Americans no longer dominate the Olympics, but the top three decathletes are all Americans — apparently because of a little decision by Visa years ago:
For nearly a decade, the credit-card giant Visa provided funding for the U.S. decathlon team. But in a demonstration of how far a modest amount can go, that funding ended nearly 13 years ago and never added up to a fortune. “It really was almost a rounding error in our budget,” said John Bennett, a retired Visa marketing executive who has been hailed as “the Godfather” of American decathlon.
But this decline [after Bruce Jenner's 1976 win] bothered many in track circles, particularly Fred Samara, a former Olympic decathlete and the men’s track-and-field coach at Princeton. Along with fellow decathlete coach Harry Marra, Samara began knocking on corporate doors in search of funding. “We beat the bushes,” said Samara. “I mean, it was a long succession of pitches that didn’t go anywhere” — until they approached Visa. As an international Olympic sponsor, Visa was already spending $40 million on the Games. But Bennett, its marketing honcho, was intrigued. “I said, ‘Well, what do you need?’” Bennett recalled.
They created the USA-Visa Decathlon team, granting membership to the top-10 finishers at the annual national championships. Each athlete would receive a monthly stipend ranging from roughly $300 to $900, and the entire team would convene twice a year for national training camps, where they would receive top level-coaching. The entire program would cost just $200,000 per year.
Launched in 1990, the team recorded progress in 1992, when Dave Johnson secured America’s first decathlon medal in 16 years by taking a bronze. Four years later, Dan O’Brien broke a 20-year gold drought by finishing first at the Atlanta Games. America hasn’t gone without a decathlon medal since.
The Visa program ended in 2000, not long after Bennett retired. But its influence remains evident. Clay, the defending Olympic champion, attended Visa’s developmental programs as a youngster. At 32, Clay is hoping to become the first decathlete to win medals at three Olympic Games. “I would love to own that piece of history,” he said.
Eaton is coached by Marra, the cofounder of the Visa team. A three-time NCAA champion at the University of Oregon, Eaton is hoping at age 24 to win a spot at his first Olympics. And Hardee, who has posted two of the top three scores in the world since the Beijing Games, is coached by Mario Sategna, who competed as a member of the Visa team. Hardee, 28, was holding down fourth place in Beijing until he bonked the pole vault.
At the University of Arkansas, meanwhile, is a young hotshot named Gunnar Nixon — a freshman who holds the national high-school decathlon record. His coach studied under Kip Janvrin, who once starred on the Visa team. Marra said he considers Nixon to be a “third generation” product of the Visa program. “It’s heartwarming to see what we started still going forward,” said Marra.