I never came close to eating Wheaties. For me the “Breakfast of Champions” was a large bowl of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes with ice-cold whole milk.
I know the iconic orange box mostly through the man whose image seemed to inhabit its packaging long after he won the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
Bruce Jenner is now transitioning into a woman, but he will remain to many of a certain age the world-record setting decathlete on the Wheaties box.
He is of those ’76 Games that gave us Nadia Comaneci, Edwin Moses, Sugar Ray Leonard and Leon and Michael Spinks, among others.
This was also the Olympics, where under the fog of a state-run doping program, that the East German women’s swimming team took gold in 10 of 11 individual races.
Twenty-eight African nations boycotted the Montreal Games after the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand from the Games after its All Blacks rugby team did a tour of the Apartheid-controlled South Africa.
Comaneci had seven perfect 10s on her way to becoming at 14-years-old the youngest all-around Olympic gold medalist ever in gymnastics. The Romanian prodigy was an international sensation.
Yet Bruce Jenner was the biggest American star. And he meant to capitalize on this newfound fame as soon as the Games were complete.
Jenner had sold insurance part-time while he trained for Montreal, because the Amateur Athletic Union, which then controlled track and field, didn’t permit athletes seeking to compete in the Olympics to accept appearance money or endorsements.
Jenner was in such a rush to begin making money that he left his pole-vaulting equipment behind at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
Not long after the Games, he became the Wheaties spokesperson. At the time, he was only the second athlete to serve as spokesman for the General Mills brand. Bob Richards, who won the golf medal in the Pole Vault at the 1952 and ’56 Olympic Games, was the brand’s first spokesperson from 1956 to 1970.
Since Jenner began representing the brand in 1977, only five other athletes have held that distinction.
Before Jenner, Wheaties had gone more than 20 years without featuring an athlete on its front cover. A good-conditioned ’77 Jenner Wheaties Box has been valued at much as $2500 on the collectibles market.
The global interests surrounding Jenner’s transformation into a woman is set against this image of him as the Wheaties man. When we talk about this person in transformation, we’re also grappling with what he represented on that cereal box.
Jenner was an All-American male hero who beat the defending Olympic champion, Mykola Avilov, a Russian, in the middle of the Cold War during America’s Bicentennial. Four years earlier, Jenner had finished 10th in the Munich Games. His face was on TV shows and commercials.
Not only was Jenner the world’s greatest athlete, he was also very outspoken on issues that would impact the future of the Olympic movement.
In a book he wrote a year after the Montreal Games, he challenged the U.S. Olympic system to treat its athletes better or face years of domination by the East Germans and the Soviet Union.
“In this country, unless an amateur athlete has a working wife or a wealthy family or a very tolerant boss, the odds are that he’s never even going to get a chance to try for a gold medal,” he said in “Decathlon Challenge: Bruce Jenner’s Story.”
“The notion of devoting your whole life to training for a single goal is very romantic, but the realities of life are something else again. You have to eat and pay rent and buy equipment, and you don’t do that by running amateur track.”
Jenner believed that the U.S. could learn from the Communist nations, both in sports medicine and how they approached the meaning of sport in society.
“Other nations approach track and field as a test of their social and political systems,” he said. “When an East German athlete beats an American, he’s not just a gold-medal winner. He’s a war hero.”
Bruce Jenner’s personal life is his business. He owes no one an explanation for why he’s now making this gender transition. He should become a force within the transgender community. Coming out now in this very public way marks the beginning of a new life for him and perhaps the opening of more dialogue around people grappling at all ages with making this decision about their lives.
Sure, there is a generation that only knows him from the reality TV show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” And there are others who will primarily associate the 65-year-old Mt. Kisco N.Y. native with his decision to live as a woman.
But the man on the Wheaties box is still very real to many us as if it were still 1976, and he is one of the biggest stars of the Montreal Games.