Ashton Eaton celebrates his clearance in the decathlon pole vault at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
In part three of our 2016 year-end review series, statisticians A. Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best combined events performances of the year.
Ashton Eaton of the USA returned to decathlon competition last season following a 2014 campaign consisting mainly of 400m hurdles races. His only decathlon in 2015 was his 9045-point world record performance at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.
This year began well for the 28-year-old. Before a home crowd in Portland, he won his third straight world indoor title, scoring 6470. This, however, was more than 150 points shy of his 6645 world indoor record from Istanbul in 2012 and the 6632 points he tallied in Sopot two years later. This indicated that other top athletes could have a chance to win the Olympic title in Rio with a perfect performance.
Eaton won the US title with a world-leading 8750, but others had achieved promising early season results as well. Canada’s Damian Warner, the world silver medallist from 2015 and bronze medallist from 2013, won the Götzis meeting in May with 8523. Although he started the competition with a world decathlon best of 10.15 in the 100m, the series was far from perfect and it was clear that he could score much higher. The 27-year-old also ran a wind-assisted 10.09 100m in May.
The Rio competition was a tight one, yet the athlete challenging Eaton for the gold was not Warner, but Frenchman Kevin Mayer. The 24-year-old produced a huge performance of 8834, a national record and a massive 313-point improvement on his previous personal best of 8521 set at the 2014 European Championships.
Eaton showed his true class in the end though by running 4:23.33 in the 1500m to make sure Mayer couldn’t catch him. Eaton equalled the Olympic record of 8893 for his second consecutive Olympic gold, with Mayer taking silver and Warner the bronze with 8666.
Kai Kazmirek of Germany was fourth with a PB of 8580 points and went on to win the IAAF Combined Events Challenge.
As the Rio Olympic Games approached it looked very much as though the top two finishers from the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, champion Jessica Ennis-Hill and runner-up Brianne Theisen-Eaton, would battle it out for the gold once again. Not only did they have the crucial experience but they also were clearly ahead on the 2016 world list.
Canadian Theisen-Eaton won in Götzis with 6765 and Ennis-Hill in Ratingen with 6733; no others were within 100 points of those scores. Ennis-Hill and Theisen-Eaton also lived up to expectations in Rio, producing consistent series and tallying 6775 and 6653 points respectively.
However, that turned out to only be good enough for silver and bronze as Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium rose to the occasion by adding more than 300 points to her lifetime best with a 6810 score.
Although the 22-year-old Thiam was considered a strong prospect since her 6298 score in 2012 while still in the U20 ranks, few expected that kind of high level improvement. After all, she was only fourth in Götzis two-and-a-half months earlier, almost 300 points behind Theisen-Eaton.
However, combined events athletes do sometimes piece together competitions where they perform at or near PB-level in every event. Rio was such an occasion for Thiam, where she notched PBs in the 100m hurdles, high jump, long jump, javelin and 800m, and fairly close efforts in the shot put and 200m.
A comparison of the Rio series for Thiam and Ennis-Hill shows radically different profiles. Ennis-Hill was much the better runner (12.84 vs 13.56 in the hurdles, 23.49 vs 25.10 in the 200m and 2:09.07 vs 2:16.54 in 800m) while the Belgian had the advantage both in the jumps (1.98m vs 1.89m in the high jump and 6.58m vs 6.43m in the long jump) and in the throws (14.91m vs 13.86m in the shot put and 53.13m vs 46.06m in the javelin).
With the top trio in the Olympic year limiting themselves to one tune-up meet before Rio, the IAAF Combined Events Challenge title went to hyper-consistent Carolin Schäfer of Germany who had her three scores (third in Götzis, second in Ratingen and fifth at the Olympics) within just 81 points of the 6500-level.
Mirko Jalava (men’s events) and A. Lennart Julin (women’s events) for the IAAF