Reardon: Decathletes are often overlooked, just ask Bryan Clay

Castle alum Bryan Clay (USA) poses with gold medal after winning the mens decathlon with 8,791 points during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY)

Have you heard of Heath Baldwin, Zach Ziemek and Harrison Williams ?

If you follow track and field closely you have. Even if you don’t, Ziemek’s name might sound at least vaguely familiar if you paid attention to the past two Summer Olympiads — or, maybe not, because the endeavor that produces what used to be considered the “world’s greatest athlete ” doesn’t get a fraction of its former attention.


Baldwin, Ziemek and Williams are decathletes, and they’re the three who performed best at the U.S. Olympic trials last month. The Paris Games will be the third Olympics for Ziemek, who was seventh in the decathlon in 2016 and sixth in 2020. This is the first Olympics for Baldwin and Williams.

None of the three is expected to win or even make it to the podium in Paris, and you won’t find any of them on NBC’s list of 100 Olympians to watch. NCAA champion Leo Neugebauer might contend, but the Texas Longhorn represents Germany. Damian Warner, the 2020 winner from Canada, could make it two golds in a row.

Even when the U.S. does have a decathlon contender, medalist or gold winner—like 2012 and 2016, when Ashton Eaton won back-to-back— most Americans shrug and ask what’s next.

Maybe it has to do with our short attention span, and the Olympics is sensory overload defined. Plus, in Eaton’s case, he had to try to get a piece of the track and field stage while Usain Bolt was cementing his status as the greatest sprinter ever.

NBC’s Olympics coverage always includes a massive amount of prepackaged human interest stories, and that’s great—except when they don’t pan out and turn into fool’s gold, and they don’t have any backstory on the people who actually win the medals.

The last time the decathlon got much hype because of a human interest storyline was 20 years ago. The 2004 Games were in Athens, and the reigning world champion was an American named Tom Pappas. NBC milked Pappas’ Greek heritage for way more than it turned out to be worth.

Hawaii sports fans remember this because of how an undersized kid from Castle High School figured into the story.

Bryan Clay, then 24, was considered somewhat of a prodigy after a dominant college career but still relatively unknown. Even after the up-and-comer won the Olympic Trials and celebrated with a Hawaiian flag, Pappas was still the media darling.

Then, in Athens, Clay took the silver — becoming the first-ever track and field Olympic medalist from Hawaii. Meanwhile, Pappas — who was fifth in the standings on the second day — suffered a foot injury during the pole vault and did not finish.

So a Roman won the decathlon gold in Greece—Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic.

All the way through, NBC’s coverage remained stuck on Pappas, without much on the winner who broke the Olympics decathlon points record — or the American silver medalist from Kaneohe.

“We were kind of wondering why they focused on Tom,” said Martin Hee, Clay’s coach at Castle. “It’s like they forgot Bryan beat Tom in the trials.”

Clay wasn’t completely ignored by NBC, as he appeared on the network’s “Today Show ” after taking the silver.

He was too busy running the gauntlet of 10 events spread out over two days to know or worry about the coverage. Clay did say, however, that he noticed Pappas was still widely considered the favorite after Clay beat him in the trials.

At first he found it irritating but then considered the lack of attention a blessing as he prepared for the biggest meet of his life without distractions.

“You study for the test, and then the test takes care of itself,” Clay said, when I asked him about the rigors of training for 10 events.

The track and field world was right about one thing in 2004 — the best was yet to come for Clay in the decathlon. He won the world championship in 2005, and then Olympic gold at the 2008 Games. He started with the best marks in the 100 meters and the long jump in Beijing and never looked back.

Bryan Clay is far from media-unfriendly. He’s an inspirational public speaker and an engaging interview subject with a sense of humor. As a fellow asthma sufferer, I asked him before the’08 Olympics if he was worried about the poor air quality in Beijing. (He did not take asthma maintenance medicine, for fear of a failed drug test.)

“Hey, man,” he said. “I train in Southern California.”

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