Lining up for the 1,500 metres, the final event of the 1976 Olympic decathlon, Bruce Jenner had the gold in his grasp. Needing a time of four minutes and 35 seconds, he was coasting along when he noticed the cheering of the 75,000 fans in Montreal's Olympic Stadium had intensified.
They wanted more than to see the exhausted champion-elect grinding his way around the track. Ever the showman, he sprinted the final lap at full pace, arms occasionally in the air, beat the required time by nearly half a minute, and scored 8618 points to break his own world record.
“We did it honey, we did it!” sobbed Jenner to his then wife Chrystie, sitting in the stands, wearing a t-shirt that read “Go Jenner Go!” “It was a team job.”
Chrystie had worked long hours as a flight attendant so that he could slack off his insurance gig and devote himself full-time to training. She had tolerated him putting a hurdle in their San Jose apartment so he could practice his technique.
And so confident was Jenner that his epic performance over those two July days was about to transform both their lives (the television cameras loved the photogenic couple) that he left his pole vaults in the stadium that night. At 26, he had no use for them anymore. He knew he would never compete as a decathlete again.
“Within a few days – if not already – there will be agents bidding for his services,” wrote columnist Will Grimsley. “A matinee idol, 6’2” and 195 lbs, with classic features, a good personality and a Prince Valiant hairstyle, he appears to be a natural for television and movies.”
By the time the medal had been draped around his neck, the offers were starting to come in. Hollywood. Publishers. Madison Avenue. Everybody wanted a piece. Pretty soon, he was on the cover of the Wheaties cereal box, working as a correspondent for Good Morning America, and vying with Christopher Reeve for the role of Clark Kent in Superman. Not to mention drawing down $10,000 a time for inspirational speaking gigs all across the country.
Nobody knows for sure if Jenner is currently transitioning from male to female. But, with speculation that an announcement in that regard is imminent, this is a major moment for America, precisely because of who he used to be rather than who he is today. Jenner is one of the elite few who can claim to have earned and held the unofficial title of “world’s greatest athlete”.
Even if it will soon be four decades since he embodied the All-American sporting ideal, the fact he once did should spark a much-needed national conversation about the rights of transgender individuals.
In recent years, the transitioning experiences of Chaz Bono, whose parents are Sonny and Cher, Chelsea Manning, the soldier involved in the Wikileaks document dump, and Lana Wachowski, a Hollywood producer, director and screenwriter, have brought the issue fleetingly into the mainstream.
But, none of that trio ever enjoyed the profile of Jenner. Just the other day, the Washington Post tried to explain how he transcended sport back in the 70s by invoking the more recent examples of Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong.
For a generation too young to remember his athletic greatness, it's unfortunate that Jenner exists merely as a bit-part player in the Keeping up with the Kardashians mockudrama.
With plastic surgery making him look decidedly different from his Olympic heyday, and turning him into a punchline on late night television, his function on the show often seems to be to provide comic relief.
At his own expense. Quite a role to be reduced to in the celebutard universe inhabited by his extended family and ruled over by his third ex-wife Kris.
The real pity is that Jenner’s personal journey (which it now turns out was a lot more difficult than it looked) has been somehow swallowed up in the Kardashian maelstrom. A dyslexic kid from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, he won a grid-iron scholarship to a tiny Mormon College in Iowa, where a knee injury forced him to switch sports and changed the course of his life forever.
To revisit the coverage of Montreal now is to spend time in a different universe. Here's a teenage Daley Thompson struggling to keep up. There's a newspaper article wondering whether Jenner or Lasse Virén (winning double gold in 5,000m and 10,000m for the second consecutive games) is the best athlete on the planet. Everywhere is the sense the man in the red singlet with the charming smile that will one day grace the cover of Playgirl magazine is a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
That Jenner has, in one way or another, lived his life in the public eye since then may explain why it’s assumed his transition will be filmed for television. Some may frown upon that, others probably hope it will educate people about transgender issues.
All might agree though that Jenner is about to experience a spotlight more intense and tabloid interest more prurient than any he’s experienced to this point in his storied life. Indeed, some of the coverage has already veered from insensitive to downright offensive.
“Feet don’t fail me now” read the slogan Jenner emblazoned on the sweatshirt he wore on his way to gold all those summers ago. A motto that may stand him in good stead over the next while.