The first seven events of the decathlon may have been dominated by the story of Kevin Mayer’s fitness struggles, but it eventually boiled down to an enthralling four-way battle for the medals, resulting in Niklas Kaul becoming the youngest world decathlon champion in history.
Mayer’s withdrawal from the competition after failing to clear a height in the pole vault meant that a new world decathlon champion would be crowned in Doha. The only questions remaining were: which three of the four leading contenders will leave Khalifa International Stadium with a medal? And in which order?
Kaul ultimately came out on top, having progressed steadily through the field after each of the 10 events, starting off in 20th place after the 100m, ending the first day in 11th place and then breaking into the top three following a monster 79.05m throw in the javelin.
A dominant 4:15.70 run in the 1500m sealed his fate as Kaul won with a score of 8691, his third personal best of the season.
As painful as it was to watch an injured Mayer try to force his body through a second day of competition, it would have paled in comparison to what the defending champion was experiencing.
There had been hints at some discomfort throughout the two days of competition: a clutch of the knee after one of his failed high jump attempts, a carefully judged 400m run, a grimace and ‘X’ hand gesture after the 110m hurdles.
But it was the unfortunate sight of the world record-holder attempting – and ultimately failing, twice – to sprint down the pole vault runway that will become one of the lasting memories of these championships for decathlon fans.
It doesn’t, however, take anything away from the eventual winner, Kaul, who now becomes just the second man in history to win world U18, U20 and senior combined events titles – after Mayer.
Mayer dashed to a PB in the first event, clocking 10.50 in his 100m heat to finish behind Canadian duo Damian Warner (10.35) and Pierce LePage (10.36).
Grenada’s Lindon Victor was just 0.1 shy of his lifetime best with 10.66. Kaul ran 11.27, while Ilya Shkurenyov recorded 11.02 and Maicel Uibo set a season’s best of 11.10.
The Canadians swapped their overall positions in the second event after LePage jumped 7.79m to take the lead from Warner, who jumped 7.67m. Mayer’s season’s best of 7.56m moved him up one place in the standings to third. A lifetime best of 7.51m maintained Victor’s medal ambitions.
Kaul’s first-round jump was mis-measured but later corrected to 7.19m, enough to move him up one place on the leader board.
Mayer jumped to the top of the standings after throwing 16.82m in the shot – his best ever performance within a decathlon and just 26 centimetres shy of his lifetime best. It also put him three points ahead of world record schedule.
Victor was the only other man to throw beyond the 16-metre line, landing his shot at 16.24m to move up to third overall. Warner’s 15.17m was enough to hold on to second place, while LePage dropped to fourth after managing just 13.21m.
USA’s Solomon Simmons, who had been in fifth place since the first event, maintained his standing after throwing 15.33m. Uibo’s 15.12m moved the Estonian three places up the leader board into ninth, while Kaul’s 15.10m heave moved him into 16th place.
The high jump marked the first clear sign of Mayer’s injury woes – and another advance from Kaul. LePage and Victor sailed over 2.05m and Warner cleared 2.02m. Mayer got over 1.99m and then had three misses at 2.02m, but clutched at his knee, seemingly in pain, after the third missed attempt.
Uibo, meanwhile, was the last man standing and jumped a season’s best of 2.17m to take another big leap up the standings into fifth. Shkurenyov cleared 2.11m to move into sixth, while Kaul got into the top 12 after leaping 2.02m.
The standings had another shake-up after the 400m. LePage ended his day with a PB to win the fastest heat in 47.35, bringing his day-one tally to 4486, about 70 points off his PB pace. Warner placed fifth in that race with 48.12, but it was enough to give him the overall lead at the end of the first day with 4513.
Mayer finished last in his heat, but then again he did have the slowest PB of the eight men in the race so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. His 48.99 clocking meant he ended the first day in third place overall with 4483, five points up on his day-one score from the 2017 World Championships.
Victor, running in a different heat, recorded a solid 48.55 but dropped to fourth with 4474 points. Shkurenyov and Uibo ran 49.36 and 50.44 respectively to switch positions, ending the day in fifth (4340) and sixth (4317).
Germany’s Kai Kazmirek, bronze medallist in 2017, moved up to seventh place overall thanks to a 47.35 run in the 400m. Kaul continued his rise up the leader board by running 48.48, ending the day in 11th place.
