Review: Ultimate Garden Clash - Decathlon Edition
“Yes, I’m ready,” said Kevin Mayer, squinting in the blazing sun of Montpellier. “I don’t know what for, but I’m ready.”
The decathlon world record holder, the decathlon world champion and the decathlon world silver medallist came together for the latest in the World Athletics series of lockdown Ultimate Garden Clashes. Three events in the space of one hour – the pole vault, the shot put and 20m shuttle runs - with the focus on quantity over quality.
• How many times could the decathletes vault over a 4m bar in 10 minutes, replacing the bar themselves if they fail?
• How many times could they put the shot over 12m in 10 minutes, fetching the weight after every throw?
• And how many there-and-back shuttle runs could they complete in the space of 5 minutes?
With the double Olympic champion Ashton Eaton on hand to provide expert analysis, Niklas Kaul was poised for action with pole in hand at his indoor training facility in Mainz, Germany. Maicel Uibo was relaxed, lounging in the world’s smallest chair on the grass in a thunderous and humid Clermont, Florida. Kevin Mayer completed the line-up in France, and with all three sporting near-identical lockdown haircuts, combined events in 2020 were once again go, go, go!
Or at least it was go, go, go for Niklas and Maicel. It wasn’t so much “allez, allez, allez!“ for the world record holder, since it turned out Kevin wasn’t ready after all. While he had wandered off to get a drink, Kaul and Uibo had clocked up their first clearances in the vault. Twenty-five seconds later, Kevin hurriedly took his first jump, his team requesting an additional 25 seconds to be added to his time to compensate for missing the start.
Niklas and Maicel set a steady pace, clearing 3,4, 5, 6, 7 attempts. Kaul’s pole echoed around the indoor arena as it clattered to the floor, and umbrellas were at the ready in Clermont to protect Uibo’s makeshift scoreboard from the occasional raindrop. But, despite his leisurely entrance, Kevin had caught up within 3 jumps and as the others approached their 8th vault, Kevin cleared his 9th. From the 11th vault Maicel started to edge one jump ahead of Niklas, but by that time Kevin was a clear 2 vaults ahead, already at 13 jumps.
With 3 minutes left to go, Kevin’s team requested an update on the request for an extra 25 seconds. As Kevin encountered the only failure of the competition in his 16th attempt, news came that there would be no extension. What would happen next? Would there be a protest, counter protest, and reinstatement? No. Mayer simply gave a metaphorical shrug and banged out another vault, winning the first round with ease, the 25 second delay simply a generous gift to his competitors.
AFTER POLE VAULT:
1. KEVIN 17
2. MAICEL 15
3. NIKLAS 14
Next up the shot, and Ashton pondered which of the three would stick with their usual techniques – Mayer and Kaul glide, and Uibo rotation – and which would opt for standing throws. Only Kaul retained his usual approach, the others choosing a standing throw.
Kevin started like a man possessed, reaching 9 throws while the others were evenly matched at 6. The athletes jogged to and from the circle to retrieve the ball, perhaps warming up for the shuttle runs to come. While Niklas’ throws seemed to roll further away on the smooth indoor mats, after 2 attempts he clocked that the shot would roll back just as quickly in the other direction, and he got into a rhythm of throws and rolls. Viewed in one direction it was a powerful shot display, viewed from the other it resembled a pleasant afternoon game of boules. At the halfway point, Maicel was on 9 throws and Niklas 10, but Kevin surged ahead to 13, and extended his lead further to complete 28 valid throws, to Niklas’ 22 and Maicel’s 20.
On each journey to collect his shot, Uibo brought his towel, as the humidity and drizzle in Florida dampened his efforts. “It’s 28 degrees and crazy humidity, and the chalk just ended up caking and not spreading on the hands,” he said.
Meanwhile Ashton was doing the maths, calculating that Kevin was delivering a fast and even tempo of only 20-22 seconds between throws, Niklas with 25 and Maicel 30 seconds.
1. Kevin 45 (17, 28)
2. Niklas 36 (14, 22)
3. Maicel 35 (15, 20)
The final event was the Ultimate Garden Clash equivalent of the 1500m, but with an extra 30 seconds - 45 if you’re Kaul - thrown in for fun. The decathletes trundled back and forth between the cones, like gigantic oversized race walkers, evenly matched for most of the event until Niklas started to move ahead on his 22nd circuit. He eventually clocked 27 laps, covering 1080m to Mayer’s 1040m one lap behind. But it wasn’t enough, and Kevin had won the competition, finishing with 71 points to Niklas’ 63 and Maicel’s 61.
Ashton revealed that he had tried out the final event beforehand, to get a better understanding of the challenge the trio would be facing. “I tried to do the shuttle run myself the other day,” he said. “Nope. I don’t have it anymore. I’m still recovering from my 4:17 in Beijing!”
But with controversy avoided after Kevin’s faulty start, there was almost a dust-up after the event. Kevin was a fan of the shuttle run. “You know what, it was easier, because I’m good at sprints and not good at 1500,” he said. Niklas had the opposite view. “For me, the 1500m was easier, because in the shuttle run you have to stop and then accelerate again, and I’m not good at that. I think it’s good that we have the 1500m in the decathlon and not the 5 minute shuttle run.”
“Maybe we can change it,” suggested the world record holder. “No, no, no, no, no, no!” pleaded the world champion. “Please don’t do this to me...”
1. Kevin 71 (17, 28, 26)
2. Niklas 63 (14, 22, 27)
3. Maicel 61 (15, 20, 26)
“Kevin was a machine” said Ashton after the event, noting that he did just enough to clear 4m in the vault and just enough to cover 12m in the shot. “That was great, that was fun, even if I prefer to compete with the guys in the stadium with me,” Kevin said. “It was plenty fun,” Maicel added “and at least we got a chance to come out on a Sunday and get a little competition going on”.
And although each athlete was on his own, with only his support team for company, they managed to recreate the feel of competition. “It feels more like a competition when you know Kevin and Maicel are doing the same thing in other countries” Niklas said “and doing it as fast as possible, so you know you have to be good, so that you don’t look like…like you’re not in good shape.”
While all looked forward to a return to full decathlon competition, Kevin reflected on the inclusion of short combined events competitions in the athletics circuit.
“I have been asking the Diamond League to include triathlon for 3 years, and I succeeded in Paris. But I have no voice in other countries – maybe I have to make myself better and they will listen to me. I know other decathletes want it too, so we have to make our voice count. They don’t like the decathlon because it is too long, so we have to fight to keep it in international competition.”
And finally, the three decathlon stars shared their thinking on plans for the rest of the year.
Niklas had no firm schedule as yet but was using the time to add variety to his workload. “I don’t know when the first opportunity is to do decathlon, so we are doing something different in training, like the 400m hurdles. Maybe in September or October we will do a decathlon if it is possible.”
Maicel was relaxed, like Niklas already with Olympic qualification in the bag. “I’d be lying if I said I had something lined up”, he grinned.
And as the only athlete without an Olympic qualification score or ranking position, Kevin had a clear strategy for when the Olympic qualifying period reopens at the end of the year. “I think I will organise a decathlon,” he said. “I don’t know where it will be, but I’m seeking to organise something for qualification with good conditions. I think in December, you will see me in decathlon.”
Image credit: World Athletics