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June 11, 2012
World's greatest athlete? Take your pick: In London, Americans Ashton Eaton, Bryan Clay and Trey Hardee could sweep the decathlon and return the spotlight to one of the Games' defining events
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June 11, 2012

Faster Higher Stronger

World's greatest athlete? Take your pick: In London, Americans Ashton Eaton, Bryan Clay and Trey Hardee could sweep the decathlon and return the spotlight to one of the Games' defining events

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Hardee's strategy fits his skill set; he ranks among the alltime best decathletes in only two events, the 100 and the 110 hurdles, but has no holes in his lineup. His training has been shifted toward maximizing his running fitness and bringing throws along later. He ran a personal best in the 60 meters this winter. "I'm fit. I'm going to be really fast," says Hardee. "Everyone is waiting for me to throw the javelin. I consider myself the favorite. But I've never been in a position like this before."

And might not be again. Huffins fires off a warning: "I wouldn't want to wait four more years to beat Ashton."

Just past noon and a strong spring sun beats down on the track at Azusa Pacific, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles. This has been Bryan Clay's home base since autumn 1998, when he came here from Hawaii as a modestly promising sprinter and hurdler who'd discovered the decathlon only after his senior year in high school. The son of a Japanese immigrant mother and an African-American father who divorced when he was in the fifth grade, he had preferred the waves over schoolwork and mainstream sports. "I figured I would wind up working at 7-Eleven," says Clay, "and surfing every day."

Not quite. In 2001, three years after his first decathlon, Clay surpassed 8,000 points, the benchmark for world-class status, and finished third in the U.S. championships. Among his teammates at the '01 Worlds in Edmonton were sprinters Marion Jones and Maurice Greene—that's how long ago it was. Three years later he won Olympic silver in Athens, and a year after that he won the Worlds in Helsinki. In Beijing he led after every event and won gold by 240 points, the widest Olympic margin in 36 years.

Since then, however, Clay has completed just one decathlon, in May 2010 in Götzis, Austria. He has not attempted the event since June of that same year. It has been a challenging time, during which Clay questioned not just his career but also his role as husband and father to three children. In the 14 months after Götzis, he rested and nursed a sore right knee. Then, last August, as he got off a plane in Los Angeles with his family after delivering a speech to the congregation at the Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, he was greeted by a phone call from his manager, Paul Doyle, telling him that Nike had terminated his endorsement contract.

Clay had been sponsored by the shoe and apparel giant for eight years and says his deal, including performance bonuses, accounted for 90% of his annual income. "It was one of the hardest times of my life," says Clay, sitting at a battle-scarred table in the Azusa Pacific locker room. "I wanted to crawl in a hole. I'm looking at not being able to provide for my wife and kids, selling our house." Clay was not new to anxiety; before the 2008 Olympic trials he'd been overwhelmed by the fear of not winning the gold medal in Beijing, to the point where his wife, Sarah, told him, in tears, "Bryan, I don't care. Whatever happens, we'll be together." She put together a book of e-mails from Bryan's family and friends, expressing love and support and, most important, no concern about his performance. "It was so freeing," says Clay. "In subsequent years all those worries came back."

Clay received no windfall and very little recognition from his Beijing gold, save for the cover of a Wheaties box; he was far more anonymous than 1996 gold medalist O'Brien or the benchmark, '76 champion Bruce Jenner. Previous American winners—from Jim Thorpe in 1912 through Mathias, Rafer Johnson in '60 and Toomey in '68—were all towering figures in American sports.

In that respect Clay exemplifies the decathlon's loss of cultural mojo. In a three-channel TV universe it was much simpler to sell a sport that unfolds slowly over two long days and in which competitors are ranked by abstruse tables. Moreover, the decathlon has long been pitched to the public as an endurance event, a tough sell when thousands of Americans complete triathlons every year. In truth the decathlon is only minimally an endurance sport; more practically it's a test of very disparate skills, all at a level just below the best in the world in each individual discipline.

Clay was eligible for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, but rocked by losing Nike, he stayed home, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and with the help of agent Jeremy Snyder lined up 12 new sponsors, including BP, Polo Ralph Lauren, Asics and Oakley. That, says Clay, has pushed his income beyond what he was getting from Nike. "I've figured out that there are companies that need speakers, that need people to inspire their workforce," says Clay. "With the shoe companies it's all about winning, and when winning becomes who you are, you become desperate. You're willing to do anything, like take drugs, alienate your family. These companies appreciate the journey, not just the medal."

In his prime Clay was fast—10.35 for 100 meters, eighth best among decathletes who've scored at least 7,700 points; and 13.74 in the 110 hurdles, 10th by the same metric. But it's his throwing that sets him apart: In Helsinki in 2005 he totaled 2,734 points on the three throws; only retired Canadian-record holder Michael Smith, who was six inches taller and 48 pounds heavier than the 5'11", 177-pound Clay, has scored more in a single decathlon. No elite decathlete has thrown the discus farther than Clay's 183'3½" in 2005. "Raw power," says Pappas. "Bryan is not tall, but his legs are like tree trunks."

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