RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The world’s greatest athlete hates being called The World’s Greatest Athlete.
He hears it every time he is introduced at an event, or meets sponsors, or is paraded in front of a TV camera. But the reality is that Ashton Eaton is far too humble for such a title — he is so humble, in fact, that he hides his gold medal under his shirt when nobody is looking.
“They like me to wear it,” he says sheepishly, “but I don’t like to.”
The two-time Olympic decathlon champion is wrapping up another round of commitments, this time for his sponsor Visa, when he sits down at an out-of-the-way table in an upscale hotel just off Copacabana Beach. Three stories down and out the front doors, thousands of Cariocas have begun partying the night away after Brazil’s victory over Germany in the Olympic soccer tournament.
Eaton hasn’t had a chance to party yet.
He’s hardly had a chance to breathe.
Ever since winning his latest gold medal Thursday night, matching an Olympic points record in the process, he’s been pulled in a hundred different directions. He managed three hours of sleep after he left Olympic Stadium that night, then had to rise early for another round of interviews.
Eaton takes it in stride, though. He knows that people are eager to hear from him, and he is just as eager to meet with those who have supported him the past eight years.
“It’s kind of like networking,” he says, “for when I start thinking about what is next.”
In truth, Eaton is already thinking about what’s next. He’s been on top of the decathlon world for the better part of a decade, and in a one-on-one interview with The Associated Press on Saturday night, he acknowledged that retirement is coming soon.
He may compete next year. He may not.
But there is no chance you’ll see him at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
It’s not because time is catching him, like so many rivals have failed to do. The 28-year-old Eaton would probably medal in Tokyo, if not win a third straight gold. It’s more that Eaton and his wife, Canadian heptathlon bronze medalist Brianne Theisen-Eaton, have other things they want to pursue, their lives in no way measured solely on the field of play.
“I’d like to spend some time traveling,” Eaton says, “seeing organizations and getting a sense of what I want to do, and seeing how the world works.”
One of his idols is Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, whose spirit of ingenuity has inspired the decathlete. Eaton says Musk has an uncanny ability to look at something that other people would dismiss as impossible and figure out a way to make it work.
“I just like the way he thinks in the sense that his impact is from a foundation of not listening or accepting things the way they are,” Eaton explains. “It’s something a lot of people don’t want to do because it’s hard work.”
So, what does Eaton fancy trying? What is something that has too long been defined by the status quo, and that could use a fresh set of ideas to push it forward?
It turns out the answer is big. Bigger even than electric cars.
“I thought it’d be cool to start my own university, in a way,” says Eaton, an Oregon graduate. “Universities are like a utopia in a way, because you’re mentally stimulated, you’re challenged, and you have a lot of young, creative minds wanting to do new things, different things. Better things.
“But I don’t think the current university systems are set up to allow people to meet their potential,” he says. “You just kind of go through the meat-grinder. You’re in a class with 300 people, doing rote regurgitation of information. It would be cool to do something different.”
Eaton hasn’t fully fleshed out this idea, of course. He’s been a little busy becoming The World’s Greatest Athlete. But the simple fact he is pondering these things 48 hours after standing on an Olympic podium speaks to Eaton’s character and personality.
He is driven more by the pursuit of a goal than the baubles that come with achieving it.
Take the decathlon competition in Rio, for instance. He says the only time he was proud of himself throughout the two-day, 10-event grind was during the pole vault on the final day.
“There was a situation where if I didn’t clear this bar, it was over. No medal chance,” he says. “And I did, and I was like, ‘I’m proud of myself for doing that.’ Because I had a lot of doubts going down the runway. I thought, ‘I could miss this and blow the whole damn thing.’ But I overcame that. That was good.”
So good it spurred him on to another gold medal. It will soon join his one from the 2012 London Games, which is not hanging proudly at home but rather stuck in a box in a crawlspace.
He admits there are things he will miss about track and field, once he does finally call it quits: the circus-like atmosphere in the stadium, the pressure that builds throughout the events, the shining spotlight on the world’s biggest stage. But perhaps what Eaton will miss most is its black-and-white nature, every bit of the competition spelled out.
Jump this high, run this fast, throw this far.
“That’s what has always been good about track. The goal is very clearly defined: Try to win. Get the gold medal. And I’m able to put my energy toward that,” Eaton says. “The difficulty now is what’s the gold medal in something else? Now I have to make up my own gold medal.
“What’s going to be the next victory for me?”