In the 14 months since Bruce Jenner won the decathlon gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, he has become a product, boxed, packaged and marketed by a regiment of specialists. Hollywood gave him a screen test. Television introduced him to cue cards. Madison Avenue signed him up. At his speaking engagements, business executives weep unabashedly as he speaks of the hardships he overcame during training. He has even become a master at imbuing the most inane interview with charm and wit. Jenner has been coiffed, polished and groomed, then run up the flagpole to see if anybody would salute. They would—and do. Just check your local listings.
On the evening of July 30, 1976, Jenner burst across the finish line in Montreal to complete the decathlon's final event, the 1,500-meter run. His arms were upraised and a scream was on his lips, celebrating both victory and a world record of 8,618 points. The four-year pilgrimage was over. Jenner walked out of the stadium a different person, disdaining even to pick up his vaulting poles. Never again would he need them.
Jenner now is as absorbed in ledgers and balance sheets as he once was in the decathlon scoring tables, but he is still in a race for the gold. According to conservative predictions his income for 1977 will be more than $500,000. Jenner and his wife Chrystie no longer have to worry about the price of dog food for their golden Labrador Bertha. They are living in a beautiful house in Malibu, one of the addresses in Los Angeles, but are looking for better digs in the neighborhood. Jenner drives a $35,000 Porsche Turbo Carrera and has three motorcycles. He earns as much as $5,000 for a speech; the photograph showing him with arms upraised in victory is on the front of Wheaties boxes the world over; his autobiography, Decathlon Challenge, has already sold 20,000 copies. Soon you will be able to dress in a Bruce Jenner line of clothing. He has a budding career with ABC-TV as a sports commentator, and if Hollywood needs a new Six Million Dollar Man, Jenner is interested. All of this recalls the moment in Montreal when Jenner knew for certain that he would win the decathlon. He lay down in the infield after scoring 15'9" in the pole vault, put a towel over his face and cried tears of joy and relief. Leonid Litvinyenko, a Russian decathlete, walked over to him, raised the towel and said with a wry grin, "Bruce, you going to be millionaire?" Jenner laughed.
Nadia Comaneci being unavailable for promotional purposes, Jenner has become the Montreal Games' most marketable hero. Not all Olympic superstars have been able to cash in on their fame. Jesse Owens, Johnny Weissmuller, Sonja Henie and Bob Mathias have had varying degrees of success, but many have flopped, most conspicuously Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at Munich but was a fish out of water on television both as an actor and doing commercials.
September 25, 1977
Now 27 and living in Los Angeles, Spitz said recently, "I'd rather say I was a has-been than a never-was." He still has a few endorsements, mostly for swimming gear, is involved in industrial real estate and is writing a book, as well as periodically denying rumors that his marriage is breaking up. "Things are going well. Life isn't a bowl of cherries, but I look forward to solving any difficulties I run into. I can't complain. The reports of marital problems are totally false. I wish everybody could be as happily married as I am."
One morning this June, Jenner is sitting in the copilot's seat of a small plane taxiing onto the runway at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. "Listen to the jets," he shouts over the roar. "It's the same feeling you want at the starting line! Vrrrooom..."
He is on his way to North Webster, Ind., a little town between South Bend and Fort Wayne—a community so remote, says J. Homer Shoop, that there is no bus or railway service into it. Shoop is a 64-year-old North Webster banker who heads the International Palace of Sports, a hall of fame that is honoring Jenner today as its King of Sports. A big crowd is expected. Shoop says that North Webster is smack in the middle of a summer-resort area and that last Saturday night 500 people showed up for a chicken barbecue and square dance. Vrrrooom!
Jenner looks a bit alarmed when he hears this. He is not too clear what is to take place today, except that Chrystie is looking forward to seeing a picture of him with a crown on his head. It has been a typically busy week. On Sunday he did the commentary for ABC at a moto-cross event in Carlsbad, Calif. On Monday he spoke before a group of university athletic directors in Las Vegas. On Tuesday he spoke at a luncheon in Los Angeles to promote the Watts Summer Games, for which he is honorary chairman. Later that day there was a round of interviews and an evening appearance before a group of business executives. Then an all-night flight to Chicago, a few hours' sleep in a motel room, and now it is Wednesday and he is somewhere over Indiana. "I just show up at the airport, pick up my ticket and go where it says," Jenner says. "It all works out." In May, he was home three days.
At the Warsaw, Ind. airport there is a mobile home waiting and the Jenner party piles aboard. A police car, its siren making cows look up from their grazing, escorts the mobile home to the Lake Tippecanoe Country Club where the award luncheon will take place. "Out here is my part of the country," says Jenner to Shoop. "I grew up in a small town in Connecticut and went to a school in a small town in Iowa." Jenner always says the right things to people. When strangers first meet him, they expect him to wink, to show that he is only putting them on. How can one man embody so much good? But he is genuinely wholesome and exuberant; when a fashion photographer shot him recently, the impulsive Jenner stood on his hands in the studio. Lynn Swann, the wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jenner's close friend, likes to taunt him by telling sportswriters, "Bruce pours tequila on his Wheaties." However, Swann also notes that when Jenner drank too much white lightning at a party celebrating his new Malibu home, he was so remorseful that he and his Lab Bertha left the party and headed off to a nearby track where he ran two miles.
