At the end of the decathlon competition at Munich four years ago, Russian Gold Medalist Nikolai Avilov was still catching his breath when a young man approached him, shook his hand and announced he would take Avilov's crown away from him at the next Olympics. "I took a good look," Avilov recalls. "Just think, a kid who had placed way down the list somewhere [tenth] threatening to beat me."
The threat was justified for the speaker was Bruce Jenner, now U.S. decathlon champion and holder of the world record since August 1975. The mark he broke was Avilov's. Last month at the U.S. Olympic trials, despite relatively weak performances in the shotput and pole vault, Jenner scored 8,538 points and broke the record again. No one else has ever topped 8,500 points. Avilov, meanwhile, has had limited competition since Munich; for a year he was without a coach, and last winter he strained a knee ligament, which slowed his training.
Avilov, 28, concedes that his Montreal face-off with Jenner, 26, will be "the toughest one of my life." A lawyer and father of a three-year-old boy, Avilov credits himself with one big advantage: the maturity of an athlete who has already conquered gold fever. Says he: "When I was a kid I dreamed of becoming an Olympic champion in something, in anything. I mean literally dreamed. I could see that little piece of gold in my hand. Now I've got it. But Jenner, he's too anxious to grab that medal away from me." Says Jenner of Avilov's composure: "He was so relaxed before the final event at Munich that he freaked me out. I would have been in a straitjacket myself."
After six years of running in the morning, lifting weights in the evening and working on technique in between, Jenner is eager to cash in on his training. A strikingly handsome man with chestnut hair, sparkling hazel eyes and a smile so toothsomely bright that it seems capable of tanning his exquisitely chiseled features, Jenner believes that a gold medal would ensure him lucrative advertising offers and possibly even a movie career. And if he wins the gold, Jenner, the son of a Connecticut tree surgeon, promises not to make the same mistake as Mark Spitz: "I'll show personality."
First, Jenner must prove that his balanced performance in the ten running, throwing, and jumping events that make up the taxing, two-day decathlon contest can overcome Avilov's excellence in three. Powered by his heavily muscled legs, Avilov (6 ft. 3 in., 191 lbs.) is expected to outscore Jenner in the long jump, high jump and the 110-meter hurdles. Jenner (6 ft. 2 in., 195 lbs.), who is more supple, has an edge in the pole vault, 100 meters and 1,500 meters. The 400 meters could go to either. In the throwing events, which involve both strength and speed, the two are evenly matched.