How much of his speed, power and health is left—he ran a 13.75 in the hurdles in May—will be a major factor in determining whether he becomes the first man in history to medal in three Olympic decathlons. The sport's underground is skeptical that Clay will even complete the event at the trials. "He's already got a gold medal," says one longtime coach. "There's a spot on the team if he wants it. But I just don't know."
"There's an age drop-off," admits Clay's longtime coach, Kevin Reid. "But the experience factor is going to be huge; it always is in the decathlon."
It will have to be. The Olympics has never had a decathlon gold medalist older than 30, and only one decathlete older than 32 has ever scored more than 8,500 points, a threshold that will surely need to be surpassed to medal in London. "Bryan is a tough guy," says Pappas. "But the history of the decathlon isn't real great for guys that age."
If track and field is fundamentally a sport of arithmetic and absolutes—the stopwatch and the tape measure—the decathlon is a cruel exception. It is two days long, mixing events that have little in common. In the Olympics it becomes a psychological battle too. O'Brien still remembers the anxiety he would feel before the pole vault—in which he famously no-heighted at the 1992 trials, costing him a place on the U.S. team even though he was the Olympic favorite—or the need to get a legal long jump on the first try. He says today, "Any decathlete would tell you he never quite put it together."
So the three Americans are scarred and enriched by their private epiphanies. In Athens in 2004, Clay found himself losing concentration and drive when a race-walk competition entered the stadium and the crowd roared in support of the Greek walkers. A year later, from beneath the stands in Helsinki, he called his wife back in California as an electrical storm raged outside. On Day 2 in Beijing his management team sneaked him into a nearby hotel for rest between events. "The decathlon is always about which guy makes the fewest mistakes," says Clay. "Always."
In Beijing, Hardee was in fourth place with three events remaining but hit the decathletes' wall, succumbed to the pressure and no-heighted in the pole vault. He tries to stay fresh by taking showers and changing what he's wearing during the competition. "You'd be amazed at what a difference a fresh pair of socks makes," he says. Eaton insists on eating a turkey sandwich with lettuce and cheese during the high jump on Day 1 and after the discus on Day 2.
Routine sustains them, in pursuit of elusive consistency. In Daegu, Eaton found himself fixated on cumulative point totals instead of the standings, beating himself up even though he led Hardee through six events. He expects to better control his emotions in Eugene and London.
But nothing is certain. The decathlon will resist control, and the decathlon will decide.