Video game brings decathlon home

Complete with Olympic anthem

OLYMPIC DECATHLON, a video game designed by Tim Smith for use on Apple II Disk or TRS-80 Model I home computers; Microsoft Consumer Products, Bellevue, WA 98004; $24.95 (U.S.) disk or tape (the hardware is about $4000 extra).

Thanks to the home computer revolution (forget the household budgeting, let’s play video games!), you can now make a fool of yourself in the most demanding of all Olympic events, the decathlon, right in the privacy of your own living room.

Designer Smith spent something like a year and a half in his basement working the bugs out of Olympic Decathlon. The result was a 1980 Creative Computing Award (the silicon chip industry’s Oscar) for the best video game of the year for Smith and a challenging timewaster for the armchair athlete.

The game begins — to the accompaniment of an electronic version of the Olympic anthem — with an explanation of the decathlon on your video display screen and then moves right into the first event, the 100 m, where you’re simply required to press two keys on the typewriter-style entry console alternately as fast as possible to propel your runner along the track. The event is in real time; in other words, the idea is to come in somewhere around 10 seconds in order to score a decent point total towards your decathlon aggregate.

Sadly, after several tries, I found that breaking 15 seconds seemed quite beyond my digital dexterity. (My Decathlon mentor, video whiz Michael Bate — a consultant for Ottawa’s Nabu Manufacturing Ltd., a firm involved in the creation of similar games — repeatedly did the 100 m in 10-point-something-orother, thereby demonstrating, if not actual talent, at least what can be accomplished athletically by taking a remedial course in touch typing.)

After each event, the video screen displays a running (in my case, stumbling) total of points earned in the various events and, at the end, announces the gold medal winner among the up to six contestants who can participate at a time with the Apple II version of the game.

The most complicated event, predictably, turned out to be the pole vault. The event begins with the bar at 360 cm and each video-decathlete has three chances to clear it, or may in fact choose to pass and go onto greater heights.

You begin by selecting the height at which you want to grip the pole (350 cm — 490 cm) and the distance of your approach run (20 m-80 m). Then once again you beat the hell out of two keys to get your vaulter moving as quickly as possible along the runway. At the proper instant you must press a key to plant the pole in the vaulting box. Then you must press another key (quickly!) to move into a handstand position on the pole, then another key to let go of the pole so it doesn’t knock the bar off.

If you manage to select the proper grip height, run fast enough, plant the pole at the right time, handstand at the right time, and push the pole away properly, then you just might make it. In a dozen-or-so practice attempts, the best I could do was to hit the vaulting box once or twice. (This proved a greater source of satisfaction, however, than the 0.3 m I managed in the shot put.)

Despite moderately good results in the 110 m hurdles (where your graphically generated hurdler can actually knock down little hurdles), the javelin, and the long jump, I left feeling that I probably could have scored better in a real decathlon. But rest easy, Dave Steen, I plan to stick to the video version, at least until I run the 1500 m in under 15 minutes. — DMcD

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