How many ways can we say, “ Roman Šebrle of the Czech Republic is the world’s greatest performer ever in the century-old tradition of the decathlon? " I can think of at least five: Šebrle’s uniqueness, longevity, consistency, achievements, and attitude combine to place him in a league of his own. Here’s why.
One Singular Sensation
If greatness is the product of one spectacular effort, then Šebrle is peerless. On May 26 and 27, 2001, at the Twenty-seventh Annual Hypobank Meeting in Mosle Stadium, Götzis, Austria, Šebrle astonished the athletics world with his record-breaking performance of 9,026 points in fabulous fashion. He had four personal bests (in the 100 meters, long jump, javelin throw, and 1,500 meters), and he took first, second, or third in all ten events (first place with a 10.64 second 100-meter dash, 8.11-meter long jump, 2.12-meter high jump, 13.92-second 110-meter hurdles, and 70.16-meter javelin; second place with a 47.92 meter discus and 4 minute, 21.98-second 1,500 meters; and third place with a 15.33-meter shot put, 47.79-second 400-meter run, and 4.80-meter pole vault). He hit these marks against the best field of his time, competing against four of the top ten competitors in the event (compatriot Tomaš Dvorak, who was the current world champion and until then the world record holder; Estonia’s Erki Nool, the reigning Olympic champion; Russia’s Lev Lobidin; and Hungary’s Attila Zsivcozky). Yet, he won the event by a staggering 422 points and exceeded his personal best score by 269 points. Šebrle was in rare form that day.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Šebrle’s 9,026 points on that weekend in Götzis exceeded his previous point score based on total personal bests! Frank Zarnowski made this point when reporting on the meet for the June 2001 issue of his DECA Newsletter: “Did anyone realize that Roman Šebrle’s PRs before the Götzis meeting was 9,014! He was competing at or very near PR levels in every event. His post-meet PRs now total 9,125 points. He competed at 100.13% of potential (before) 98.78% potential (afterwards).”
Indeed, what a singular achievement the 26-year-old Czech delivered before 3,000 appreciative fans at the high-pressure, season-opening meet known as the Mecca of the decathlon!
If greatness emerges from longevity, then Šebrle is a giant. Filmmaker Woody Allen once said, “Ninety percent of success is showing up.” No one know this better than America’s Kip Janvrin, the world-class standard of making a life of the sport. Janvrin competed in more than 100 multi-event meets over 22 seasons. At the end of the 2007 season, Šebrle has completed 17 years in the sport and is nearing 90 combined official decathlons and heptathlons. While his numbers remain second to Janvrin in these categories, Šebrle has performed at a significantly higher level during his career. Consider that Janvrin’s personal best is a wind-aided 8,462 points, while Šebrle has legally exceeded that high 21 times, with 20 decathlons over 8,500 points, 13 over 8,600, 8 over 8,700, and 6 over 8,800.
Clearly, the stellar names in the sport fall far short of Šebrle’s tenure. Bob Mathias completed 10 decathlons over 4 seasons, Rafer Johnson 11 over 5 seasons, Daley Thompson 36 over 16 seasons, and Dan O’Brien 30 over 12 seasons. As he turns 33 on November 26, 2007, Šebrle can claim to have spent more than half his life competing as a decathlete. No one else comes close to putting up his numbers over so many years. After winning in the world championship in Osaka this year for the first time in his stellar career, Šebrle said that he saw no reason why he should not be able to continue in the sport through the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and beyond. If he stays true to form, he may even eclipse Janvrin’s impressive endurance marks.
Let’s Do It Again … and Again … and Again
If greatness comes from consistency, then Šebrle is the gold standard of the decathlon. Consider these numbers that Šebrle has recorded over the past 11 seasons:
• appearances in 2 Olympic Games, 11 consecutive World Championships (6 outdoor decathlons and 5 indoor heptathlons), and 8 consecutive European Championships (3 decathlons and 5 heptathlons)
• qualification in 9 of the 10 IAAF Combined Event Challenges since the program was initiated in 1998
• ranking for 11 consecutive years in the world’s Top 10 List, 5 of those seasons with the top performance (9,026 in 2001, 8,800 in 2002, 8,807 in 2003, 8,893 in 2004, and 8,676 in 2007) and 3 as runner-up (8,757 in 2000, 8,534 in 2005, and 8,526 in 2006)
• completing of 60 of 63 decathlons (95.2%) and 22 of 23 heptathlons (95.7%)
• scoring over 8,000 points in 40 decathlons, all of them coming over a span of his last 42 meets and 12 seasons
• scoring over 5,700 points in 21 heptathlons, all of them laid down over his last 22 meets and the same 12 seasons
• appearances in at least 4 multi-event indoor and outdoor meets for 15 consecutive years
Sure, Dan O’Brien was indomitable for most of his career, registering 6 world seasonal bests and 1 runner-up; however, he did not put his name on the line as frequently as has Šebrle. Only
Dvorak’s 35 decathlons over 8,000 points come anywhere near Šebrle’s 40. The man just has a boundless enthusiasm for competing regardless of the outcome and an abiding love for the sport.
