In athletics, as in life, only a few parts can be glamorous. The leading running stars are, obviously, the fastest men and women; not that we should take anything away from their efforts. Still, there is glory in events like the marathon, the ultimate test of endurance and stoicism. While track takes centre stage, with the finishing tape in the front of the most august audience, the field events and the throws are an integral part of every athletics competition across the globe. Each one of these needs specialised training, commitment, dedication and a great deal of effort.
Combining all these is an oft-forgotten event, relegated to the sidelines, yet requiring a rare combination of speed, strength and endurance. Seven highly competitive events spread over two days, comprises the heptathlon, a name quite naturally derived from Greek, denoting seven (hepta) athlon (feat). It appears that this is a further take from the once popular pentathlon, and is now contested by both women and men, the former vying for honours outdoors and the latter, indoors. Both, however, are dissimilar in the types of competitions.
When it started
The first women’s heptathlon was reportedly held in 1980 and qualified as an Olympic sport in the 1984 Summer Games. Today, it is part of the IAAF World Championships, and the IAAF Combined Events Challenge decides who is the women’s heptathlon number one for the year. Points are allotted according to performance in each of the events, in terms of time or distance, with the athlete amassing the most points being the obvious winner.
The first day of the competition comprises the 100 metres hurdles, the high jump, the shot put and the 200 metres. With two sprints, and a field and a throw event each behind them, the women go into the second day with the long jump, the javelin and finally, the 800 metres. Naturally, no individual can be best at everything, so it matters little that the champion athlete should finish on the podium in every event. While one school of thought might recommend that the competitor should be above average in all the events, if not necessarily within a ‘first three’ finish, in reality, each athlete specialises in a few of them and makes calculated compromises in the rest to garner maximum points overall. In effect, the participant actually competes not against the rest of the field, but rather, against the score table, a matrix constructed by an Austrian mathematician, Dr Karl Ulbrich, with points from zero to 1,000 and above for every event.
To score 1,000 points per event, each athlete would be required to perform, on an average, something like this:
110 m hurdles 13.85 seconds
High Jump 1.82 metres
Shot put 17.07 metres
200 metres 23.80 seconds
Long jump 6.48 metres
Javelin 57.18 metres
800 metres 2:07.83 seconds
Mundane figures, to the normal eye, but to the most competitive athlete, an almost impossible task to accumulate 7,000 points. In fact, the women’s world record has been set at 7,291 points, with the athlete surpassing the 1,000 average in just three of the events, her obvious favourites.
And finally, for the super athletes not satisfied with just seven events, there is also a tetradecathlon, a double heptathlon, consisting of 14 events, with seven events each day.
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