It turns out, however, that Homer Shoop is not what he at first seems to be. With Gardnar Mulloy he won the 1960 national Public Parks senior doubles title. He is also entranced with the legend of Camelot, and his hall of fame at North Webster looks like a castle, complete with turrets and what might pass for a moat. In fact, much of downtown North Webster is quasi-Arthurian. The Double Dip 'N Dunk It, a doughnut shop, lacks only a drawbridge, and The Rusty Armor Bakery and the Princess Beauty Parlor are big on medieval embellishments. Besides Jenner's coronation, two local youths who have won area sports competitions are to be knighted as Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad.
Standing in the doorway at the country club are comedian Phil Harris and ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel, who lives on the shores of Lake Tippecanoe and is one of the prominent figures in the International Palace of Sports. The men are wearing large white sashes across their chests. Harris' terms him the PRINCE OF PAGEANTRY. Schenkel's reads: KING ARTHUR. Jenner admires Schenkel and considers broadcasting the ideal career. "The only way to do it is to improve myself so they'll keep me on for the 1980 Games as Bruce Jenner, sportscaster, and not Bruce Jenner, former Olympic champion," he says. "I've got four years to prove myself."
For his induction, Jenner will wear a crown and hold a scepter and sword; he might be auditioning for one of those television margarine commercials. Later in the day parachutists will land on the lawn of Camelot Square, where the hall of fame is located. A wax figure of Jenner will be ceremoniously unveiled and his portrait will be displayed as he signs autographs and conducts an impromptu news conference.
The luncheon audience at the country club is composed of local businessmen and their wives, plus a gaggle of girls seeking to be named Queen of the Lake Mermaid Festival. Many are wearing platform shoes, high school class rings and clothes so new that they still have the holes in them from the tags. They cast sidelong glances at visiting celebrity Jenner, who has rarely stopped smiling since he walked into the dining room. When he is presented with a medallion approximately the size of a large pie that bears his likeness, Jenner quips, "Wonder if it'll fit in a parking meter?"
Listening to Jenner you get the feeling that with people like him around, the world will turn out all right after all. Men and women admire him equally, partly because he does not come across as sexually aggressive. In bantering with women, Jenner is disarming but never enticing. When a hard-eyed Las Vegas cocktail waitress spotted him earlier in the week, she sneered to George Wallach, Jenner's agent, "Has he had his Wheaties today?" His laugh is a giggle and he has a habit of referring to himself as the Kid, and speaks a dialect that might be described as Fraternity. And then there is the moral-uplift effect. He tells his rapt audiences that his wife Chrystie had to support him while he trained for the Olympics; that there was a hurdle set up in their living room; that he dreamed he was running in the Games, churning his legs in his sleep; that he consumed 57 vitamin pills a day. They can relate this stirring account of hard work to incidents in their own lives.
Jenner has one basic speech that begins with a reference to his recent motorcycle accident when he hurt his knee, requiring an operation. In North Webster, he is still wearing a cast and walking with a limp—a wounded knight. "Since the Games, things have been kind of up and down," he begins. "Insurance rates went up, Wheaties stock went down." For the past month, Jenner has started a good share of interviews, as well as almost every speech, in this fashion. Schenkel leans over to a luncheon companion and says, "He loves this, doesn't he?" And watching Jenner, it is easy to see that he does. His face lights up as he recounts the drama leading to the final hours at Montreal. A sports announcer could not set the stage or describe the action more expertly. The audience is hushed and attentive. Workers from the country-club kitchen stand in the doorway, peering in as Jenner speaks of reaching for that extra surge of adrenaline. By the time he leads the audience across the finish line and talks of preparing to ascend the steps for the victory ceremony, all eyes in the room are glistening and Shoop, for one, sits before him with tears streaming down his face. "...and then, walking out, I looked back at that empty stadium," concludes Jenner, "and I said, 'Thanks for the memories.' " Suddenly the entire room stands and begins applauding. Phil Harris is on his feet, murmuring, "Beautiful, beautiful," and nodding his head in approval. It makes people happy to know that Bruce Jenner is an American.
One of the first things you notice about Jenner is that he is so sure of himself; he is completely unflappable, a quality that probably stems from never defining his own limits. He believes that he can do whatever he wants to do. When concentrating, he is so single-minded that he becomes oblivious to his surroundings. At a 1975 meet in which he beat Olympic champion Nikolai Avilov and set the then world record of 8,524 points, he was so intense that he did not notice a wildly thrown javelin that almost speared him in the neck. And while signing an autograph, he forgot how to make a J. When he set out to win the Olympic gold medal, he was foresighted enough to plan to write a book about his triumph. Last spring he told The New York Times, "I knew going in that if I won the gold medal I wasn't going to be a dummy and let it slip through my fingers. There was a lot of money at stake and I knew if I played my cards right I could set us up for life. The whole ball game is to preserve your credibility and your image, not do something that makes you look like a fool." Since then, however, Jenner has softened his approach. "I don't like to talk about money," he says. "After the Games all they talked about was money, and for me, money was not a part of it. They talked about it more than they did the gold medal. And I didn't like that." In part, for Jenner, the money has become a way to keep score. If Bob Mathias makes $300,000 a year in lecture fees, Jenner wants to do as well. If O. J. Simpson gets so much per commercial, Jenner wants the same. It is another game that he is good at.
