, high jump, and a 400-meter run. The second day’s events, in order, include the 110-meter hurdles followed by the discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and a 1500-meter run.

Decathlon vs. Heptathlon

Contrary to popular belief, there is a women's decathlon event sponsored by the IAAF, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the sponsoring organization for the Olympics and for all other elite level track and field events worldwide. However, while it has been urged to do so, it has not allowed a women's decathlon event at any recent Olympics. Instead, female Olympic athletes compete for the heptathlon, a seven-event contest that consists of the 100-meter hurdles, the 200-meter sprint, the 800-meter run, the shot put, javelin, long jump, and high jump. 

The Decathlon Rules

The rules for each event within the decathlon are generally the same as for the individual events themselves, although with a few exceptions. Most notably, runners in the decathlon sprint and hurdles events are disqualified after two false starts rather than after a single false start. This particular rule change in the Olympic non-decathlon events — from one allowed false to none has been widely and passionately criticized. The Decathlon Association (DECA) resisted this change but did rule that any false start by a single athlete is charged to the entire field. The significance of this is that although the next false start may be that athlete's first, he will nevertheless be disqualified. This rule change has also been criticized.  

The Decathlon Association has also ruled that competitors receive only three attempts in throwing and jumping events. Also, competitors cannot skip any event. Failing to attempt any event results in disqualification. This rule, too, has its detractors; it has been pointed out that any athlete who may want to skip an event that he has no chance of medalling in — in order, for instance, to conserve energy for another event — can simply make some token effort at the beginning of the event he wishes to skip, then drop out with an "injury" or for any other plausible reason. 

Gold, Silver, and Bronze

Athletes in the decathlon must first achieve an Olympic qualifying score to compete for their nation’s Olympic team. A maximum of three competitors per country may compete in the decathlon.

Points are awarded to each athlete according to his time or distance, not his placement in the field, according to rather complicated pre-set formulas.

If there is a tie in points after 10 events, the victory goes to the competitor who outscored his rival in a greater number of events. If that tiebreaker also results in a draw, the victory goes to the decathlete who scored the most points in any single event.