Revisiting Bruce Jenner's historic Olympic moment

April 24, 2015, 11:12 PM

— -- With summer 1976 fading deeper and deeper into the past, some say that younger generations know Bruce Jenner best for being a reality TV star on "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." If so, that is unfortunate. The reality show we should always associate with Jenner is the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Rather than being famous simply for being famous, Jenner accomplished something truly significant that year: He won the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, becoming the unofficial "world's greatest athlete" and inspiring a nation.

Jenner's victory was a defining sports moment during the U.S. bicentennial year and at the height of the Cold War, perhaps second in importance only to the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" victory against the Soviet Union. Following the Vietnam War and Watergate, patriotism was back on such full public display that people were painting fire hydrants and turning them into red-white-and-blue star-spangled monuments.

And Jenner's performance at the 1976 Olympics only increased that display of pride.

Like basketball, the decathlon was an Olympic event long dominated by the United States. Beginning with Jim Thorpe, an American had won the decathlon in every Olympics but three from 1912 to 1968. And as what happened in men's basketball, the U.S. did not win the decathlon in 1972, when Soviet athletes Mykola Avilov and Leonid Lytvynenko took gold and silver. Jenner, who occasionally had to sell insurance to support himself, brought gold back to America in 1976 with a world-record score of 8,616.

As impressive as winning the decathlon was, however, what happened afterward was of even more long-term significance.

Shortly after Jenner crossed the finish line in the 1,500-meter finale, a fan rushed onto the track and handed him a small U.S. flag on a stick. Jenner told me at the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field trials that his initial thought was it "was a little 'hot-doggy' to put the flag out there. It was just like, too much." But he waved the flag anyway in what became a transcendent moment in American sports.

When you see Olympic champions waving the stars and stripes after their victories, it is because of Jenner.

Jenner's Olympic gold medal was so significant that he made the front of the Wheaties cereal box. That might not sound like much now in this endorsement-crazed culture, but he was the first Olympic athlete in 10 years to have done so. The next one would not be until 1984, when Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first female athlete to grace the front.

Jenner also taped a Wheaties commercial so widely viewed and well-known that it inspired John Belushi's "Little Chocolate Donuts" parody on "Saturday Night Live."

All of this made Jenner a household name. He was as famous and as popular as any athlete at the time -- right up there with Roger Staubach, Johnny Bench, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jack Nicklaus.

How many people can name the 2012 Olympic decathlon gold medalist? Hint: It also was won by an American who currently holds the world record. Still can't recall? Perhaps that's because Ashton Eaton didn't land on a box of Wheaties.

Jenner was back in the news Friday after saying in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer that he is transitioning to become a woman.

With this announcement, Jenner is atop the podium again, with the eyes of the entire nation upon him once more. While he will not receive unanimous applause this time, there is the promising chance that his declaration could prove to be even more important than the 1976 Olympic gold medal and generate needed understanding and support for the transgender community.

Jenner is waving a flag again. And that is a very good thing, for which we should long remember him.

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