People, especially younger people and non-sports fans, tend to forget how Bruce Jenner became famous in the first place.
It wasn't because he was good-looking, or well-spoken, or because he married a Kardashian and appeared on a cheesy reality TV show. That's not what gets your face on a Wheaties cereal box. He became Bruce Jenner by winning the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics, in Montreal, and setting a world record in the process.
Historically, the man who wins the decathlon is called "the world's greatest athlete." While that's quite an accolade, it's unchallenged. He is given that title because he has beaten the best athletes in the world at the greatest array of individual athletic contests. After all, who but a decathlete would we call "world's greatest athlete"? A golfer? A swimmer?
The decathlon is a grueling two-day contest, consisting of ten events: the 100 meters, 400 meters, 110 hurdles, 1,500 meters, high jump, long jump, pole vault, shot-put, discus throw, and javelin throw. They do five events (100m, long jump, high jump, shot put, 400m) on day one, and five events (110m hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1500m) on day two.
By winning the decathlon, an athlete proves, among other things, that he can run the fastest, jump the longest, leap the highest, and throw objects the farthest. He can't just be speedy; he also has to have the stamina to run the "metric mile." And he can't just be a runner because he has to be strong enough to throw weights, agile enough to master the pole vault, and springy enough to clear a bar that's taller than he is.
In a typical track meet, even a world-class meet, you'll see guys who can throw the shot and hurl the discus, leather-lunged guys who can run the mile, and springy guys who can jump great heights and distances. But in this age of specialization you won't see guys who can do everything, who can do it all. Not unless they're entered in the decathlon.
Ask a well-conditioned shot-putter to run the mile, and it will take him 7 minutes. Jenner ran it in 4:30. Ask a Kenyan miler to throw the 16-pound shot, and he'll throw it what?--30 feet? Jenner threw it more than 50 feet. Even today, his performances would be impressive, but the fact that they were done almost 40 years ago makes them truly astonishing.
One of Jenner's most amazing feats was being able to high jump 6' 8". His 47.5 in the 400m was impressive, as was his 4:12.6 in the 1,500m, but for a muscular, all-around athlete who stands 6-2, being able to clear 6-8 is remarkable. Of course, being remarkable was how Jenner won Olympic gold, set a world record, and became the world's greatest athlete.
David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition).
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