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What is a Decathlon?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A decathlon is a track and field competition in which participants perform in 10 events. The decathlon is widely viewed as the most challenging track and field event, and decathletes are considered to be superior all-around athletes. Because of the highly demanding nature of a decathlon, the discipline is relatively small, and many decathletes are not widely known outside of the field.

The ten events included in the decathlon are a 328 foot (100 meter) sprint, a 1,312 foot (400 meter) sprint, a 4,921 foot (1,500 meter) run, a 361 foot (110 meter) set of hurdles, a discus throw, a javelin throw, a shot put, a pole vault, a high jump, and a long jump. Training for a decathlon must cover all of these fields of competition, which draw on different areas of physical skill and judgment. In addition to testing overall abilities, the decathlon tests the endurance of the competing athlete, packing all 10 events into two days in the classic Olympic format.

In order to compete successfully in a decathlon, an athlete must undergo a great deal of training, as the decathlon involves physical challenges like throwing a heavy shot put, managing a javelin, and hurdling over a series of jumps. In addition to being strong in each individual discipline, the athlete must be able to coordinate all of the decathlon events together, conserving energy in order to make it all the way through the event. Talented track and field coaches can provide the training, but the athlete must also be highly motivated and have a certain amount of natural talent.

Although women do train for and compete in decathlons, men dominate the field. Women typically compete in a heptathlon, which features seven events including the high jump, shot put, long jump, javelin, 328 foot (100 meter) hurdles, 656 foot (200 meter) spring, and a 2625 foot (800 meter) run. Female heptathletes are among the most talented women in the track and field discipline, as they must be incredibly strong, motivated, and skilled in a variety of athletic events.

The roots of the decathlon lie in the pentathlon, an Ancient Greek event which traditionally determined the winner of the games. In the pentathlon, athletes participated in a long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, wrestling match, and a sprint. An assortment of versions were developed in varying nations, and the modern decathlon emerged in 1912 at the Stockholm Olympic Games. The popularity of the event waxed and waned in the early twentieth century, but was firmly entrenched in the Games by 1964, when it was standardized and a new scoring system was developed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports n' Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By 6pack — On May 24, 2010

Averagejoe -- I agree, though there's something to be said for triathletes. I fully concede that it's only 3 events, but the sports are so different -- swimming, biking or cycling, and running, that it feels like a more rounded measure of the athlete's athleticism.

By averagejoe — On May 24, 2010

To be able to be competitive in so many events is the mark of a true athlete.

By pocurana — On May 24, 2010

Stare31: Some I know of include: Bruce Jenner, Dan O'Brien, Tomáš Dvořák, Jim Thorpe, and Roman Šebrle.

By stare31 — On May 24, 2010

What are the names of some famous decathletes?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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