For people of a certain generation, my generation, Joe DiMaggio was Mr. Coffee, Orson Welles was the guy who talked about selling no wine before its time and Elvis Presley was a chubby guy who wore a cape. Their miraculous achievements as young men – the athletic feats, the audacious artistic choices they made, the ways they changed America – were lost on us kids. They were just, in this indistinct general sense, “celebrities.” They were famous because our parents told us so.
You get the feeling that for a new generation of a kids, Bruce Jenner is this kind of celebrity. What did he ever do, anyway? A glance at his IMDB page suggests he’s “known” for these things:
1. Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007)
2. Donald Duck’s 50th Birthday Party (1984)
3. Celebrity Double Dare (1987)
4. The Big Tease (1999)
In case you were wondering, Jenner played himself in “The Big Tease,” a movie about a Glasgow hairdresser who wants to get into the International World Hairdresser competition. Jenner joined David Hasselhoff, Drew Carey and Cathy Lee Crosby as those who portrayed themselves in roles that, let’s be honest, were non-essential to the plot.
So, what gives? Why was Bruce Jenner famous anyway? Why did more than 20 million people watch that heartfelt Bruce Jenner interview with Diane Sawyer as he identified himself as a transgender woman? Why was he on the cover of every celebrity magazine? What made his particular story so meaningful to so many people?
Well, of course, it’s the Kardashian thing. And, it also might be that thing listed in the “Trivia” section of Jenner’s IMDB Page.
No, it’s not that Jenner’s daughter Kendall’s middle name, “Nicole,” was in honor of Nicole Brown Simpson … look at the bit of trivia above that.
“He was Olympic decathlon winner in 1976.”
* * *
“I think of the decathlon as a big, high, brick wall that nobody is ever going to be able to climb. It’s cold and heartless. It has no mercy. It’s awesome and scary. It will knock you down so fast. Nobody ever beats the decathlon.”
— Bruce Jenner, “Decathlon Challenge.”
They are a different breed, those who dare to climb the decathlon wall. It is an event designed to tear the athlete apart. Every individual event counters another. Sprinters must shot put. Shot-putters must pole vault. Pole vaulters must throw the discus. Discus throwers must run the 1,500m.
There was a time when finding this sort of balance was the height of athletic accomplishment. When Jim Thorpe won the 1912 decathlon (and won the pentathlon as well) Sweden’s King Gustav famously said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” No one doubted it. That was a time for the generalist, for scholars with a wide scope of knowledge, for gentlemen boxers who could recite lines of Shakespeare, for Teddy Roosevelt, who was a writer, fighter, explorer, hunter, soldier, naturalist and expert on birds, among many other things.
This admiration for diversity and range of accomplishment was changing by the 1970s. The influential and impossibly grumpy sports columnist Dick Young spoke for the times when he called Jenner’s Olympic victory an achievement of “massive mediocrity.”
He wrote: “Jenner falls inches, feet and seconds short of world’s records in all 10 events. His decathlon record is computed in points but consider this: Nowhere else does he come close to a record.”
This has been a common criticism of the decathlon as we have become a more specialized world, both in sports and in life. Pass-rushers don’t have to stop the run, sluggers don’t have to field, scorers will have others cover for their defensive failings. We have come to admire those who can do one thing, but do it surpassingly well. The decathlon is a sport from a different time, and Bruce Jenner was an athlete from another time. Jenner could run 100m in 11 seconds, not 10, and he could long jump 24 feet, not 29, and he could heave a shot put 50 feet, not 70. But he could do all of those things on the same day.
