A Run Through History
Following the footsteps of past champions
ATLANTA — As a youngster, Bruce Jenner says he became intrigued with the decathlon and began studying the event and its special mystique.
"I saw 'The Jim Thorpe Story' and 'The Bob Mathias Story' on TV," recalls the nattily dressed sports celebrity during an Atlanta media function. "These guys were not just Olympic champions. They were part of American history."
Jenner, too, wanted to become part of America's proud decathlon heritage and did so in Montreal in the summer of 1976, when his victory was especially sweet, coming as it did during the US bicentennial. "A lot of my life revolves around the decathlon and what I did," says Jenner, who runs a track meet in San Jose, Calif., and does marketing work. "Every day someone brings the subject up."
Jenner feels privileged to be part of a championship lineage that stretches to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, when Jim Thorpe, a native American, walked off with gold medals in both the decathlon and the five-event pentathlon that preceded it.
Thorpe won the Olympic title in his first try at the decathlon. His score, amazing enough, would have won the silver medal in 1948, according to David Wallechinsky's "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics." After his triumph, Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it came to light that he had earned $25 playing minor league baseball, a violation of the day's strict amateur rules. The runners-up refused to accept Thorpe's fairly earned hardware, but it wasn't until 1983 that Olympic officials returned the medals to Thorpe's family.
For many years the decathlon's scoring tables were structured in such a way that a person with exceptional ability in several events could sometimes build an insurmountable lead. This was the case in 1932 when University of Kansas football player James Bausch's exceptional efforts in the pole vault and discus upset Finland's Akilles Jarvinen, who had been the silver medalist at the previous Games.
In 1936, Glenn Morris, a young Colorado car salesman, won the gold in Berlin, establishing a new world record on the strength of a 16-second improvement on his personal best in the 1,500-meter, which traditionally concludes the event. Morris landed a couple of movie roles, a familiar resume entry for many subsequent American winners.
Because the Olympics were canceled during World War II, the next decathlon champion wasn't crowned until 1948, when American 17-year-old Bob Mathias came out of high school in California to win the first of two Olympic titles.
His original victory made him the youngest male track champion in Olympic history and established a pattern for Americans who followed. "You'll see the American winners have often been small-town guys," says Bill Toomey, the 1968 gold medalist. "I had 88 kids in my high school graduating. Bruce Jenner is from New Canaan, Conn., Bob Mathias from Tulare, Calif., and Rafer Johnson from Kingsburg, Calif." Toomey's theory is that small-town boys have to carry a heavy athletic load in their communities and possess a zeal for playing many sports.
Before Johnson came along, Milton Campbell of Plainfield, N.J., won in 1956, despite pole vaulting almost 20 inches below his personal best. Campbell had missed out on making the team as a hurdler, but he capitalized on a strong hurdles race in the decathlon, which he led throughout.
Johnson, injured in 1956, beat his UCLA teammate C. K. Yang of Formosa in 1960, even though Yang bettered him in seven events. Jenner's performance in 1976 was one of the most impressive in recent memory, as he set a world record and virtually assured himself of the gold after eight events.
Daley Thompson of Great Britain joined Mathias as the only other double champion in 1980 and '84, winning in Moscow when his chief German rival was absent, and in Los Angeles during another boycotted Games.
PAST DECATHLON WINNERS
Year Name/Country Points
1904 Thomas Kiely, Ireland 6036
1908 Event not held
1912 Jim Thorpe, US 8412
1914 World War I, games not held
1920 Helge Lvland, Norway 6803
1924 Harold Osborn, US 7711
1928 Paavo Yrjola, Finland 8053
1932 James Bausch, US 8462
1936 Glenn Morris, US 7900
1940 World War II, games not held
1944 World War II, games not held
1948 Bob Mathias, US 7139
1952 Bob Mathias, US 7887
1956 Milton Campbell, US 7937
1960 Rafer Johnson, US 8392
1964 Willi Holdorf, West Germany 7887
1968 Bill Toomey, US 8193
1972 Nikolai Avilov, USSR 8454
1976 Bruce Jenner, US 8617
1980 Daley Thompson, Great Britain 8495
1984 Daley Thompson, Great Britain 8798
1988 Christian Schenk, E. Germany 8488
1992 Robert Zemlik, Czechoslovakia 8611
Source: 1996 Sports Illustrated Sports Almanac