Kazmirek’s medal ambitions ended in the first event of day two as he pulled up in the 110m hurdles after hitting a couple of barriers. Kaul safely completed the race, though, clocking 14.64.
In an earlier heat, Uibo ran a PB of 14.43 and Shkurenyov clocked 14.28, boosting their respective chances. The quicker men went in the third and final heat with Warner coming through to win in 13.56. Mayer was second in 13.87, some way off the PB he set earlier this year, and looked in some distress after the race.
After receiving some quick treatment, he was back out on the infield for the discus and produced a second-round effort of 48.34m to stay on pace for a good score. At this point, however, it was clear he wasn’t thinking about records; his main aim was to complete the competition.
Victor’s competition ended in the discus as the Grenadian recorded three fouls. Kaul excelled, though, and added almost two metres to his PB with 49.20m. Shkurenyov also performed well, breaking his five-year-old PB by more than two metres with 48.75m, and Uibo threw a season’s best of 46.64m.
The Canadians weren’t at their best with Warner managing 42.19m and LePage throwing 41.19m, dealing a serious blow to their hopes of a podium finish.
The pole vault – as it often does in a decathlon – brought about more changes in the overall standings.
Mayer stepped up to the runway in bid to attempt 4.60m, but on his second try he was reduced to a hobble and collapsed on the pole vault bed, the realisation sinking in that he would have to surrender his world title.
“This is sport,” said the Olympic silver medallist. “Yesterday I had an injury on my right knee, but today I was still able to do the hurdles and discus. It was very difficult. But then my left hamstring hurt and I had to stop.”
Warner, who had been in second place behind Mayer going into the pole vault, managed to get over 4.70m, but in a competition in which seven mean cleared 5.00m or higher, the Canadian dropped to third place overall.
LePage scaled 5.20m to move into the lead. Shkurenyov matched that height, but – as was the case in the other vertical jumps event – Uibo was the last man left. The Estonian got over 5.40m to add 10 centimetres to his PB. Kaul, too, added 10 centimetres to his outdoor PB, clearing 5.00m to climb to sixth place overall.
But then came the event all of Kaul’s opponents feared: the javelin.
Kaul had already set two PBs in the event this year and had said he felt ready to throw even farther. He lived up to that promise, unleashing a throw of 79.05m – the best ever throw within an 8000+ decathlon. For the first time in the competition, Kaul had entered the top three in the standings and still had the 1500m to come, another of his stronger events.
Uibo threw a season’s best of 63.83m to move into the overall lead while Warner went back into second place after throwing 62.87m. Shkurenyov (59.56m) and LePage (57.42m) dropped to fourth and fifth respectively. Estonia’s Janek Oiglane produced the second-best throw of the javelin contest, his 72.46m propelling him into the top six.
Going into the 1500m, Kaul was aware of the task he faced. He had to finish seven seconds ahead of Uibo and nine seconds ahead of Warner in the 1500m to claim the gold medal. The trio’s personal bests suggested Kaul was capable of doing it, but front-running to a fast time with big margins over your key opponents is not an easy ask – especially for someone competing in their first senior global championships.
Kaul, however, showed maturity beyond his years in the final event. Refusing to go with the early pace, he gradually made his way through the pack – much like he’d done throughout the decathlon as a whole – but Uibo was still in close contact with 600 metres remaining.
Kaul started to stride out and opened up a four-second gap on the Estonian at the bell. The gap grew and grew as Kaul flew around the final circuit with Uibo beginning to tire. Warner, the other big medal contender, was even further back.
Kaul crossed the line in 4:15.70, just 0.18 off his PB, while Uibo had barely entered the home straight and it soon became clear the German had done more than enough to take the gold medal. His 1500m time brought his overall tally to 8691.
Uibo held on for the silver medal with a PB of 8604 while Warner earned his third World Championships medal, taking bronze with 8529. Shkurenyov just missed the podium with a season’s best of 8494 with LePage placing fifth (8445) and Oiglane sixth (8297).
“Decathlon is really difficult, so it is always a pleasure when you can finish it,” said Kaul. “I cannot really describe this feeling. I still can’t comprehend it. I never believed that such a thing could be possible.
“My fellow German decathletes Kai and Tim kept encouraging me. Before the 1500m I was so scared and excited. I was scared I might ruin it all.”
“The decathlon is unpredictable,” added Warner. “Lindon and Kevin, in their strongest events, that's where it messed up for them. You just never know what to expect. Crazy things can happen.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF