Uncancel the Olympics With a DIY Decathlon

How one man became the world's greatest athlete* (of his backyard)

The writer and Olympian, seconds before his near-impalement (Photo by Kevin Curtin)

When America's COVID-19 outbreak caused the cancellation of my beloved weekly musician basketball game, I built a hoop in my backyard. The backboard is plywood, the rim a curved piece of steel pipe I found in my scrap metal pile, and it's mounted to the front of my barn. It's far from regulation, but I can put up shots and challenge my friends across the country to games of H-O-R-S-E on Zoom.

We're resourceful ... and a bit bored. On the day of the NFL draft in late April, some friends and I recorded footage of us running the 40-yard dash as if we were pro prospects and posted the times in a text thread. I ran a 6.6.

That's proof I'm not an athlete, just an adult goofball with childlike energy and plenty of ingenuity. Since the Chronicle's Summer Fun theme is "re-creating summer traditions your own way," I decided to revive the ultimate summer sports tradition: the Olympics. The 2020 Summer Games, set to run in Tokyo, have been postponed to 2021, but I can't stand waiting. So I'm going to find a creative way to participate in all of the events of the Olympics ultimate challenge – the decathlon. If I can successfully do that, I still may not be much of an "athlete," but I will technically be a decathlete.

Editor's note: Kevin has made some, shall we say, questionable decisions here regarding personal safety. If you attempt your own DIY decathlon, please do so responsibly.

Javelin Throw

I do not own a javelin. (Do you?) I do own a metal bar that I cut down to eight-and-a-half feet in length. Based on my research (YouTube), you have to get a running start with the javelin over your shoulder like a bazooka, then you turn sideways and launch it. I ventured out to the power plant behind my house so I'd have plenty of room. I wouldn't need it. My first throw went 6.1 meters, my second 7.6m. Finally, when I threw my whole body into it, it went 11.9m. Cursory research shows that Olympians launch the javelin seven times that distance, but – then again – they're not throwing a heavy, bent up, metal bar.

Long Jump

This event is exactly what what it sounds like – you just jump as far as you can. You need to have a hard surface to run on and a soft surface to land in. A shut-down beach volleyball court served as the perfect environment. I took off, gathered momentum, and flung myself feet first into the expanse of sand. My best of three attempts: 5.9m – almost good enough to qualify for a junior high track meet.

Photos by Kevin Curtin

100 Meter Dash

One of the most revered events in the decathlon, the dash is just running in a straight line, pure foot speed. Every race needs a starting line and a finish line so I spray painted those in a nearby drainage ditch and tried to burn up the concrete beneath my Nikes. Fans of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt will be happy to know his record, 9.58 seconds still stands. I came in at 17 seconds.

High Jump

Times like these, I'm smart for always keeping an old mattress lying around the yard. That served as my landing pad, while two tiki torches and a rope acted as my bar. After watching one clip to learn the technique – apparently you run in a "J" shape then leap backward over the bar – I made my first attempt at a paltry 1m height and cleared it. I raised it 10 inches for my second heat, on which my legs awkwardly flung to the side and shattered the tiki torch holding the rope.

110 Meter Hurdles

Hurdles is such an important event that we use "hurdles" as an expression for the challenges we face in life. Oddly, one of the challenges I'm facing today is that I do not have any hurdles. So I've lined my yard with a sequence of hay bales, folding chairs, benches, and boards that are all between two and three-and-a-half feet tall and created a course that I run three times in order to fulfill the full distance. Being a musician, rhythm comes easily to me so I focused on that. It worked. I only knocked over one hay bale and clocked a time of 42 seconds, which is pretty good – never mind, I just looked it up and that is not good at all.

Discus Throw

The sport of discus dates back to at least 708BC, so I can't be the only one who has made their own by gaff-taping 4.4 pounds worth of random shit inside a frisbee. From watching a compilation of successful discus throwers, it seems like mostly you pace around, loosening up your shoulder muscles for a long time, then turn your body into a spinning top before whipping the disc into the air. I did just that and hit my best mark at a respectable 28m. This might be my event.

400 Meters

One lap on a standard track is 400m, but tracks are teeming with sweaty people without face masks. To determine an accurate distance, I turned on an app that measures how far you run, drove until it read a quarter mile, then parked and sprinted back home. It took me a less than impressive 2:05.

Pole Vault

If you guessed this would be the event where I got injured, you were correct. Requiring a 17.5 foot pole, I removed the top bar of a section of my chain link fence. I tied a rope at an 8-ft. clearance and laid a mattress down to catch me. I visualized the end of the pole planting firmly in the grass, my body flying gracefully over the rope, and me landing on my feet. It all went according to plan until the pole, instead of flinging me upward, snapped in half, sending me swiftly down to Earth. While the mattress cushioned by body, my head whipped directly into the grass and I saw stars for 15 seconds. Worse yet, with my equipment in ruins, I had to take a zero in the pole vault category.

Photos by Kevin Curtin

Shot Put

If you think the shot put is just a contest of brute strength, you are wrong. Those oafy flesh hulks who excel at it have a lot of different, complex techniques. The one I observed is called "the spin," in which you generate a lot of centripetal acceleration with your body before shoving the 16 pound orb into the sky. The only aspect of it that I feel I mastered is the grunting sound made upon release. Mine traveled 7.7m.

The Longest, Shortest Mile

The 1,500m seems like a silly event – at least, to my American brain – seeing as though it's just a football field shorter than a one mile run. Still, when I ran it, on a dirt path through the woods in a truly pathetic 9:15, it felt like the longest mile I'd ever run because it was my 10th event and I was exhausted. I was humbled by the endurance of those decathletes ... until I later discovered they split the competition into two days! I really should have read the Wikipedia page on decathlons before attempting one.

So, am I talented enough to be an Olympian? Nope, never, not even close, but I did get some solid exercise and it felt good to flex my creative muscles. For that, I earned a gold medal in having fun.

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