Thiam springs heptathlon surprise, Eaton retains decathlon crown

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam caused a major upset at Rio 2016, deposing Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill as heptathlon champion. In the decathlon, meanwhile, the USA’s Ashton Eaton held off France’s Kévin Mayer to retain his title, equalling the Olympic record in the process and cementing his status as the world’s greatest all-round athlete.

Picture by Getty Images

Defending champion Jessica Ennis-Hill of Great Britain ended day one of the women’s heptathlon competition seemingly well placed to retain the title she won in style in London four years ago. Amassing a total of 4,057 points in the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200m, she led by 72 points from Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam, with Barbados’s Akela Jones a further 21 points back in third. 

Day two saw 21-year-old geography student Thiam mount a compelling challenge for Ennis-Hill’s crown. In jumping 6.58m in the long jump and then throwing 53.13m in the javelin, she replaced the Briton at the top of the leaderboard ahead of the final event, the 800m. Needing to beat the Belgian by over nine seconds, Ennis-Hill posted a time of 2:09.07 and then looked on as Thiam came in just 7.47 seconds behind in 2:16.54 to clinch gold at the end of a thrilling duel. Her final total of 6,810 points gave her victory by just 35 points from the 2012 champion, with Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton, the wife of decathlon champion, completing the podium on 6,653 points.

Coming back was really tough, but I put in a lot of hard work with the physio and it’s paid off. Nafissatou Thiam Belgium - Nafissatou Thiam Belgium

“I still can’t believe it,” said Thiam, who recorded personal bests in five of the seven events in Rio. “I didn’t come for a medal. I didn’t think about it at all. It’s crazy. I wasn’t expecting that – maybe top eight, but not the gold. I’ve been injured this season and I didn’t know if I’d be able to take part in the Games. Coming back was really tough, but I put in a lot of hard work with the physio and it’s paid off.” The new Olympic champion added: “In the 800m, I just tried to stop Jess from getting away. I thought I could do 2:15 or 2:16 and not let her get too far away. I guess my life is going to change now. I’m still at university, but I’m going to need to make some decisions.” 

Ennis-Hill, who became a mother after her London triumph, said she had some thinking to do too: “It’s very emotional. I have to make a big decision about what I’m going to do. This could be my last one.” Cheered on by her American husband, who sported a Canada cap for the occasion, Theisen-Eaton fought her way back from a disappointing first day to claim the bronze. After excelling in the final three events of the competition, she said: “I didn’t have a good first day, but I managed to come back from it. It didn’t affect my concentration or my confidence. I’m really proud of what I’ve done. Winning an Olympic medal is not easy.” 

Eaton extends his reign

Five days after applauding his wife on to the third step of the heptathlon podium, Ashton Eaton of the USA won his second consecutive Olympic decathlon title, equalling the Games record of 8,893 points in the process. Eaton was nevertheless pushed all the way by France’s Kévin Mayer, who took silver with 8,834 points, with Canada’s Damian Warner completing the top three on 8,666 points.

In successfully defending the title he won at London 2012, the 28-year-old Eaton became only the third man to retain the Olympic decathlon crown after compatriot Bob Mathias, who achieved the feat in 1948 and 1952, and Great Britain’s Daley Thompson, a double gold medallist in 1980 and 1984. Eaton, who set a new world record of 9,045 points in the event at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, began his defence by taking second place in the 100m behind Warner and then won the long jump with a leap of 7.94m. Tenth in the shot, which was won by Mayer, he cleared 2.01m in the high jump and came home first in the 400m with a time of 46.07. 

Those performances gave him a 121-point lead over Germany’s Kai Kazmirek at the end of day one, with Mayer nearly 200 points behind in fourth. “Everything has gone well so far, even though I haven’t done anything exceptional yet,” said Eaton. “I even threw well in the shot and I’m happy with that.” 

The American began day two by finishing second in the 110m hurdles, just ahead of Mayer, though the Frenchman closed the gap by throwing 46.78m to Eaton’s 45.49m in the discus. Mayer heaped the pressure on in the pole vault, clearing 5.40m, outjumping the holder by 20cm, and asked even more questions of Eaton by posting 65.04m with his opening javelin throw. The American, who could do no better than 59.77m, saw his lead reduced to a mere 44 points ahead of the 1,500m, the tenth and final event.

Kevin was there to push me to the test and I think I passed the test. I’m glad he was there. Ashton Eaton USA - Ashton Eaton USA

Defending an advantage that equated to 6.5 seconds, Eaton kept a close eye on his French rival for most of the race before easing past him with 300m to go to make sure of a second consecutive Olympic gold medal. Reflecting on his hard-fought victory, the two-time champion said: “The first javelin throw, I said: ‘That’s not good. You’re going to have to do better than that,” explained the American. “The second javelin throw: ‘That’s a little better. But you’re not doing yourself any favours here, Ashton.’ And after the third one, I thought: ‘OK, that is within reason to where I can push myself to win it.

“I was ready to run myself into the hospital tonight,” he added. “I’m just glad it wasn’t an easy walk through. Kevin was there to push me to the test and I think I passed the test. I’m glad he was there.” Asked about the likelihood of completing a historic treble at Tokyo 2020, he said: “I’m not thinking about the future. I don’t know what it holds for me.” 

Reacting to his silver medal, which he secured with a new French record of 8,834 points, Mayer said: “I’m 24. I’m an Olympic runner-up and I’m the sixth best performer of all time. I’m going to get back down to work and I’m going to try and catch someone who’s never been caught before.” Eaton and Mayer shared a warm embrace at the end of their titanic battle, with the young pretender later revealing what their conversation was about: “He said: ‘I love you’. He said that what I’d done was good. I told him he was my role model and that I wouldn’t stop trying to beat him. It’s great that our sport has got such a charismatic ambassador.”