The Olympic champion who became a transgender icon

·4-min read
Caitlyn Jenner at the 28th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party.
Caitlyn Jenner at the 28th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party. (PHOTO: Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images)

By Chia Han Keong

She is now well-known as a reality television celebrity and transgender icon. But back in 1976, Caitlyn Jenner – then called Bruce – was hailed as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” when she broke the world record for men’s decathlon en route to winning gold at the Montreal Olympics.

For those who know Jenner only through her reality TV role in “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, it would have been hard to picture her as a talented male athlete with matinee-idol good looks, as she became the star of the Games with a stunning all-around performance in one of track and field’s most gruelling events.

It was a culmination of 12 years of intensely hard training for Jenner, who had already found sporting success in water-skiing and basketball before she turned her focus on decathlon – competing in 10 track and field events in two consecutive days.

Jenner took part in the event at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but finished only in 10th place. The Soviet Union’s Nikolai Avilov was the gold winner, setting a seemingly-insurmountable world record of 8,466 points in the process.

Yet after the competition, Jenner reportedly walked up to Avilov, looked him in the eye, and said, “Next time, I’m going to beat you.”

Non-traditional route to success

To meet that goal, Jenner hit upon a winning formula in her preparation. Instead of the traditional method of training with fellow decathletes, Jenner instead trained with some of the world’s best athletes in each of the 10 events.

“If you train with a decathlon man, you can’t visualise that you can do much better,” Jenner once told New York Times. “But if you throw the discus with (then world-record holder) Mac Wilkins or throw the shot put with (Olympic gold medallist) Al Feuerbach, then they’re 20 feet ahead of me. You learn much more that way.”

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By the time Jenner reached Montreal, she had won the Amateur Athletic Union decathlon title twice (1974 and 1976) and was the 1975 Pan American Games champion. She was also the reigning world-record holder (8,524 points), a feat she achieved in August 1975.

Could Jenner repeat her record-breaking feat and win on the biggest stage? The signs were not good early in the competition; while she recorded personal-bests in the first five events, Jenner was still trailing behind West Germany’s Guido Kratschmer and only slightly ahead of Avilov.

With all of her best events on the second day, however, Jenner was confident of victory. Yet, she was still trailing Avilov by nine points entering the eighth event, the pole vault. In her last 13 decathlon competitions, Jenner had lost just once — and that was due to a failure in clearing a height in the pole vault.

Yet, Jenner cleared 4.7m, better than both Avilov and Katschmer, and swept into the lead. That lead kept growing in the final two events, the javelin and the 1,500m, and she completed the decathlon with 8,618 points – a world record that would stand for almost four years.

Created an enduring tradition

Jul 1976:  Bruce Jenner of the USA celebrates during his record setting performance in the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy  /Allsport
Jul 1976: Bruce Jenner of the USA celebrates during his record setting performance in the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

Jenner’s celebration was another iconic moment, as she was handed a United States flag and did a victory lap. This began a beloved Olympic tradition that future track and field winners would emulate.

Yet, while she was being hailed as the World’s Greatest Athlete, Jenner admitted later in life that she felt trapped by her gold-medal fame, wondering if she would be stuck as a man for the rest of her life.

Jenner would eventually come out as a transgender woman in 2015, and complete a sex reassignment surgery in 2017. As Caitlyn Jenner, she said that this gender transition was her greatest achievement.

“I trained 12 years for the Olympic Games. I trained 65 years to transition in 2015,” she said. “I have the great double. Olympic decathlon champion and Glamour's woman of the year.”

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