Leasing a Space on the Podium
If the measure of greatness is the awards a man has won, then again Šebrle comes on top. Throughout his career, Šebrle has made a longstanding habit of appearing on the podium, winning 38 of 86 meets (44.2%). Adding 15 silvers and 11 bronzes to his collection, he has medaled in 63 meets (73.3%). On the world stage, he has been even more formidable:
• Olympic gold (Athens 2004, 8,893 points) and silver (Sydney 2000, 8,606 points)
• World Championship gold (Osaka 2007, 8,676 points) and two silvers (Paris 2003, 8,634 points; Helsinki 2005, 8,521 points)
• World Indoor Championship gold twice (Lisbon 2001, 6,420 points; Budapest 2004, 6,438 points) and bronze thrice (Maebashi 1999, 6,319 points; Birmingham 2003, 6,196 points; Moscow 2006, 6,161 points)
• European Championship gold twice (Munich 2002, 8,800 points; Göteborg 2006, 8,526 points)
• European Indoor Championship gold another three times (Vienna 2002, 6,280 points; Madrid 2005, 6,232 points; Birmingham 2007, 6,196 points) with one silver (Gent 2000, 6,271 points)
• In other IAAF Challenge meets, he has won European Cup gold (Tallinn, 1997) and two silvers (Tallinn, 1998; Prague, 1999) in four appearances; at Götzis, he has taken first five times in a row, from 2001 to 2005, with two silvers in 2000 and 2007 in 10 appearances; at the Talence Decastar Meet, he has taken gold twice (2004 and 2005), silver once (2002), and bronze twice (1999 and 2006) in 9 meets; at Ratingen, he has won in both of his appearances (2002 and 2003); and in Arles, he won in 2006, his sole appearance. In the highly prized Reval Hotels Cup meet at Tallinn, he took gold 5 times (2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2006), with one silver in 1999, failing to medal only once.
Unquestionably, Šebrle has performed at the top of any chart that the statisticians have devised to measure decathletes. He shows up in the top ten in every imaginable category:
• ranks first in the decathlon (9,026, Götzis 2004) and second in the heptathlon (6,438, Budapest 2004)
• ranks first in top ten decathlons with 87,999 points
• ranks third in total points based on personal bests with 9,326 points
• ranks seventh all time for the best first-day decathlon performance with 4,675 points (Götzis 2001)
• ranks fourth all time for the best second-day decathlon performance with 4,351 points (Götzis 2001)
• ranks fourth all time for the best performance in running events of a decathlon with 3,644 points (Götzis 2001)
• ranks fourth all time for the best performance in jumping events of a decathlon with 2,896 points (Munich 2002)
• ranks tenth all time for the best performance in throwing events of a decathlon with 2,614 points (Athens 2004)
• ranks second all time for the best IAAF Combined Events Challenge score with 26,301 points (2002)
• ranked first in the IAAF Combined Events Challenge four times (2002, 2004, 2005, 2007), second three times (1999, 2003, 2006), and third twice (1998, 2000)
• has 3 of the top 10 decathlons ever, 6 of the top 25, 7 of the top 50, 10 of the top 75, and 13 of the top 100
No one else can compare to those mind-numbing numbers. Only one name is emblazoned in all these categories: Roman Šebrle.
It’s All in the Mind
If it is true that how we play the game surpasses the magnitude of our performance, then Šebrle is the man. When Šebrle became an international athletics celebrity on May 27, 2001, he humbly stated in an interview just hours after breaking the world record that he was not sure he had topped the mark until “When I crossed the finish line in the 1,500 meters.” He commented similarly after winning Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 in Olympic record fashion: “I didn’t say that I’d make (first place), but I thought that I’d make it.”
He did see his record-breaking performance in Götzis as a great accomplishment but said that he eagerly looked forward to more competitions and achievements. More than six years later, after having won his first World Championship in Osaka, he told an IAAF interviewer, “I did not have the shape which I expected after the training camp, but it proved decathlon is finished only after the last event. You need to fight right to the end.” Just what a decathlon fan wants to hear—and see! And Šebrle still sees a long road ahead: “I had the same level of preparation as at three years ago at the Olympic Games. I hope to be in better shape next year in Beijing to defend my Olympic title. I want to continue until the Olympic Games in London 2012. The problem is not age but health.”
In the sports world, we often hear inspirational chatter about athletes “with heart,” but Šebrle brought that notion to a new level. When he was accidentally struck by a javelin during a training session in South Africa earlier this year, he commented to ESPN, “If it hit me 10 centimeters to the left, it would have punctured my lung; 20 centimeters higher the throat.” Rather than cancel his indoor season, he showed up at Birmingham only weeks later to win the European Indoor Championship. That’s the mark of a spirited competitor. “My motivation still remains,” he insists. “I need to defend my title from Athens next year.”
Good for us who count ourselves as Šebrle’s fans. No doubt about it: Decathlon fans the world over have not seen an important multi-event meet this past decade without Šebrle in it—and always as a major contender to take it all. We might as well call this the Roman Era.
Philip Vassallo, a writing consultant, is an avid combined events fan. He thanks Janek Salmistu and Enn Endjärv for providing statistics for this article on Decathlon 2000 website.