Bruce Jenner shattered the world record to win the decathlon gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics.
A buff heartthrob of America’s disco era, Jenner was one of the most beloved athletes of the 1970s. He arrived in Montreal as a virtual unknown and, in the span of two days, changed the course of his life forever. At the height of the Cold War, the open-faced American bested the defending Olympic champion – a Russian – to win the gold medal and earn the title as the World’s Greatest Athlete.
Decathlon is comprised of ten track and field events. Contested over two consecutive days – five events on Day One, another five on Day Two – performance is judged on a points system in each event. It is a brutal sport that tests every muscle in the body and is track and field’s most grueling competition. Running events include the 100, 400 and 1,500 meter races as well as the 110 meter hurdles. Field events include the long jump, shot put, high jump, discus throw, pole vault and javelin throw. The sport requires a wide range of skills. “The decathlon includes ten separate events and they all matter,” said 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dan O’Brien. Preparation often requires an athlete to resist working on his strengths in favor of his weaknesses.
Born October 28, 1949, in Mount Kisco, New York, William Bruce Jenner was the second of four children born to a homemaker mother and father who was a tree surgeon. Athletic genes run in the family. Bruce’s father won a silver medal in the 100-yard dash in the 1945 U.S. Army Olympics and his grandfather competed in several Boston Marathons. Diagnosed with dyslexia, young Bruce struggled in school, but an aptitude for sports gave him confidence and changed his life. The family moved to Newtown, Connecticut, prior to his junior year of high school. An athletic quarterback, Jenner starred on the football team at Newtown High School. He was MVP of the track squad and basketball team, and was also a three-time Eastern States water skiing champion.
After graduating Newtown in 1968, Jenner accepted a partial football scholarship to Graceland College [now Graceland University], a private liberal arts school in tiny Lamoni, Iowa. After suffering a knee injury in his first season, Jenner underwent reconstructive surgery on New Year’s Day 1969. L.D. Weldon, the legendary Graceland track coach who had mentored Jack Parker to decathlon bronze at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, pointed Jenner to decathlon. The newcomer made his debut with a fifth-place finish at the Drake Relays in 1970. A year later, he was the NAIA decathlon champion.
Competing in decathlon at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Jenner was in 11th place after Day One. He moved up to tenth with three events left on Day Two, and was fifth after the javelin throw. With one event left – the 1,500 meter run – Jenner needed to beat the third-place athlete by 18 seconds in order to win the final spot on the U.S. team. Jenner beat him by 21 seconds. In a newspaper account of the event the following day, the New York Times mistakenly referred to the 22-year-old Graceland Yellow Jacket as “Steve” Jenner.
The Soviets finished one-two in the decathlon at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Gold medalist Mykola Avilov broke American Bill Toomey’s world record, set in December 1969, with 8,454 points. Jenner placed tenth. Inspired by Avilov, he embarked upon a rigorous training program. “For the first time, I knew what I wanted out of life,” recalled Jenner, “and this guy has it. I literally started training that night at midnight, running through the streets of Munich.” On the plane home, he vowed to return for the gold medal.
After graduating Graceland with a degree in Phys Ed in 1973, Jenner married girlfriend Chrystie Crownover and moved to San Jose, California. Chrystie supported the couple as a flight attendant for United Airlines, while Jenner trained during the day and sold insurance at night. They lived in a cramped two bedroom apartment, He won the 1974 AAU decathlon and was featured on the cover of Track & Field News magazine. In 1975, he won the French national championship, took gold at the Pan Am Games, and lowered Avilov’s world record at a USA/USSR/Poland triangular meet in Eugene in August. Jenner then broke his own mark the following year during the 1976 Olympic Trials, scoring 8,538 points.
At the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Bruce Jenner represented America’s best chance to dethrone Avilov as Olympic champion. Jenner’s goal on Day One was to stay within 200 points of the leader. In the first event, the 100 meters, he ran a personal-best 10.94. Jenner then reeled off four straight career-best performances in the long jump, shot put, high jump and 400 meters to finish Day One in third place with 4,298 points — 35 behind the leader, Guido Kratschamer of West Germany. The American trailed Avilov, who had won the long jump and high jump events, by only 17 points. In the seventh event, Jenner threw the discus three meters farther than anyone else. He built such a lead that by the last event, the 1,500-meter run, he needed only a mediocre time to claim gold. With the world watching, Jenner finished just one second behind the fastest man in the field while setting a new decathlon world record of 8,634.
Exhausted, Jenner took a celebratory walk around the track in Olympic Stadium, arms raised high with American flag in hand, basking in the cheers. Ready to become a celebrity, and with no intention of ever competing again, he left his vaulting poles inside the stadium. “In 1972, I made the decision that I would go four years and totally dedicate myself to what I was doing,” Jenner said later, “and then I would move on after it was over with. I went into that competition knowing that would be the last time I would ever do this.”
Jenner appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, GQ, and Playgirl . “I happened to be the right guy, in the right place, at the right time,” he said. He unabashedly accepted every offer that came his way: sports commentating gigs, a clothing line, a book deal and motivational speaking engagements. The camera loved Jenner. His picture famously adorned the Wheaties box and he became a spokesman for seemingly everything. At the height of “Jennermania,” he was shortlisted for the lead in 1978’s Superman [the role went to Christopher Reeves]. He made in film debut in 1980’s Can’t Stop the Music, which was a flop, and later appeared in made-for-TV movies and infomercials.
Jenner was a successful race car driver in the 1980s and later appeared in a variety of game shows and reality television programs, including Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Days after divorcing Chrystie Crownover in 1981, Mr. Jenner married Linda Thompson. He and Thompson divorced in 1986, and Jenner married Kris Kardashian in 1991. Each of the three marriages produced two children, and he has four step-children.
Bruce Jenner won the 1976 Sullivan Award and was named 1976 AP Male Athlete of the Year. He was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986. In June 2015, Jenner announced on Twitter that she is a woman now known as Caitlyn.
Caitlyn Jenner celebrates her 68th birthday this coming Saturday.