The sudden and surprise retirement of world and Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton from the United States at the age 28 on 3 January 2017 season left a gaping chasm to be filled in the men’s combined events.
Eaton had dominated the decathlon over the preceding five seasons, winning seven major titles in succession both indoors and outdoors and breaking both the world heptathlon and decathlon records in the process. For the most part nobody could compete with Eaton when he was at his prime.
But Kevin Mayer pushed Eaton all the way to his second Olympic title in 2016. The Frenchman’s total of 8834 points to win silver just behind Eaton’s Olympic record tally of 8893 points was the beginning of the fulfilment of the vast promise he had displayed as a teenager when he was crowned world U18 champion in 2009 and then European U20 champion in 2011.
With Eaton no longer on the combined events scene and much missed, Mayer seemed the most obvious candidate to succeed the great American and he quickly took up this significant mantle with an exceptional display in the heptathlon at the Belgrade 2017 European Athletics Indoor Championships.
Mayer either equalled or surpassed his indoor lifetime bests in five of the seven disciplines in the Serbian capital. Along with a 2.10m high jump to conclude his first day, another of Mayer’s individual highlights was an excellent 5.40m clearance in the pole vault. This put him on schedule to challenge both Tomas Dvorak’s long-standing championship record of 6422 points along with Roman Sebrle’s European record of 6438 points.
Concluding his campaign with a 2:41.79 clocking in the 1000m, Mayer was assured of his first senior title by more than 250 points and his overall tally of 6479 points duly smashed both the championship and European records. Only Eaton now sat ahead of Mayer on the world all-time list with his world record of 6645 points from the 2012 World Indoor Championships which is still untouched eight years later.
One of the most impressive aspects of the performance was that Mayer, by his own admission, described himself as “not in exceptional shape” ahead of the heptathlon. But despite an abbreviated build-up due to a long and arduous season prior to 2017, Mayer still thoroughly dominated across the seven events and surpassed two very highly respected records as well.
“I told you I was not in exceptional shape but that I had still progressed since the Olympic Games,” Mayer told L’Equipe after the competition. “I expected to do better in the 60m and 60m hurdles. What is huge is that I feel that I am progressing and that I can break records without being technically perfect.”
The ceiling for improvement was still clearly high for the Frenchman who would go on to dominate the combined events for the next eighteen months. As expected, Mayer went on to succeed Eaton by winning both the world decathlon title in London in 2017 and then the world indoor heptathlon title in Birmingham the following winter.
His unbeaten run in major events came to a jolting and ignominious end at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin where the resounding gold medal favourite didn’t record a valid mark in the long jump but Mayer banished any memories of that bitter disappointment with the greatest moment of his career just one month later.
With another four weeks of hard training under his belt and Berlin seemingly forgotten, Mayer arrived in Talence for the Decastar in mid-September at his mental and physical peak. Aided by the hot and sunny conditions and propelled by a huge and enthusiastic crowd who roared his every move, Mayer chalked up a phenomenal score of 9126 points to succeed Eaton as world record-holder in the decathlon and become the first athlete in history to break the 9100-point barrier.