A cool, steady rain falls on Prague, throwing a gloomy veil over the city's ancient splendor, enshrouding its spires in a soupy gray fog. Next to a stadium on the northern edge of the city, members of a soccer club run sprints on a threadbare field, while a scraggly group of teenage athletes turns slow, labored laps on the neglected cinder track that surrounds the pitch. A cluster of maintenance workers huddles beside a ramshackle storage building, drinking coffee and gossiping loudly. Next to the building, the man with the title of world's greatest athlete practices his high jumping, a thoroughbred among plow horses in a setting that would need a major face-lift before it could be called unglamorous.
Repeatedly, 28-year-old Tom�s Dvor�k, world-record holder and two-time world champion in the decathlon, carves a parenthesis on the rain-slickened track and flops over the bar. Each attempt elicits growls from Dvor�k's high jump adviser, Jaroslav Kovar, a 1950s Czech champion in the event who looks like Jerry Tarkanian's older brother, sounds as though his throat is full of pebbles and always holds a cigarette in his right hand and a lighter in his left. Kovar has instructed Dvor�k to make his approach while holding a small wooden plank behind his butt, which forces Dvor�k to keep his arms low until he drives into his takeoff, at which point he drops the board and throws his arms upward. It's a useful drill but awkward at first, and Dvor�k misses at low heights again and again.
"You idiot!" he shouts at himself in Czech, after one miss.
"Such a stupid man," he says after another. And those are the gentle rebukes.
"He is always swearing at himself in practice," says Marta Dusbabkova, assistant to Dvor�k's agent, Libor Varhan�k. She shakes her head and demurely covers her ears.
The workout drags from midmorning into early afternoon. The soccer team leaves. The runners leave. The workers finish their coffee and retreat indoors. The rain continues falling, soaking Dvor�k's T-shirt and tights. Finally, he begins to clear the bar. Kovar emits a gravelly laugh and lights another cigarette. Dvor�k smiles and shouts. Another event checked off his list.
Every day is like this for Dvor�k. On the previous morning at Juliska Stadion, a track stadium on a hillside overlooking the Vltava River, Dvor�k sprinted and hurdled for nearly two hours under a blazing sun and then trudged across the infield to a small concrete circle and threw the discus more than 30 times. He cursed himself repeatedly after long throws that came down outside the V-shaped landing sector—that is, out-of-bounds—and didn't stop throwing until he was satisfied. When he finally finished, nearly all the other 60 athletes who train with the Dukla Praha sports club were long gone, the track and fields deserted. "He has a love for each of the 10 disciplines, and he wants to be good at all 10 of them," says Dvor�k's principal coach, Zdenek Vana. "He's also very hard on himself. He treats himself very badly."
Dvor�k's demanding regimen has paid off. His 8,994 points at last summer's European Championships in Prague broke defending Olympic champion Dan O'Brien's world record by a stunning 103 points. Three months ago he amassed the second-highest score in history, 8,900 points, in Gotzis, Austria. "He's absolutely the king of the hill among decathletes right now," says Noel Ruebel, who coaches U.S. decathlete Chris Huffins, the bronze medalist at last year's world championships in Seville. With O'Brien knocked out of the Olympics by torn tissue in his left foot, Dvor�k is a strong favorite to win gold in Sydney.
Yet Dvor�k insists he's quite ordinary. He would like the public to believe that his success grows not from his athletic ability but from tireless training. "I'm not very talented at all," he says through an interpreter. As if to reinforce his commonness, he's interviewed by an American journalist not at any of Prague's many charming caf�s but at a McDonald's, where he scarfs down a hot cherry pie and sips a coffee.
"Look at me," says Dvor�k, laying his arms open. He has light-brown hair and a scruffy beard that he trims to a goatee for social occasions; his eyes are a darker brown and almost always hidden during competition by Oakleys. His default expression is a What-me-worry? shrug. He's 6' 1", weighs 195 pounds and seems perfectly suited to the varied tasks of the decathlon, which require a man not only to sprint 100 and 400 meters and throw a 16-pound shot, a javelin and a discus, but also to hurdle, long-jump, high-jump, pole-vault and finally, at the end of two grueling days of competition, run the 1,500.