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HEADING FOR THE 11TH EVENT
Frank Deford
August 09, 1976
The Greeks suspended wars when they held their Olympics, but they resumed them soon enough, and in a sense the world carries on that tradition today. Very quickly does it get back to meaner concerns. Only a few Olympians thrive past the fortnight, lifted by the Games onto a more lasting stage: Jesse Owens, whom Hitler transformed into a symbol for life; Johnny Weissmuller, Sonja Henie, Buster Crabbe, all tapped by Hollywood; Bob Mathias, playing himself as a folk hero on the screen, in Congress and as a TV pitchman.
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August 09, 1976

Heading For The 11th Event

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The Greeks suspended wars when they held their Olympics, but they resumed them soon enough, and in a sense the world carries on that tradition today. Very quickly does it get back to meaner concerns. Only a few Olympians thrive past the fortnight, lifted by the Games onto a more lasting stage: Jesse Owens, whom Hitler transformed into a symbol for life; Johnny Weissmuller, Sonja Henie, Buster Crabbe, all tapped by Hollywood; Bob Mathias, playing himself as a folk hero on the screen, in Congress and as a TV pitchman.

Curiously, in recent Games, with substantially greater publicity, not a single Olympic star has been able to grab the five rings and hoist himself up beyond. Mark Spitz tried but succeeded only as a poster. The rest, even the most magnificent Olympians, are no more than 17-year locusts, brought to our attention again every few summers.

If there is anyone who will change this pattern it is Bruce Jenner of San Jose, Calif., who introduced himself to most of the world last Thursday and Friday with a world-record performance in the decathlon and in charm. Jenner was unlike any other athlete in Montreal, for as splendid as his achievement was, it was impossible for anyone (most of all him) to comprehend exactly what it could do for his future. "I do know that if I win and I handle myself well," he said, "I can work off it for years and years." He was being realistic, not cocky.

Boyishly good-looking—a handsome Pete Rose—with tender brown eyes, a glorious smile (what a year this is for teeth in America!), beautifully built, good-humored, well-spoken, Jenner could have been Bicentennial government issue. He came equipped with a pretty blonde wife in a tight-fitting T shirt who cried tears of happiness and told lyric tales of her husband in California Gothic ("Sometimes I would see him with a faraway look in his eyes and then he would give a little groan, and I would say, 'Honey, what is it?' and he would say, 'I'm just thinking of the last lap in the 1,500 at Montreal' "). In a five-minute span shortly after he won the gold medal, Jenner himself said exactly all the right things about the Olympics, his opposition, his country and his wife and family.

If there is anything he might worry about, it would be that people would consider him too perfect, perhaps contrived. But in fact, he is only a very careful and commanding person, completely in control of himself. There is nothing artificial in being organized. As inquiries and offers began to pile up, as promoters anticipated his success, he quietly went out and lined up some management help. Wisely, he did not want this revealed so long as he was competing.

"I'm scared to say anything now," he admitted a few days before his event. "Everybody is ready to be reminded of Spitz. If I mention one thing about what I'm considering, everybody'll say, 'Hey, the kid's just in it for the money.' People tell me I should be an actor—but that is what they say. I don't know. I've worked a long time to build up credibility, and I don't want to rush out and blow it all getting caught in a few wrong situations. I'm not going to make a fool of myself trading jokes with Bob Hope. I'm going to stay myself. And I know if I win, they can't ever take that away from me."

In the way that he approaches the next step now, so did Jenner approach the decathlon. He was competing against some very stiff rivals—Nikolay Avilov of the Soviet Union, the 1972 gold medalist and Olympic-record holder (8,454 points), and 23-year-old Guido Kratschmer of West Germany—and Jenner did not take the lead from them until the eighth event. But in any case it is much more fascinating to study how Jenner competed with himself than against the opposition. Several days before the 29th and 30th, he listed what he felt he should achieve in each category. Here are his intentions and, in parentheses, his actual performances:

100 meters 10.9 (10.94); long jump 23'8" (23'8�"); shotput 47'6" (50'4�"); high jump 6'8" (6'8"); 400 meters 47.9 (47.51); 110-meter hurdles 14.4 (14.84); discus 170' (164'2"); pole vault 15'9" (15'9"); javelin 225' (224'9�"); 1,500 meters 4:14 (4:12.61).

He hit five of 10 events on the button or virtually so, set personal records in the long jump, shot, high jump, 400, and 1,500, equaled career bests in the 100 and the vault, ran the two longer races slightly better than he thought he would and the hurdles slightly worse—he ran scared there after he saw his friend and fellow U.S. decathlete Fred Dixon get injured in an earlier flight—and while he was marginally off in the shotput and discus, he was up in one, down in the other. So the miscalculations just about canceled themselves out. He was gunning for 8,600 points. He hit 8,618. Jenner has an almost mystical ability to divine his own limits, and those who have been with him at meets say that by studying his opponents as the events go by, he can perceive their exact capabilities that day. Montreal, he felt, was his "destiny."

Because the decathlon is an event that builds in tension, and because Jenner was going for the record (and fame and fortune), the two days were packed with dramas large and small. But there was only one probable crisis point, in the pole vault. That single event was to drag on for more than five hours, and because Jenner is proficient in it. he passed all but one height, 14'1�", in the early going. As grueling as the decathlon is, it requires only spurts of energy. There is so much waiting—some competitors brought along air mattresses to rest on—and so much time for thinking, that temperament is often crucial.

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