Sport Rugby

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Neil Francis: My fond memories when Bruce Jenner was the greatest athlete in the world

So many of the heroes of the bewitching Games of 1976 were not what they seemed, laments Neil Francis

Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn) won gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with a series of exceptional performances
Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn) won gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with a series of exceptional performances
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In the oppressive heat of that marvellous summer of 1976 you would have thought that most 12-year-olds in the capital would have been out at the beach or swimming points dotted up and down the Dublin to Wicklow coast, and I was, except for two weeks during that summer.

Nobody really saw me. I had vanished. 

It was the Olympics in Montreal — and I watched every second of it. I could tell you then who had finished tenth in shooting in the small bore category . . . but enough about Enda Kenny. The stars in my eyes. Lasse Viren, Alberto Juantorena, John Walker, Olga Korbut, Sean Drea, Ed Moses . . . and the entire Soviet bloc in women’s events. And then there was Caitlyn Jenner.

This piece is a quasi-exorcism, purely to set the record straight for myself, because my 12-year-old self needs to know about my heroes.

Eleven years ago I went to Montreal to see the Formula 1 Grand Prix. The Gilles Villeneuve track is as special as it is dangerous. Jenson Button had a big crash at our corner. A few days later I dragged the missus along for a tour of the Olympic Park and was crestfallen to find this empty, frost-bitten hulk of a stadium. The place was in such disrepair and the neglect and incongruity of the place fostered such a sense of diminishment — this place, in its unfinished pomp, was my 12-year-old field of dreams.

Because of the doughnut-style shape of the stadium and the fact that it was to host the Olympics, it was called the Big O. Latterly it was called the Big Owe because it virtually bankrupted the city, and a cigarette tax imposed to recoup the federal loans only finished in 2006. The doleful empty interior left you in no doubt why the MLB Montreal Expos left there in 2004 to go to Washington.

My missus wasn’t impressed. “This is where Lasse Viren . . . there is the point that Bruce Jenner . . . ah forget it.”

Years later she would know exactly who Bruce Jenner was, but my 12-year-old self knew he was the best athlete in the world. 

The first incision in the autopsy is the open knowledge that the 1976 summer Olympics were the last great dopers’ games. By that I mean that you could dope with impunity and never get caught. The Montreal Olympics were the first where steroid testing was introduced. For the testers it was like the Little Sisters of Mercy turning up at the swinger’s convention.

Apart from Annegret Richter of West Germany in the 100m, every gold in the women’s athletics events was won by Soviet bloc competitors. We subsequently found out that the East Germans had brought their own lab and doctors to pre-test their athletes to make sure that no traces of steroids would be found as they wound down their programmes in the immediate run-up to the games. 

Between 1968 and 1988, over 10,000 East German athletes were part of a systematic doping programme the scale of which we later learned was truly astonishing.

In the modern environment, even right up to the current day, we find that more athletes are caught using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) by border police, the FBI, whistle-blowers and disenchanted former athletes than by WADA laboratory doctors. 

And so little by little we find out what went on. In my view every Soviet bloc victory and medal should be expunged or rescinded.

We find out that the ‘great’ Lasse Viren was a blood doper for his 1972 and 1976 5,000m and 10,000m gold victories. My 12-year-old self has a blank, unblinking expression – tell me it ain’t so Joe.

Out of a pitiful 786 tests only 11 athletes were caught doping — most of them weightlifters who got their cycle wrong.

Retrospectively we have to ask how many of those performances were true. Flip over to the free world and ask the same questions. So many performances in those Olympics were corrupt you have to ask questions. Even my ultimate athletic hero Al Oerter, a four-time Olympic gold medal winner in the discus, took steroids.

The icon was Ed Moses. I set him out as the standard bearer of the true clean athlete, freakish talent and sublime competitor. If it ever transpires subsequently that there is the slightest doubt about him, recidivist sceptic that I am, a large part of my sporting soul would be eclipsed.

And then there was Jenner in the decathlon. His winning performances in Montreal in each of his 12 disciplines would have won him gold in the Irish National Championships in 1976 except the 1500m.

As a former discus and javelin thrower I know 50.04 metres in the discus and in particular 68.52m in the javelin is very good for a decathlete, further than I have thrown. You need to be pretty powerful to get those sort of distances. Anyone who was under 11 seconds in the 100 metres is pretty fast. I wonder how many of our international wingers could do it.

It didn’t help him that he was left-handed and left-footed. Jenner was dyslexic too. Jenner in bygone times would have been stigmatised for both characteristics. All of Jenner’s marks are world class for 1976. He was indeed a great athlete.

A while ago I watched a documentary on Jenner on ESPN Gold, made long before the Kardashian madness started. There were a number of people interviewed and Jenner’s training base at the San Jose track club was mentioned. Jenner trained week in week out in the weights room with American athletes Mac Wilkins and Al Feuerbach. Most people wouldn’t have a clue but as a thrower and a Montreal 1976 aficionado I can tell you that Wilkins was the gold medal winner in the discus and Feuerbach was a finalist in the shot putt. Both were specialist weightlifters and were highly accomplished in their field.

Bruce Jenner spent four years — from the time he came 10th in the 1972 Olympics to the time he went to Montreal — in that same gym as Wilkins and Feuerbach in San Jose, forging a deep bond with the place, which he went back to every year for decades after he left.

Jenner’s physique was exceptional. He was a powerhouse, lean muscle, powerful shoulders and biceps and great definition across the whole body. He was masculine, virile, aggressive and highly competitive; hard to reconcile that athlete with his current corporeal self.

It is faintly ridiculous to note that Wikipedia have stated on Jenner’s page that Caitlyn Jenner won the men’s Olympic decathlon championship!

Conversely Heidi Krieger, one of those 1970/80s East German athletes, took so much testosterone she is now Andreas Krieger and I would surmise that quite a few of her colleagues have gone the same way — those that didn’t die prematurely.

If I was able to beam myself back to 1976 and tell my 12-year-old self what emerged from the ashes of Montreal’s ruins, the explanation would be beyond any understanding of an adolescent. He just wouldn’t know or understand.

In 2015 I know but I am not sure I understand either.

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