Unequal footing in track and field: Jordan Gray’s fight for a women’s decathlon

Jordan Gray Female Decathlete
Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports
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This story is the first in a new On Her Turf series called “Groundbreakers.” The series will highlight female athletes who compete in sports or events that 1) are primarily contested by men or 2) aren’t currently open to women at the highest level. Today’s story features Jordan Gray, a decathlete who is aiming to compete at the Olympics.  

The false equivalency hiding in plain sight

Consisting of 10 events, track & field’s decathlon determines the “world’s greatest athlete.” The event debuted on the Olympic program in 1912, when track & field was only open to men.

Sixteen years later, women’s track & field premiered at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. While men contested 22 events at those Games, five were open to women: the 100m, 800m, 4x100m relay, high jump, and discus throw. (As the story goes, officials were so distraught by women running 800 meters that the event was nixed after 1928. Until it was reintroduced at the 1960 Rome Games, the 200m was the longest women’s race on the Olympic program.)

As is often the case in sports, when officials finally agreed to add a women’s combined event to the Olympic program, it wasn’t identical to the corresponding men’s competition. The five-event women’s pentathlon debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It was contested at five Games before being replaced by the seven-event heptathlon in 1984.

Thirty-six years later, that’s still where we stand: men participate in the ten-event decathlon, while women compete in the seven-event heptathlon.

Decathlon Events

Heptathlon Events

100m

200m

400m

Not contested

1500m

800m

110m hurdles

100m hurdles

Long jump

Long jump

High jump

High jump

Pole vault

Not contested

Discus

Not contested

Javelin

Javelin

Shot put

Shot put

The women’s heptathlon and men’s decathlon are often treated as parallel and equivalent competitions. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a women’s heptathlon – or a men’s decathlon – the juxtaposition of these two events represents a false equivalency, one that has become so ingrained in track & field’s culture that many people don’t even realize it exists.

But not Jordan Gray, who in 2019, broke the American record in the women’s decathlon.

“Every time I tell people that I’m a decathlete or that I broke the American record, they’re like, ‘Are you going to the Olympics?’ And I’m like, ‘Nope, I’m a girl.’”

The ‘and’ in ‘track and field’

Gray grew up in Ball Ground, Georgia. “It’s one street. You blink and you miss it,” she says of her hometown.

The oldest of four kids, Gray comes from an athletic family. She recalls her father, who played baseball in college, introducing her to that sport, “From the time that we could hold a bat, he was tossing acorns for us to hit.”

She competed in a variety of other sports (from gymnastics to taekwondo), played five instruments, and dabbled in acting. “I was constantly in season for something.”

Still, it wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she found track & field. While nursing an ankle injury that she sustained on the basketball court, she joined the Heat Track Club. The coach of the club is Blane Williams, father of Kendell and Devon Williams. (Kendell, a heptathlete, competed at the 2016 Rio Games, while Devon, a decathlete, is aiming to make his Olympic debut in 2021.)

Gray first tried shot put and javelin because they weren’t as grueling on her ankle, but she quickly began running and jumping too.

Ahead of her first meet, Blane suggested she try the heptathlon. “‘Whatever [Kendell] does, just copy it,’” Gray recalls Blane telling her.

Gray was happy enough to oblige, but admits she was surprised when she learned some people specialized in just one or two events. “I thought we all did track and field.”

The following year, she continued competing in both track and field at Kennesaw State University. While she started out as a heptathlete, it was during her freshman year that an idea was sparked. After watching the pole vault (an event that is contested as part of the decathlon, but not the heptathlon), she recalls telling her coach, Andy Eggerth, “I’m going to learn how to do this.”

Her proclamation was met with a flat-out ‘no.’

Slowly, though, Eggerth warmed up to the idea. A year later, Gray got permission to train pole vault with the decathletes. A year after that, she threw discus (another decathlon-only event) at the conference championship. She reached a point where she was competing in nine of the 10 decathlon events.

“I was a decathlete because I was doing all of the events at conference, but I just never got to actually do a decathlon,” she explains. “It was a good three-and-a-half years that I trained as a dec[athlete] but never got to do one.”

That changed in 2019 when she competed in her first decathlon, which also happened to be the first standalone women’s decathlon national championship sanctioned by USATF. Amassing 7,921 points over the two-day competition, Gray broke a 19-year-old American women’s record and also recorded the third-highest score of all-time.

Gray recalls crying after finishing the competition and hugging the meet director. “For years, everyone had been telling me, ‘No, this is just for the boys.’”

Roadblocks to a women’s decathlon? Power, money, and tradition

There isn’t currently a huge campaign to trade in the women’s heptathlon for a decathlon. Gray says this is partly due to the people who are  asked about the potential switch.

“They mostly ask the Team USA women… And they say, ‘no,’” she explains. “Of course a lot of them to say ‘no’ because [the heptathlon] is what they’re good at. It’s like asking a shotputter, ‘Would you like all of the throws to be discus now?’”

Still, Gray doesn’t want to see the heptathlon disappear entirely.

“There definitely needs to be a transition period so that people who have worked their entire lives, who [have] the sponsorship money [from] heptathlon can finish it out.”

She has also heard an argument familiar to other pioneers for equality: the importance of tradition.

“I’ve been told, ‘I like the tradition of the heptathlon’… There are a lot of people who probably like the tradition that I wasn’t allowed to vote, but it doesn’t mean that we kept it. There are a lot of traditions that people really liked, but they were discriminating against another group of people, so we cut it out… I think when you’re going towards equality, there are always some people who aren’t necessarily going to want the change.”

Plus, it’s not like the five-event pentathlon was kept just for tradition’s sake. “If you told any heptathlete now, ‘We’re going back to the pentathlon, we’re only going to do five events now,’ they’d be like ‘Heck no!’ I think the same thing is going to be true in 60 years when we have women doing the decathlon.”

Assessing an uncertain future

In recent years, Gray has been forced to make a choice. Should she train as a heptathlete, the event where the Olympic spots and sponsor money are? Or should she pursue the decathlon, the event she is most passionate about?

Gray, 24, has chosen the latter, opting to prioritize an event with few competitive opportunities.

She’s aware of the tradeoffs. “I could actually be a better heptathlete if I stopped pole vaulting and instead did more work as a high jumper. If I stopped doing the discus, I would have another shot put day,” she explains. “But that’s not my big goal. My goal is to change sports for women and do the decathlon, which is something that I love.”

Ultimately, she hopes to see a women’s decathlon contested at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. “Hopefully in 2028, I’ll be 32 and rockin’ it at U.S. Champs in the decathlon.”

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