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Bil Gilbert
May 07, 1979
Figure filbert Frank Zarnowski serves as historian and mother hen to the ofttimes neglected decathlon corps
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May 07, 1979

He's Every Inch A Decathnut

Figure filbert Frank Zarnowski serves as historian and mother hen to the ofttimes neglected decathlon corps

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Any sport that lays even shaky claim to being an organized one has a secretariat: that is, a cadre of arrangers concerned with who plays when and where; with drumming up crowds to watch; with reporting what happened; with testifying to and preserving records for posterity; and with what has come to be called promotion. Often the members of a secretariat outnumber the contestants, and they tend to multiply rapidly. For example, there are fewer professional baseball players than there were 50 years ago, but many more front-office operatives, flacks, advertising persons, lawyers and scoreboard mechanics, and today there are agents, hypnotists, color commentators and Free-Bat/Wet-T-Shirt specialists as well. The growth of a sport can usually be measured in terms of the growth of its secretariat.

There are heartening exceptions to this rule, however. One involves the decathlon. Admittedly, this is not a large sporting enterprise, but neither is it obscure like dump-truck drag racing, nor absurd, like Pro-Am Celebrity Rafting. There is always a small group of devotees who take it very seriously—so seriously that decathlonists are regarded as eccentric zealots even within the track-and-field establishment, where the bizarre is commonplace. Furthermore, every four years nearly everyone takes the decathlon seriously, the Olympic winner being widely, if temporarily, acclaimed as the world's premier athlete. It is not only a dignified, well-established endeavor but one that in this country is enjoying genuine growth. Only 65 Americans took part in organized decathlons in 1967, and there were only 13 domestic meets in which they could compete. Last year there were 200 decathlon contests in this country and 1,000 participants.

Ten years ago the sport had only a temporary, jury-rigged secretariat, arrangements being handled either by coaches and contestants or by minor bureaucrats within large track-and-field bodies who, in terms of importance, tended to rate 10-eventers somewhere between 24-hour runners and race walkers. Now the decathlon has its own aggressive secretariat, thanks largely to—and consisting largely of—a 36-year-old economics professor, Frank Zarnowski. Few other sports can claim such a lean balance between arrangers and participants.

Among other things, Dr. Zarnowski (he took a Ph.D. at Lehigh last year) is the chief executive officer of DECA. What is DECA? "That is what the IRS is asking," says Zarnowski. "I'm trying to explain to them that it is a nonprofit organization to encourage decathletes."

During the past decade Zarnowski has organized, officiated at, publicized and sometimes footed the bills for dozens of junior, senior, collegiate, all-comers and international decathlon meets. For the past two years he has been Head of Delegation for U.S. teams competing against foreign ones. He is, as far as is known, the world's only freelance professional decathlon announcer. He is the only American academic to organize and teach a course—two credits—in decathlon appreciation. Participation in an indoor decathlon constituted the final examination, and to encourage his scholars, Zarnowski entered, making his first and only competitive appearance in the sport. He scored an unimpressive 3,875 points; his high jump—4'6"—killed him. Nevertheless, the mark stands as an indoor record for economics professors.

Beyond these official if improbable activities, Zarnowski is, without close competition, the leading literary figure in the decathlon world. He is the author of two books on the decathlon, and the publisher, editor, chief correspondent and circulation manager of both a monthly decathlon newsletter and a decathlon yearbook. These publications are distributed to a small (about 300) but fiercely attentive group of decathnuts scattered from the sands of Santa Barbara to the banks of the Volga.

The journals are chock-full of meet announcements and results, training schedules, manifestos about the inequities of scoring tables, decathlon diets, social notes about decathletes and some of the most esoteric and entertaining statistics to be found anywhere within sport. Careful reading of the Zarnowski publications discloses that since the sport commenced in 1912, 55 men have scored 8,000 points or more in the decathlon; that the 314th-best performance of all time (7,728 points) was turned in by a former Roanoke College student, Dick Emberger, in 1964; that Don Bragg set the non-fiberglass pole vault decathlon record in 1961 with a leap of 15'1�"; that the national record holder of the Fiji Islands is Vilime Saulekaleka with 5,471 points; that Heikki and Hanni Kyosola of Finland hold the world record (15,594) for the best combined effort by brothers; that the Mulkeys, Phil and Phil Jr., of the U.S., are the world father-son champions, with 14,548, which gives them a slim lead of 97 points over the Jewlews, senior and junior, of the U.S.S.R.

Journalism aside, Zarnowski's influence within the sport rests largely on the fact that he is acquainted in intimate statistical detail with virtually every decathlete who has lifted a javelin or tripped over a hurdle anyplace on the planet during the last 67 years, or since Jim Thorpe set the first world record—6,756 points, adjusted to modern tables—in 1912. Additionally, Zarnowski has close personal ties with the majority of active and recently retired contestants, having counseled, coached, chauffeured, checked vaulting poles, found room, board, jobs, passports for or loaned money to a good many of them.

Fred Samara, now an assistant track coach at Princeton, but as a former national champion and Olympian one of America's premier decathletes throughout the '70s, has been a longtime friend and bemused observer of Zarnowski. Recently, after having been the high-point man on a U.S. team (headed by Zarnowski) that defeated the U.S.S.R. in a March indoor meet (largely organized by Zarnowski), Samara remarked, "Decathletes are close because there are so few of us, but with his newsletters and books and announcing and just getting around, Frank more than anybody else has established a decathlon community, given us a way to stay in touch, to know what everyone else is doing. The best thing is he is not on a power trip. He does it because he loves the sport."

Zarnowski came by his passion accidently. An athletic generalist—he competed in football, baseball, basketball and track at a York, Pa. high school—he concentrated on cross-country in college because "it was the only thing I was good enough in to win a letter." He received a master's degree from Lehigh in 1967; both before and after doing so, he competed in AAU road races and also in one modern pentathlon national championship. His success was modest: "I won the cross-country and I wasn't bad in the pistol and fencing, but I didn't much like horses and I'm a lousy swimmer." Thereafter he became an economics instructor at Mount St. Mary's, a small college in western Maryland, and also the school's cross-country coach, compiling a very respectable 68-18 dual-meet record in eight years. At Mount St. Mary's he met his first real-live decathlete, a young Marylander by the name of Bill Walsh. "Bill was about 6,700," says Zarnowski (decathlonists tend to describe decathletes by current point totals rather than according to size, color of eyes, race, creed or nationality), "but I was so naive I thought he had a shot at the '68 Olympic team. I got a sanction from somebody, talked a few weight guys into competing and put on a meet so Bill could make the qualifying standard. He didn't."

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