The Greatest Decathletes and Heptathletes Of All-Time

My latest look at different athletics events and their finest ever exponents turns to the multi-events.

I have listed a number of the best athletes in roughly chronological order with a table showing their achievements.

The key to the table

OG – Olympic golds
WC – World Titles
CC – Continental Titles (European/ Pan Am Games etc)
WR – Number of World Records (and how long they stood in years)
WL – years ranked world number 1 and the first year that was
Name OG WC CC WR WL Year
Harold Osborn (US) 1 3 1923
Paavo Yrjola (Fin) 1 3 (4) 3 1926
Bob Matthias (US) 2 2 (5) 3 1948
Rafer Johnson (US) 1 1 3 (7) 3 1955
Bill Toomey (US) 1 1 1 (3) 3 1966
Bruce Jenner (US) 1 1 3 (5) 3 1974
Daley Thompson (GB) 2 1 2 4 (9) 5 1980
Jurgen Hingsen (FRG) 3 (2) 1981
Dan O’Brien (US) 1 3 1 (7) 6 1991
Tomas Dvorak (CZ) 3 1 (2) 4 1997
Roman Sebrle (Cz) 1 1 2 1 (11) 3 2002
Bryan Clay (US) 1 1 3 2005
Trey Hardee (US) 2 3 2009
Ashton Eaton (US) 2 2 2 (6) 4 2012

As always the athletes from earlier years didn’t have world championships to enter so my favoured measure to compare eras is by looking at the number of years ranked first, bearing in mind that things have generally become stronger in depth since the early days of the events.

This puts Dan O’Brien first ahead of Daley Thompson and this seems to me a fairly accurate reflection of the top two ever as they both cover all the bases with their feats.  He wasn’t really pushed in the championships because he was so much better than his rivals whereas Daley was great at rising to the big occasion to beat other world record holders in championships.

The event is a hard one to dominate because the training is demanding and athletes can’t sustain their levels for years.  This makes it hard to choose between the raft of athletes at a similar level in my list.

I would put Eaton third but after that it is very hard to separate them.  With not much confidence if pushed I would go in order from fourth to tenth

Dvorak, Sebrle, Jenner, Matthias, Johnson, Yrjola, Toomeylan

The women’s equivalent event is the heptathlon and below is the table for the leading female multi eventers.

Note that the event was the pentathlon until 1980.

Name OG WC CC WR WL Year
Galina Bystrova (URS) 2 2 (2) 2 1957
Irina Press (URS) 1 6 (10) 7 1959
Heide Rosendahl (FRG) 1 2 1968
Burglinde Pollak (GDR) 3 (6) 3 1970
Nadezhda Tkachenko (URS) 1 (3) 4 1974
Ramona Neubert (GDR) 1 1 4 (3) 3 1981
Jackie Joyner-Kersee (US) 2 2 4 (33) 6 1986
Sabine Braun (Ger) 1 2 3 1991
Carolina Kluft (Swe) 1 3 2 6 2002
Jessica Ennis-Hill (GB) 1 3 1 4 2009
Nafi Thiam (Bel) 1 1 1 3 2016

For the heptathlon things are quite clear cut for one and two.  Joyner-Kersee was the dominant figure for the best part of a decade and set marks that haven’t been approached.  Kluft is the only woman in the modern era to dominate as clearly and it would have been interesting to see how high she could have scored had she stuck at the event.

After her it becomes more complicated.  Press was the number one in the world more times than anyone but that was when the event wasn’t as widely competed in as it wasn’t an Olympic discipline when Press won.  It was held at the European championships but Press never competed in those which makes things tricky to assess.  I think that the length of time she was top are enough to place third overall.

Jessica Ennis-Hill comes next but the choice for fifth is close.  Braun’s longevity and having to face JJK for much of her career puts her next.  Tkachenko was a good championship performer but did fail a drugs test which puts a slight question mark over her.  Thiam is the latsest outstanding heptathlete but as yet only ranks sixth  with me.  As a relatively recent event I will only rank the top eight and my final choice is Bystrova over Pollak who was a frequent medallist but never won gold.





This entry was posted in All-time Greats, Athletics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s