One of track and field’s most difficult accomplishments is achieving multiple medals in Olympic multi-events competition. Winning multiple gold medals – as Jackie Joyner-Kersee did – is even more rare. To maintain peak performance in a series of events for more than four years is tough enough. But multi-event competitions also take a huge toll on an athlete’s body, so stamina – and luck – also come into play during extended multi-event careers.
Entering the 2012 London Olympics only two men had earned more than one decathlon gold medal since the event was introduced in 1912: American Bob Mathias in 1948-52 and Daley Thompson of Great Britain in 1980-84. Women began competing in the five-event Olympic pentathlon in 1964, then moved to the seven-event heptathlon in 1984. Only Joyner-Kersee has earned two Olympic multi-events gold medals, winning the heptathlon in 1988-92. Additionally, Joyner-Kersee did what the two male double-winners couldn’t – she won a third multi-events medal, earning a silver in 1984. If she hadn’t been injured in 1996 she might have made it four medals in a row.
The 1984 Olympics:
The 1984 heptathlon competition was wide open due to the Soviet bloc boycott that kept the 1983 World Championship medalists – all from East Germany – away from Los Angeles. Judy Simpson of Great Britain led after day one, with Joyner-Kersee, Glynnis Nunn of Australia and West Germany’s Sabine Everts all within 38 points. The key event was Joyner-Kersee’s best, the long jump, as she fouled twice then posted a safe final jump of 6.11 meters (20 feet, ½ inch). The points she lost in the long jump proved the difference. Joyner-Kersee had the overall lead entering the final event, the 800-meter run, and needed to finish within 2.13 seconds of second-place Nunn. Running with her left leg wrapped due to a sore hamstring, Joyner-Kersee trailed Nunn at the finish line by 2.46 seconds. Nunn earned the gold with 6,390 points, with Joyner-Kersee just five points behind.
The 1988 Olympics:
There was no such close call in 1988 as Joyner-Kersee dominated from the start. She led all competitors in the 100-meter hurdles, the long jump and the 200 meters, and tied for first in the high jump. Her long jump, measuring 7.27/23-10¼, gave her 1,264 points, 188 more than her closest competitor. She finished strong and broke her own world record with 7,291 points, winning the gold by 394 points. For good measure, she added a second gold medal in the individual long jump several days later.
The 1992 Olympics:
Joyner-Kersee rode a 13-meet heptathlon winning streak into the 1991 World Championships. She was headed for her 14th in a row, leading solidly after three events, when she pulled a hamstring muscle in the 200 and dropped out of the competition. She didn’t approach her former peak again until the 1992 Games. Indeed, Germany’s Sabine Braun boasted a world-leading 6,985-point performance entering the 1992 Olympics, compared with Joyner-Kersee’s 6,695-point score from the Olympic Trials. In Barcelona, however, Joyner-Kersee again led all competitors in the 100 hurdles, the 200 and the long jump. She led by 127 points after four events, then entered the final event needing to run within 20 seconds of Russia’s Irina Belova. Joyner-Kersee finished just 6.7 seconds behind to win the gold with 7,044 points. She went on to take a bronze in the individual long jump.
The 1996 Olympics:
Visions of a fourth consecutive heptathlon medal were dashed by a pair of leg injuries. A sore left leg hampered her at the 1996 Olympic Trials, yet she still made the U.S. team in both the long jump and heptathlon, finishing second in the latter event. She then posted the field’s second-fastest 100-meter hurdles time as the heptathlon opened in Atlanta. But she was in obvious pain at the end of the race after aggravating a right hamstring injury. The injury forced Joyner-Kersee to withdraw from competition. She rallied several days later and managed a bronze medal in the individual long jump, earning her sixth Olympic medal.
Read more about Olympic heptathlon rules, former multi-events standouts and decathlon world record-holder Ashton Eaton.