Is there any greater story about the American Dream—so bruised and battered in this godawful 21st century—than Bruce Jenner becoming a woman?
Since at least the days of Benjamin Franklin, we Americans have prided ourselves on being a chosen race for whom birth doesn’t equal destiny. As Walt Disney used to say, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” It’s safe to say that neither old Ben nor super-chilled Walt could possibly grok the 1976 Olympic Decathlon gold medalist’s decision to change from he to she, but they don’t have to. Nobody does, really, except Jenner himself and those closest to him. Which is another goddamned great thing about America.
“He is finally happy,” proclaims the cover line on People, which chronicles “a secret struggle and life-changing decision” and “how his family is supporting him.” (“Since his family currently uses the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to Jenner,” People explains, the magazine “is doing the same.”)
Through a thick fog of Kardashian-scented reality TV (god, how it burns!) and TMZ-ready fatal car crashes, it’s almost impossible to recapture who Bruce Jenner was and what he meant to America’s self-image during his athletic heyday.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Jenner didn’t just aspire to a Platonic ideal of late 20th-century American masculinity—he defined it for both sexes. He was shaggy-haired and amazingly muscled by the standards of the day; women wanted him and men wanted to be him. The Olympic decathlon, a boys-only competition of 10 track and field events spread over two exhausting days, decides who owns the title of “the world’s greatest athlete.” As with all international competitions during the Cold War, Olympic competitions were proxy battles with the Soviet Union every bit as much as Vietnam and other shooting wars around the globe.
The U.S. had long dominated the decathlon and had made national heroes out of such heterodox gold medal winners as Native American Jim Thorpe (1912, who went on to pro football and baseball greatness), the teenage phenom Bob Mathias (1948 and ’52, the first repeat winner, who parlayed his fame into a seat in Congress) and African American Rafer Johnson (1960, who battled his UCLA training partner C.K. Yang of Taiwan in what was considered the tightest matchup of all time).
By the ’76 games, American hegemony in the decathlon had stumbled as it had most everywhere else: economic success, international business, foreign affairs. The United States had won just a single decathlon gold medal in the three Olympics prior and at the 1972 games in Munich had been completely kicked off the medal winners’ platform. Worse still, the easy victor was a Soviet man-machine named Nikolai Avilov, who looked poised to win again at Montreal.
In the run-up to the Games, the American press focused on Jenner’s intense workout regimen—he trained full time!—and his stewardess wife’s willingness to work extra shifts to pay for his amateur sports status. (Back then, the Olympics were reserved for non-professional athletes and American journalists constantly harped on the fact that athletes in the U.S.S.R. and other communist countries were effectively paid to train as members of their countries’ armed forces.)
Jingoistic as that treatment was, this wasn’t simply two athletes meeting on a level playing field. It was David versus Goliath, one crazy dreamer’s ultra-long shot at a big win during America’s otherwise underwhelming bicentennial year (a year-long celebration in an age of expectations so diminished that President Gerald Ford’s “bicenntennial minute” clocks in at 41 seconds).
Jenner didn’t just win big in Montreal, he won massively, setting a new world record and dispatching Avilov to the Siberia of third place. “Awrright!” trumpeted Sports Illustrated on its cover, which featured Jenner’s arms raised in Olympic triumph, locks flowing, muscles rippling, eyes closed in a moment of pure ecstatic relief, release, and triumph, not just for him but for all the free world.
He was immortalized on the Wheaties box (famously parodied by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live), shared a hot tub with The Village People in Can’t Stop the Music, helped close out the series CHiPs, got married to a beauty queen connected to Elvis, and showed up in Playgirl as well (peace on him, such were the times).
Unlike the athlete dying young, Jenner had the misfortune of having to earn a living in which his athletic prowess was overwhelmed by his lack of acting talent. He resurfaced during the O.J. Simpson trial at the side of third wife Kris Kardashian and then emerged into a second phase of semi-stardom as the beleaguered dad on that family’s ongoing iterations of its reality TV franchises.
And now, at age 65, he is changing into a woman, retroactively explaining what was taken to be a slow-moving series of plastic-surgery disasters over the years. He’s “doing awesome,” one of his kids (he’s fathered a total of six) tells People, which stresses his children’s “unconditional support.”
Sometimes distance and time aren’t best measured in the miles or minutes by which Jenner won gold. Indeed, there’s no stopwatch or steel measuring tape that could possibly do justice to Jenner’s metamorphosis and self-directed evolution.
Or America’s, for that matter. In 1976, only one-third of us approved of interracial marriages, for Christ’s sake, and just 43 percent believed that gay and lesbian sex should be legal. Transgender was mostly the stuff of sitcoms.
Not anymore. The world is in many ways a shambles. The new century was ushered in with a slaughter of innocents that have mostly escaped art’s ability to deal with them and legitimated new horrors, including some committed by the U.S. itself. The economy, we hear, is on a perpetual skid, with robots replacing even Mexicans when it comes to jobs in the good old U.S. of A. China’s economy is bigger than America’s and Putin can knock over Obama with his breath. The middle class is shrinking faster than privacy, and on and on. But in such a mess there remain these bizarre and wonderful loopholes where anything can happen, where people can become exactly what they want to be.
“What is an American?” asked Jean Crevecouer in 1782, near the very start of the United States experiment in self-governance. The French immigrant noted that his adoptive country was a mixing chamber of all classes and nationalities, a place where Old World prejudices came to die and be reborn as endless possibilities. “The American is a new man,” he concluded, getting it only partly right—and setting the bar far too low for what we might become.