Jenner was a good high school athlete, but not a sensational one. His best sport, by far, was waterskiing. He made it to the national championship in waterskiing slalom (where he promptly fell on the second buoy). Other than that, he was just one of those local phenomenons who seemed destined to hang around town and talk about his high school days. Jenner won the Connecticut state title in the high jump and pole vault, and he played football and basketball at Newtown High. He did not get a single scholarship offer and, as an indifferent student, did not think he wanted to go to college. He looked into joining his father’s tree surgery business. It was only at the last minute that he was offered a partial football scholarship offer from Graceland College, a small liberal arts school in Lamoni, Iowa. The team wanted him to play quarterback, though he had shown no talent for the position. That was OK; Graceland didn’t really care about him as a football player. The scholarship had been the idea of a track coach named L.D. Weldon. He had his eye on Jenner.
Weldon has a remarkable story of his own. He grew up in Lamoni, and he threw the javelin when he was young. But his real skill was finding talent. In the 1930s, he found a raw Lamoni athlete named Jack Parker and made him a decathlete. Parker won the bronze medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A little later, Weldon coached a track athlete named Lou Nova and somewhere along the way said, “You know, you are better suited for boxing.” He would eventually fight Joe Louis with Weldon as his trainer.
Jenner took the Graceland offer, he readily admitted, because he didn’t really know what else to do. He wanted to get away from home. Football seemed as good an idea as any other one he had. He blew out his knee before he could even play. But all the while, Weldon was watching. Weldon saw that Jenner had the innate ability to jump and to throw. “Those two things, jumping and throwing, are the two most important abilities for the decathlon,” Almost from the day Jenner arrived in Lumoni, Weldon began trying to convince him to become a decathlete.
At first, Jenner wasn’t interested. The decathlon seemed like an awful lot of hard work. A buddy of his had secured a job for them both in a waterskiing show down in Florida, and that seemed more Bruce Jenner’s speed. When his freshman year ended at Graceland, he had to make a decision.
He would tell the story later like so: He left Graceland unsure if he should go home to Connecticut and prepare for decathlon training or down to Florida to waterski for a living. He was driving through Iowa and he came upon the pivotal exit … left lane to Florida, right lane home and to a decathlete’s life. He was still unsure what to do when he noticed that his path to the left lane was blocked by a driver behind him.
“That meant I’d have to slow down and pull in behind her if I wanted to turn left and go south,” he wrote. “That was too much trouble … I turned right and headed North, back home. I went to Graceland that fall, ran track, and got into the decathlon.”
* * *
Bruce Jenner was a natural decathlete, as far as that goes. He would always say that when he ran the 1,500m at his first decathlon in 1970 — that is the event that closes things out — it was the first time he had EVER run the 1,500m. His time was still faster than that of Bill Toomey, who had just won the 1968 Olympics decathlon. He scored almost 7,000 points in his first-ever decathlon, which is something like shooting even par in the first round of golf you ever play.
On pure natural ability, he finished third at the NAIA national championships that same year and he actually won the overall javelin competition. A year later, he won the Kansas and Drake Relays, two of the more prestigious events in the country.
“I don’t have a weak event,” he told reporters about his innate talent for the decathlon. “But I don’t have a strong one, either. I just don’t die in any of the events.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between being a naturally gifted athlete who can win some college decathlons and becoming a contender for best in the world. The difference, in Jenner’s estimation, is pain and how much of it an athlete is willing to endure. Up to that point in his life, Jenner had never really TRIED at anything. He was just good at stuff like waterskiing and football and throwing a javelin.
But the decathlon brought out something else in him, a hunger for success. Maybe it was the points. The decathlon has a complicated point system where a time or distance in each event translates into a very specific number. For instance, a 12-second 100m time will score you 651 points. A 10-second 100m time would notch 1,096 points.