"This is how the system works," he says. "No. 1—George Wallach. George oversees everything. He's my right-hand man, my personal manager. From there, the William Morris Agency. The Wheaties deal...they handle all the big stuff. Next is Rogers & Cowan. They are the publicity people. They handle all the press. Their main function is to keep me out in the public, in the proper way. Next is a Speakers Bureau, which handles the college market. Then there is Leisure Concepts, which handles licensing and marketing for clothing lines: the shirts, shoes, sweat pants. And then there is the No. 1 boss, Chrystie Jenner. The Boss. She's a very strong, aggressive, determined lady." Chrystie, who also has written a book and is a burgeoning actress, got her nickname last year when she, Wallach, and Jenner's attorney Alan Rothenberg were interviewing potential accountants. One of the applicants was puzzled about her function in the operation and queried her about it. "Well," answered Chrystie, "I guess you could say I'm the boss."
Jenner has the ability to do 10 straight radio interviews and give each a distinctive flavor. And since the Olympics he has done thousands of them. He also has been given enough keys to cities to fill a locksmith's shop. Tarrytown, N.Y., Lamoni, Iowa, San Jose, Calif. and Newton, Conn. all held Welcome Home days for Jenner, and his high school in Newton named its football stadium Bruce Jenner Stadium. When Jenner took his medal to his bank to put it in a safe-deposit box, all the bank workers crowded around for a glimpse of it, as if it were a newborn baby. America likes its heroes pure and simple, and it has what it wants in Bruce Jenner.
"The money is not the most important thing," says Wallach. He is sitting in Mumm's, San Francisco's posh new private club. Jenner is in the Bay Area for a tour of a number of Macy's stores that are selling his clothing line as well as his book. That morning he also appeared on two television programs and a radio talk show. It was just a few years ago that Chrystie called up a San Francisco radio station and asked if her husband could be interviewed. "We don't interview people who beg for publicity," a staffer said frostily.
Now Wallach is explaining the joy he gets out of working with Bruce Jenner. "We're all going to make a lot of money, but the great thing was being in the center of the hurricane when a hero was born, that electric moment. Inside each of us there's got to be a little bit of Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack. And I've got to believe that Mark McCormack would rather be on the 18th at Augusta, sinking the winning putt. It's like the brass ring you always dream about. You want to be close to that moment, because after all, don't we all really want to be a hero?"
Even the Kansas City Kings of the NBA got into the act. President and General Manager Joel Axelson made Jenner the team's seventh-round draft choice this year, a whim to be sure, but another sign of his marketability. "Right now there is a trend toward the all-American look," Jenner told a group early in the week. "That healthy look. The Farrah-Fawcett look. I think we're getting back to it."
The only door that has not opened wide for Jenner is the one to movie stardom. After the Games he did a screen test for the role of Superman. Jenner flew to Rome and, wearing a cape and ski pants, his hair slicked down with mineral oil, read for the part. The verdict was that he photographed too young. "I never said I wanted to be a movie star," says, Jenner. "I never even was in my high school class play. But after the test was over, I said, 'Hey, that was fun. The Kid enjoyed it. I want to do it again.' " To that end Jenner is thinking of taking acting lessons, simply because he never is going to do anything that he cannot do well. "People would like to see you fail," he says matter-of-factly. "They're waiting to take a shot at you all the time, so I have to be careful."
This is how careful: a tennis neophyte, Jenner refuses to play against women, even his friend Linda Elliott, the girl friend of pole vaulter Dave Roberts and the girl Chrystie roomed with at Montreal. Jenner played a celebrity doubles match with Rafer Johnson against Ethel Kennedy and her sister-in-law Jean Kennedy Smith at Forest Hills last year, and Ethel hit him with an overhead smash when he tried to poach. Then when he attempted to hit her with the ball, the crowd booed. Jenner did not think it fair.
Jenner also considers it unfair to compare him with Spitz. "I certainly didn't look at his success or failure and do it any differently," he says. "I would have done things the same way if he had not even been in the 1972 Olympics."
Jenner was once an aspiring water skier, but he did so badly in a national competition in 1966 that he dropped the sport and switched to the decathlon. His latest transition seems to have gone just as well. "When I was training," he says, "I was my own boss. I got up when I wanted to and I trained when I wanted to and I got the job done. Now for the rest of my life I can be my own boss. I can determine what I'm going to do and I don't have to work for anybody."
And, with few exceptions, the Kid is pulling it off—and wowing his audience. Recently, while hurrying through the Los Angeles Airport, he jostled a matronly lady who scolded him furiously. Then she recognized the object of her ire. "I saw you in the Olympics and I liked you," she sputtered. "I see you now and I hate you." But then, that's show biz.