Coffman's decathlon dream derailed

The image that still lingers from the 1976 Montreal Olympics is that of Bruce Jenner, clenched fists upraised, exulting in his decathlon victory. The triumph was not only immensely satisfying at the time, it also proved to be richly rewarding afterward as Jenner became a red-hot commercial property.

For the past four years Bob Coffman admittedly thought his own decathlon efforts might lead him down a similar road paved with gold. The top-rated decathlete in the world in 1979, he was a strong candidate to succeed Jenner at Moscow this summer.

The dream ended when the US Olympic boycott materialized, but Coffman pursued what was left of it this week, winning the decathlon at the Olympic trails in Eugene, Ore., in dramatic fashion.

During seven years of competing in the decathlon, he had never secured a come-from-behind victory. His chances looked rather bleak, therefore, when he finished the opening five events on the first day in fourth place. But he broke quickly from the gate on the second day, moving into the lead for good with firsts in the 110-meter high hurdles, discuss, and pole vault.

Coffman wound up with 8,184 points, Lee Palles with 8,159, and Fred Dixon, a 1976 Olympian, with 8,154. (Points are awarded in the 10 events based on how an athlete's performances stack up against certain standards of achievement. Consequently, overall proficiency is rewarded more handsomely than superior ability in isolated events.)

Although achieving world-class status in this most demanding track and field test can take years, Coffman experienced a measure of success in only his third decathlon ever, finishing fifth in the 1973 NCAA (collegiate) championships. A junior hurdler at Southern Cal when he began the school year, he switched to the decathlon after watching several Swedes training for the event on campus.

In a telephone interview, Coffman indicated he had watched Bill Toomey's inspiring decathlon victory at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, but had really had his eyes opened by what Jenner did in Montreal -- and afterward.

"I saw what he did for himself in movies, ads, and endorsements, and those things gave me something to shoot for," Coffman explained. The boycott, he admits, was a "crushing" development for him, but one he has accepted without complaint.

"I've talked to Jenner," Coffman indicated, "and he says the only thing that would have prevented him from competing in Moscow would have been President Carter personally pulling him off the track. But that's easy for him to say since he's not competing anymore."

Tenth in the 1976 US Olympics trials, Bob decided to make a total commitment to the decathlon, much as Jenner had done earlier. "For the last four years all I really did was train under Tom Tellez at the University of Houston," he explained. "My wife is a school teacher and she supported us on her salary, although I got a couple of odd jobs when we needed money. During the past year I've worked out about five or six hours a day, six days a week."

So now what will he do?

"I don't really know; things are up in the air " he said, indicating that he'd been in great demand by reporters but hardly under siege by Madison Avenue types. After all, "America's greatest athlete" just doesn't sound as good as "world's greatest athlete," the title unofficially bestowed on Jenner since 1976 .

The decathlon gold medal, which has gone to an American eight of the last 10 times, may now go to Britain's Daley Thompson. According to Coffman, Thompson and West Germany's Guido Kratschmer, the 1976 silver medalist, would have been his chief rivals in Moscow. Kratschmer, like Coffman, will stay home because of his country's decision to boycott.

Coffman's score at Eugene was considerably below Jenner's Olympic record of 8 ,618, but the generally low scores at the trials were largely attributable to poor weather conditions.

In the 100 meters, for example, a slow track helped explained Coffman's 11.04 clocking. His best time of 10.38, a decathlon world record, would have earned him considerably more points.

Even so Bob's performances in three events -- shot put (53 ft. 5 1/4 in.), 110-meter hurdles (14.33 seconds), and discuss (167 ft. 1 in.) -- surpassed those Jenner produced in Montreal.

His results in those disciplines not previously mentioned follow: long jump, 23 ft. 6 1/4 in.; high jump, 6-4 3/4; 400 meters, 49.49; pole vault, 15-3; javelin, 174-4; and 1500 meters, 4:33.99.

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