Jenner's First Reality Show: 1976 Montreal Olympics
Long before Caitlyn became an icon of transgender awareness, the 26-year-old Jenner delivered a star-making performance in the Olympic decathlon. Now, four people who witnessed history remember those two days that made the then-unknown athlete an instant celebrity.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
If there is any one event designed to identify the world's greatest athlete, it is the Olympic decathlon. And long before becoming famous as a reality TV star or as a transgender icon, Caitlyn Jenner (then known as Bruce) went to Montreal and came away with a place in sports history.
Jenner had been to the summer Olympics as a relative unknown who placed 10th in Munich in 1972. Upon returning home to San Jose, Calif., he spent the next four years training for eight hours a day while selling insurance at night to make ends meet (Jenner's then-wife, Chrystie, worked as a flight attendant). By 1976, Jenner, 26, was one of the favorites. Meticulous to the end, he had set personal goals for each event and hoped to complete the first of two days in fifth or sixth place. After hitting or surpassing each mark, Jenner was ahead of the pace, finishing Day One in third, just 35 points behind leader Guido Kratschmer.
Now, four people who witnessed the legendary victory tell the story of Jenner's triumphant two days.
SEAN MCMANUS, CBS Sports chairman
I was a student at the time, hanging out with my father [sportscaster Jim McKay] while he was in the studio hosting the games for ABC. A major focus was certainly on Jenner and his quest to win gold, and there was a lot of anticipation among the crew, hoping that a good story would develop.
KEITH JACKSON, former ABC Sports sportscaster
Jenner was more or less a loner, very focused. There was a question of whether he could stay relaxed and save his adrenaline.
FRANK DEFORD, Sports Illustrated senior contributing writer and senior correspondent for Real Sports, HBO
It's almost interminable, the decathlon. There are other events going on in the stadium, but when Jenner was the contender, people who knew track and field would look to see him throw the javelin.
MCMANUS One analyst had predicted what Jenner needed to do in the pole vault to maintain a gold-medal pace. He was exactly on that number. That and the high jump are two specialty events that many great athletes never master.
DEFORD I found it fascinating that he left his pole-vault pole back by the pit because he was never going to do it again. Everybody else picked up their apparatus and moved on. He just left it there. It shows that kind of mindset: all or nothing.
The decathlon's final event, the 1,500-meter race, took place on the evening of July 30, with Jenner atop the standings. "If he runs the 1,500 at four minutes, 35.8 seconds, he will have his new world record," said Jackson on air. Jenner ran it at 4:12.61.
JACKSON He had more than the others did. In the course of his training, built into his mind and body, he had enough to run them down.
MCMANUS In the broadcast center, it was as close to rooting as is possible for men and women who are supposed to be objective journalists. People were trying to be objective, trying not to be jingoistic, but it was impossible not to root for Jenner.
WALTER IOOSS, Sports Illustrated photographer That was the biggest moment of the '76 Games. That face, his hair — he had it all. It's not so often that someone fits that bill.
DEFORD When Jenner came down the stretch and clearly was going to be the gold medalist, people really came to life then. It was in Montreal, so an exceptional number of Americans were there, and when he won, he grabbed that little flag and did a victory lap.
Recapping the event for viewers, McKay remarked of Jenner's final lap: "Strong though he is ... this is the face of a tired, breathless man, reaching for reserves not used until now, and that's the purpose of the decathlon: to test the total man, body and spirit, for the last ounce of energy."
DEFORD When he crossed the finish line, that was it. Now he was going to be: "Bruce Jenner, celebrity."
MCMANUS Coming out of the Olympics, he was as big a star as there was in American athletics. He was the perfect combination of great athletic ability, good looks, very personable, very articulate and winning the event that people associated with being the greatest athlete in the world. The waving of the flag, and the way that was captured on the Wheaties box, it was a perfect ending to a perfect story.
"You can't believe the offers that poured in the first two days," Jenner said after the games. He parlayed his photogenic looks, charming personality and that gold medal into a career in endorsements (General Mills, Tropicana) and TV (including a recurring role on CHiPs). Eleven other Americans have won decathlon gold, but only Jenner transcended sports to enter the pop culture mainstream.