LONDON — Welcome, Ashton Eaton, to the spotlight as an emerging face of U.S. track and field.
Now owner of both the world record and an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, the 24-year-old from Bend is one of three front-runners for Track & Field News magazine’s 2012 male athlete of the year, along with Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and Kenya’s 800-meter star, David Rudisha.
The case for Eaton: In the 100-year history of the decathlon, nobody has done it better.
Eaton could not match his world record of 9,039 points in London, but he succeeded in making the event cool again as he became the 12th American to earn the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete."
Even Bolt, a triple gold medalist in these Olympics in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay, was impressed.
“I’m a great athlete, but to do 10 events, especially the 1,500, I’ve got to give it to him," Bolt said.
Since standing atop the victory podium in the gold medal ceremony at Olympic Stadium last Friday, the former standout from Bend’s Mountain View High School, five-time NCAA champion at the University of Oregon, and 2010 winner of The Bowerman award, has been on a whirlwind media blitz in London.
For Eaton, however, the superlatives that mean the most are the ones that come from within the decathlon family.
“He’s the best ever," said Dan O’Brien, who watched his American record get washed away in Eaton’s emotional world-record performance in June at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials at Eugene’s Hayward Field.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of 9,000 points. I think he’s going to do it once a year until Rio."
The 2016 Olympics will be held in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro.
Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, said anybody who has competed against Eaton quickly recognized the rare combination of speed, strength and endurance.
“We all knew he was going to be very dangerous," Clay said. “I remember (former UO assistant coach) Dan Steele walking up to me at the 2008 Trials, and he said, ‘Hey Bryan, we just recruited this kid. He’s pretty much exactly the same as you, and he’s going to do some really great things.’
“Four years later, he’s breaking the world record. I don’t know that anybody has ever matured in the event as quickly as he has. It’s mind-boggling to see how well he’s done in such a short amount of time."
Since his first decathlon as a UO freshman in March 2007, Eaton has become a student of the event.
Going into London, he knew that Milt Campbell and Rafer Johnson were the last U.S. decathletes to win gold and silver, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics — a feat that he and Trey Hardee matched last week.
“The 1-2 finish is what we really wanted," said Eaton, of Oregon Track Club Elite.
Eaton’s coach, Harry Marra, said his star pupil came of age one year ago at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
On that stage, Eaton allowed a few subpar events to affect his performance, needing a six-second personal record in the 1,500 to pull out a second-place finish by four points over Cuba’s Leonel Suarez, 8,505 points to 8,501.
“He grew up in Daegu," Marra said. “I think he showed that here."
Eaton’s gold was one of 29 medals won by Team USA in track and field at the London Olympics, its biggest haul since the 1992 Barcelona Games. U.S. track and field athletes won nine gold medals, 13 silver and seven bronze.
The Oregon connection included a silver for UO alum Galen Rupp in the 10,000, the first medal by an American in that event since Billy Mills won gold in 1964; a gold for ex-Duck Keshia Baker as a member of the women’s 4x400 relay; and a silver for Salem’s Ryan Bailey as the anchor of the men’s 4x100 relay.
In addition, OTC Elite’s Sally Kipyego earned silver in the women’s 10,000 for Kenya, and Mo Farah, who trains with Rupp in Portland, became the greatest distance runner in British history with his double gold-medal performance in the 10,000 and 5,000.
There were two close calls as former UO standout Matthew Centrowitz came up agonizingly short of a bronze in the 1,500 by .04 seconds, and a second medal eluded Kipyego in the 5,000 by .64.
OTC Elite’s Nick Symmonds became the third-fastest performer in U.S. history in the 800 meters with a PR of 1 minutes, 42.95 seconds, but he finished fifth as Rudisha broke his own world record at 1:40.91, the first man to ever run under 1:41.00.