Here, for fun, are the points someone would score if they could match the world record in all 10 events:
100m: 9.58 (Usain Bolt) — 1,202 points
Long jump: 29 feet, 4 1/2 inches (Mike Powell) — 1,312 points
Shot put: 75 feet, 10 1/4 inches (Randy Barnes) — 1,295 points
High jump: 8 feet, 1/2 inches (Javier Sotomayor) — 1,244 points
400m: 43.18 (Michael Johnson) — 1,156 points
110m hurdles: 12.80 (Aries Merritt) — 1,135 points
Discus: 243 feet (Jurgen Schult) — 1,383 points
Pole vault: 20 feet, 1 3/4 inches (Sergey Bubka) — 1,277 points
Javelin: 323 feet, 1 inch (Jan Zelezny) — 1,268 points
1,500m: 3:26 (Hicham El Guerrouj) — 1,218 points
Total: 12,490 points
The current decathlon world record, held by Ashton Eaton, is 9,039 points, which is obviously a lot less but it’s also obviously INCREDIBLE when you consider that he does all 10 of these events over two days. For Jenner, the decathlon’s point system meant that every inch he improved, every second he shaved meant something. This appealed to Bruce Jenner’s temperament and disposition. He became obsessed with decathlon points.
The 1970s were not an easy time for a man to become obsessed with such things. Track and field was uncompromisingly amateur in those days, which meant that there was almost no financial assistance for dreamers who decided to go chasing decathlon points. Jenner trained hard enough while still in college to shock everyone and make the 1972 Olympic team. But then college was over and he had to make a choice. He finished 10th in Munich, and after the final race he went right up to the Soviet Union’s Mykola Avilov, who had just won a gold medal and set the world record.
“See you in Montreal,” Jenner growled. “I’m going to get you there.”
He had made his choice. Jenner moved to California. He got a night job selling insurance. And during the day, he trained. And trained. And trained. He did not have a coach, he simply found and trained with other U.S. stars like shot-putter Brian Oldfield and discus world record holder Mac Wilkins. He worked relentlessly — running, lifting, training. He would show up at the San Jose Earthquakes’ training room and work out with the professional soccer players. He would show up at the San Jose City College track and run with the college kids. No decathlete in the world worked as hard as Bruce Jenner.
In that time, when Olympic training was something you did when you had the time, Jenner’s fixation on winning a decathlon gold medal was riveting. He thought about decathlon every minute of every day. He would almost lose consciousness of everything else. Before one competition, he memorably said, a young boy walked up to him to ask for an autograph.
“His last name was ‘Young,’” Jenner said later. “I remember it because I couldn’t remember how to make a ‘Y.’ I just couldn’t do it. That’s intense.”
In 1972, Jenner married Chrystie Crownover; they met when Jenner was in college. She became a big part of his Olympic dream. In many ways, she inspired it. After a long winning streak, Jenner lost at the AAU Nationals. He did not just lose, he embarrassed himself. He did not clear a height in the pole vault. He then threw the pole so far it almost hit a photographer.
It scared him how emotional the loss was for him — when it ended, he would say, he ran over to a nearby tree and cried. He then told Christie that he was concerned that he had put too much of himself into the decathlon dream. Maybe it was too much. Maybe he should just stop working so hard and focus on other things.
She surprised him. Chrystie had always been the one telling him to pull back. But now, in his moment of crisis, she said it was time for him to put ALL of his effort into training. She worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines and said that she would support them until he came back from Montreal with a gold medal.
It was another turning point in a long series of turning points. He redoubled his efforts. And from that point on, Jenner never gave an interview where he did not credit Chrystie for his success. It led to this newspaper lead in the April 19, 1974, Lawrence Journal-World after Jenner won the decathlon at the Kansas Relays. It was written by sports editor Chuck Woodling:
LAWRENCE — Behind every good man, the old saying goes, there’s a woman.
* * *
May 16, 1976 (two months before the Olympics)
“Every day I spend less and less time thinking about things other than the decathlon. … Other things don’t really affect me. I can’t get excited about anything but the decathlon. When I’m sitting around watching television, say, or eating dinner, I can’t help thinking about it. …“Sometimes, I like to have a shot and a discus around to pick up and play with when I’ve got nothing better to do. I may pick up the shot, toss it up and down in the air, feel it, sometimes even sleep with it. I try to make friends with it.”
— Bruce Jenner, “Decathlon Challenge.”
