The decathlon is the most demanding competition in track and field. It has been included in the modern Olympics since 1912 and has been a part of world athletics since its inception in 1983. The decathlon gold medal is among the most respected in sports.
Most athletes concentrate on just one or two of the 10 events included in the decathlon. Only a few have the skill and ability to try all 10 in just a two-day span. With his small body frame, Bryan Clay of the United States does not look like a typical decathlete. But he has won a decathlon silver medal at the Olympics. He says perseverance helped him win gold at the World Athletics Championships in Helsinki.
"I train hard," he said. "And I think that is what it comes down to. It is about training hard. I have been dreaming about this since I was a little kid, since I was eight years old. So I am just glad that dreams are finally beginning to come true."
Any large endeavor requires good planning. Clay credits his coaches for great preparation.
"They really try to simulate every possible situation in practice so that I am ready for whatever could possibly happen when I am out here on the track," he said. "Other than that, it is just mental toughness."
Athletes have to focus on five disciplines each day, starting with the 100-meter sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run. The second day includes the 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500-meter race. Competitors accumulate points based on their performance. Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic holds the world record of 9,026 points. He won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics but scored 8,521 to take the silver behind Clay. The American collected 8,732 points, 88 fewer than his personal best in Athens.
Unlike individual events, athletes in the decathlon tend to be more friendly during the competition. Each has different strengths and weaknesses, and they help each other through the grueling series. Clay says the poor weather in Helsinki added to the camaraderie.
"Conditions were not the greatest," he said. "It was raining a little bit off and on. The wind was unbelievable. I think people really struggled with that. But we were all there with each other. We all support each other. We worked together. We helped with the winds. And that is what the decathlon is all about. It is about going out there, being with your guys, finishing all ten events. Crossing the finish line in the 1,500 [meter race] and taking your victory lap. And at the end, you just had fun."
Decathlon winners often achieve an iconic status that can last years after they leave their competitive careers. But Clay likes being a quiet champion.
"I really do not mind not having the recognition," he said. "I am kind of one of those guys who likes to come out, do my job, go home and be with my family. So I am really looking forward to celebrating with my coaches here for a day and getting on the plane and flying home to see my kid and my wife."
He knows a lot of people are watching him. Clay says his main motivation comes from messages sent by family and friends.
"When you get that kind of support, you feel like you can not let people down," he continued. "You have got to go out there and give it your all. And that is what I was able to do."
And at age 25, Clay will have the chance to compete for several more years.