French decathlete Kevin Mayer, Olympic silver medallist at Rio 2016, world champion in London the following year and world record-holder since 2018 in this combined discipline, now has just one goal in mind: gold in Tokyo! We talk to a champion who loves both his sport and Japanese culture.
You competed in your first Games at the age of 20, in London in 2012. How was this first experience on the big Olympic stage for you?
It was amazing and unpleasant at the same time. I didn't yet have broad enough shoulders to express myself properly. To be honest, most of the events were a chore. From an athletic point of view, it was pretty... awful. But the experience was fantastic: I was 20 years old; I was the only Frenchman in the decathlon; it wasn't easy, but it's what changed me the fastest for the rest of my career. In fact, I’d always dreamt of the Games, but I am a competitor; I had beaten the French U23 record just before, I had easily achieved the minimum standards, and I was hoping to finish in the top 10, the top 5 and – why not – even win a medal. I’d put a lot of pressure on myself and I couldn't take it.
You improved over the next four years. Was that with a view to taking part in the Rio Games?
Of course. In athletics, the Games are the event we all look forward to, as they happen so rarely. That’s where I really want to do my best.
In Rio in 2016, there was that fantastic duel to the end with Ashton Eaton that could have gone either way. Were you satisfied with the silver medal or disappointed not to win gold?
I hadn’t expected to win the silver! I really made full use of my potential that day. I beat all my own records, so couldn’t have hoped for more. I have no regrets. I wanted to win, but he was simply better than me. I made him work for it, so I was already proud of that. Ashton had already broken the world record twice at that time, so it was really satisfying to be able to show that I could rival this great champion.
Did you speak to each other afterwards?
Yes, of course. There was one moment I remember in particular: the journalists were asking me if I might beat his world record one day. He was walking behind me at precisely that moment, so I laughed, looked at him and told him what they had just asked me. Ashton simply said: “Say yes!” And I did, two years later!
The following year in London, you were world champion despite doing badly in the pole vault. Do you think it’s necessary to develop strategies to minimise that kind of risk?
For one thing, decathlon is always like that. Things never go how you expect, so you can never rest on your laurels. Develop a strategy? Absolutely not. If you start wanting to make sure you win things like the hurdles, you may regret it later, because you mess up and lose points. So you can’t take anything for granted, as you can never be sure you’ll do well in the events that come after. So you should always try to score as many points as possible, but not calculate.
For you, what is the difference between competing with the energy created by your opponents in front of a large crowd and being on your own simply trying to accumulate points, like when you set your world record in 2018 in Talence?
They are two very different worlds. I like high-stakes competitions. It's the size of the stakes that makes me excel. It's true that winning an Olympic medal or setting a world record is one of the best goals you can have in a sports career. I love both! Maybe breaking a world record is harder, because there is no room for error in any of the 10 events, whereas at the Games, you can make up for it because you're not competing for points but against your opponents, and they too have weaknesses. It's not the same approach. The Games are once every four years, whereas you can beat a record in any competition.
We last saw you injured at the World Championships in Doha in 2019, and then came the health crisis and lockdown. How have you coped with that period?
I've had a pretty good experience compared to most people I know. As time goes on, the only problem is that I miss the competition. I couldn't even finish the last big competition I took part in, in Doha, because of my injury. I miss it a lot, and I can't wait to experience those moments again.
Your team-mate Melina Robert-Michon told us you are passionate about Japanese culture. Can you tell us more about that?
I got into it late, but I’ve always greatly admired the samurai culture, that of excelling yourself but with respect for your team-mates and your opponents. I’m also a huge fan of manga, and I greatly admire the respect with which people treat each other in Japan. I have the impression that the first thing you do is smile, even with people you don’t know, and that really inspires me. There are plenty of things in Japan that inspire me, and I really want to produce a good result there!
On that note, how did your training camp go with the French team in Japan in 2019?
It went really well. We were in Kobe. And the Kobe beef was fantastic! We went for lots of walks, and I could see the respect I was talking about earlier. There were also manga shops, and the wonderful countryside. So yes, I loved it. Whenever we met the person who opened the stadium for us, who gave us the javelins or who took us somewhere, it was always with a smile and 100 per cent involvement, which was just so nice.
What comparison can you make between a decathlete and a samurai?
I really like their close relationship with pain, and the desire to excel yourself and not be afraid of hurting yourself. The samurai weren’t afraid of dying, and that’s not true in decathlon, but there’s that particularity of pushing yourself to the very limit within it…
Will you go to Tokyo in 2021 looking for revenge after the Worlds in Doha?
I'm not someone who’s into revenge, and I'm not trying to prove anything; but I like to please people, and it's true that, through my results, I know I give pleasure to a lot of people when I succeed, although I don't do sport for that. I do sport because I really enjoy it, and I'm quite proud to have made my passion my profession. What I miss is wearing the French team jersey and expressing myself in a big championship. That’s even truer for the Olympic Games, because for me they are the biggest event in my career.
Will the absence of Ashton Eaton, who has retired, change your approach?
No, not really. I always aim to overestimate my opponents, to avoid any surprises. Even if the world record-holder is no longer there, even if that’s me now, I still treat my opponents with a lot of respect and caution, and I tell myself I have to give it my all, as they’ll be after me!
Your world record is 9,126 points. How far do you think you can go?
I want to go as far as possible. I don't like to set limits or goals; I prefer to be surprised by my work and what I plan to do next: I work at being the best. I may well never exceed 9,000 points again, or I may achieve 9,600 points one day. Decathlon is not like the 100m. You can have a lot of potential, but that's not enough. It's true that I managed to break the world record by doing a perfect decathlon, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to do that again. You have 10 chances of getting something wrong, and you don't get a medal in each of the events!
Is your aim to win gold in Tokyo?
Of course, but not just that. I can’t think about anything else! But if I give everything and another athlete is better than me, I’ll be happy with the silver medal, like in 2016 in Rio. The goal is to give it 100 per cent and have no regrets. There will be some tough competition, like the 2019 world champion, Germany’s Niklas Kaul. And there’s Canada’s Damian Warner, who has enormous potential even if he hasn’t yet managed to put everything together. In fact it’s very open, and even if I’m still the favourite, that’s normal. But I won’t rest on my laurels. I’ll start again from scratch and try to do the best I can, without making calculations.
In which event do you think you can still improve?
Frankly, in all of them except the 1,500m. I'm strong in the sprint and in the middle-distance events. But the 1,500 is the opposite of all the others; it's also the 10th and final one. Up till then, it’s about explosiveness, and then it’s endurance. When you work on that, it's bad for the rest. So I have less hope in that event than in the other nine. And I'm constantly working to try to improve every day. I'm always giving it my best.