Bruce Jenner was the heavy favorite going into the 1976 Olympics, but he had bad dreams. He had given everything of himself for years, and he knew that in the decathlon it could all go bad at any point. He could no-height in the pole vault again. He could clip a hurdle and fall. He could foul three times on the long jump. And so on. There were no shortage of nightmare scenarios for someone who thought about the decathlon every minute of every day. He would say that he thought of all of them.
There were two men to beat: the Russian, Mykola Avilov, the man he had challenged in Munich and a German, Guido Kartschmer, who excelled at the sprinting events. Jenner knew that both of them would have a clear advantage on the first day events — the 100m dash, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump and the 400m run. Jenner’s greatness always came out on the second day, in part because it had probably featured three of his best events (pole vault, javelin and 1,500m) and in part because he was in such good shape that he simply endured the grind better than others.
“If I’m within 150 points at the end of the first day,” he told reporters, “I’ll win.”
He ended up being much closer than 150 points out. Kratschmer’s great speed played out in the 100m dash. Avilov won the long jump and high jump outright. But Jenner set a personal best in the shot put and then he had fantastic run in the 400, finishing it in 47.5 seconds, well ahead of the two contenders. At the end of the day, he was in third place, which was expected. But he trailed by only 35 points. The decathlon gold medal was his to lose.
“There was no doubt (after that first day result),” the New York Times would report, “that Jenner would win.”
Jenner was in a virtual tie with Kratschmer and Avilov going into the final three events, and he was vastly superior to them in the pole vault, javelin and 1,500m run. Jenner knew he had gold won, and so did they. The only drama left was whether he could break the world record of 8,538 points he had set a month earlier. Jenner matched his personal best in the pole vault to take an almost insurmountable lead. He had a solid javelin throw of 225 or so feet. He needed to run the 1,500m in 4:35 to set the world record.
In the race, he found himself pushed by the most insane boost of adrenaline he’d ever felt. Jenner wanted to run faster than the pace he needed for the record, much faster. A Soviet runner, Leonid Lytvynenko, who had won the decathlon silver medal in 1972, pushed far ahead of everyone. This was Lyvynenko’s event, he had won it going away in Munich.
Jenner — inspired by the crowd and the depth of his training and the thrill of the moment — decided to go catch him. Every step of the final two laps, it seemed that he was gaining on Lytvynenko. Then, in the last, he was right on the great Russia’s back and the noise in the stadium was overwhelming. “That last straight,” Jenner would write. “I’ll have a mental picture of that moment for the rest of my life, the crowd going bananas, me putting them down and picking them up as fast as I could.”
He did not catch Lytvynenko. But he finished in 4:12.6, six seconds faster than he had run in Munich. A few steps after crossing the finish line, Jenner realized that he had not just broken his world record, he smashed it. He had scored 8,618 points, well over his own record and almost 200 more points than Avilov’s Olympic record he had been craving for four years. When that registered with him, he raised his arms over his head and opened his mouth wide open. Camera shutters clicked. This would be the first of the iconic shots of Bruce Jenner.
The second of those photos came a moment later when a man, never identified, handed him an tiny American flag. Jenner waved it as he ran around the track. It was, for an America still stinging from the hurt of Vietnam and Watergate and high inflation, a magical moment.
“Don’t let the secret out,” Jenner told reporters as he winked. “I’m not that tired.”
Jenner immediately announced that this would be his last decathlon. “There’s nothing left for me,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the climb to the top. … I’ve trained very hard for 10 years. It’s time to dedicate myself to something else.”
What was that something else? Well, he tried out for the part of Superman in the movies (a part that went instead to a relative unknown named Christopher Reeve). He began to appear on boxes of Wheaties, the ultimate moment for an American athlete in those days. And, true to his word, Jenner never competed in the decathlon again.
The lead of the New York Times on the day he won the Olympic decathlon tells the story:
MONTREAL — Bruce Jenner of San Jose, Calif., wants to be a movie or television star. After his record-breaking victory in the Olympic decathlon today, he probably can be anything he wants.