SPORTS WATCH

Camaraderie and the sport of paupers

What is it about this game where there are no network bucks putting everybody’s girlfriend into floor-length sable?

TRENT FRAYNE September 9 1991
SPORTS WATCH

Camaraderie and the sport of paupers

What is it about this game where there are no network bucks putting everybody’s girlfriend into floor-length sable?

TRENT FRAYNE September 9 1991

Camaraderie and the sport of paupers

What is it about this game where there are no network bucks putting everybody’s girlfriend into floor-length sable?

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

With all the sports TV money out there, it's hard to figure what transpires in a young boy's mind when he decides that what he's

going to be when he grows up is a decathlete.

Backup quarterbacks make $1.2 million, give or take. Hockey players drive MercedesBenz automobiles. Reserve infielders buy villas in Spain for their dear old moms. But a night out for a decathlete is a burger and fries at McDonald’s.

A decathlete works harder than any athlete. Where a sprinter sprints, a pole-vaulter polevaults and a hurdler hurdles, a decathlete does each of these things and seven more things besides, including heaving an iron ball the size of a cantaloupe and tearing down a lane at full gallop to leap into a sand pit.

A decathlete’s job is so tough that it takes two days to complete such major track meets as last week’s world championships in Tokyo, where Michael Smith, the silver medallist and pride of Kenora, Ont., his home town, and the rest of Canada as well, toiled hour after hour. Mike is a reserved, shyly smiling, towering mobile mountain of six-foot-six and 215 lb. who has become one of the world’s premier decathletes, modest as a pimpled schoolgirl.

His specialty, the decathlon, is a crucible of 10 events, five each day—the 100-m sprint, the shot put, the high jump, the 400-m run and the long jump the first day, then the high hurdles, the discus throw, the pole vault, the javelin throw and the 1,500 m the next. Dave Steen, who preceded Mike Smith as Canada’s best decathlete, once said that he cannot see for 15 minutes after he runs those 1,500 m that close his two-day travail, a test only slightly less exhausting than swimming the Atlantic Ocean or sitting out a critique by Don Cherry.

These events are sometimes called the 10 Labors of Hercules, draining events that consume 20 hours or so, droning on without much response from crowds busy watching the other events in this three-ring circus of sweaty endeavor.

“We don’t have much of a public to notice us,” Steen told me once. Dave, now 32 and retired, was a bronze medallist at the Seoul Olympics three years ago. “If the decathlon were held separately from the rest of the meet,” he said, “I don’t think too many people would show up.”

So what is it about this sport of paupers, this game where there are no network bucks putting everybody’s girlfriend into floor-length sable and where there is rarely recognition in a stroll along the sidewalk? What there is is the camaraderie that usually bonds people in difficult or unusual situations—such as goaltenders, field-goal kickers and ornamental swimmers. They know a different game. At once, their peers are often their closest friends and fiercest rivals. Each helps the other and then goes out and tries to beat his ears off. “They have a camaraderie, a rough, mutual goading, by which a company of athletes pushes itself to heights few could reach alone,” Kenny Moore wrote once in Sports Illustrated magazine.

“The only decathlon athlete anyone ever hears about is the Olympic winner,” Dave Steen told me one time. “The rest of us are all a little crazy. There’s no glory—it’s purely the personal satisfaction.”

Occasionally, I go back five summers to a cold, damp late afternoon at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh for an illustration of Dave’s point. The great Daley Thompson, perhaps the best decathlete of all time—he won the gold medal at both the Moscow and the Los Angeles Olympics in 1980 and 1984—had just won his third Commonwealth gold and the crowds jamming the open stands and the old covered grandstand were standing and clapping in anticipation of the customary victory jog around the rust-colored track. They waited— and then they waited and waited.

Daley was refusing to take the victory jog alone. He was waiting for all of the decathletes, all of them, to assemble at the finish line in front of the grandstand. Later, Dave Steen, who had won the silver medal, explained the delay. “Three of us won medals, but we didn’t work any harder than the other guys,” he said. “Daley always does this.”

It was Steen’s misfortune that all through the 1980s, he was competing against the great Daley (Daley was never called Thompson; he was one of those sports figures like Jack Nicklaus and Steffi Graf and Michael Jordan whose first name is identification enough), so that for 10 years, it was his goal to overtake Daley, his friend and his hero, and win an Olympic medal. Finally, at Seoul three summers ago, he did it. With a gut-wrenching finish, he scored a personal best in the final event, the 1,500 m, that vaulted him into third place, leapfrogging Daley, who had vainly sought a third consecutive Olympic gold.

Of course, not every decathlete is a selfless paragon. The first time I encountered the species was at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when Bruce Jenner, handsome as the movie hunk he hoped to become, took his place on the tallest Games podium while the public-address system cranked out The Star-Spangled Banner. Bruce made no secret of his desire to ride Olympic gold to riches, and he did sputter briefly in television commercials and an occasional made-for-TV movie before sinking from public view.

The new Canadian hero, Mike Smith, seems cut from the Daley Thompson mould, a guy of 23 owning a hearty laugh and easygoing nature, raised with a brother and two sisters by Bert and Bernice Smith. Bert teaches English and is the librarian at the Kenora high school and Bernice is a nurse at the town’s hospital. Randy Starkman, an amateur-sports specialist for The Toronto Star, visited the Smith family a while back, writing that in raising their family, the parents stressed that the most important ingredients in games were having fun and playing by the rules.

That seems to sum up Mike, who approaches his often-tedious training grind with a cheerful attitude, and a highly positive one as well.

“Positive is right. It’s one of the most impressive things about him,” Carl Georgevski told me one time. Georgevski is the high-jump coach at the University of Toronto, where Mike trains. “He acts as if failing is impossible. It’s something Henry Ford said: ‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re probably right.’ This guy thinks he can.”