Oklahoma decathlete narrowly missed a medal at the 1972 Olympic Games.
Jeff Bennett coaches Oklahoma Christian University multi-events competitor Audrey Hayes at the Oklahoma Baptist University Invitational Meet in Shawnee in March 2016.
Photos courtesy OC Athletics
One-time Olympian Jeff Bennett still vividly recalls when he first caught the track and field bug.
“I was watching the pole vault in the 1960 Olympics on our black and white television. I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” remembers Bennett, then 12 years old.
As a high school freshman, Bennett also took an interest in the long jump and hurdles. But the pole vault was his main event. As a senior, he won the state title after taking second place the two previous years.
He went on to Oklahoma Christian College (now Oklahoma Christian University), where he ran the 400-meter hurdles, winning the national meet his sophomore year as he simultaneously started training in the decathlon.
“I would high jump before practice and then try to throw the shot put or discus after my workout,” Bennett says.
He holds school records in the 400-meter hurdles and decathlon, was a four-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American and a member of the NAIA and Oklahoma Christian University Athletics Halls of Fame.
After graduating from OCC in 1970, Bennett accepted a teaching job in Midwest City but still planned to compete in decathalons.
However, just a month after school started, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Expecting to be sent to Vietnam, Bennett knew the Army had a track team and was looking for exceptional athletes to represent the military. By joining the team, he was relieved from an assignment in Vietnam. From March until the end of the summer Bennett served as an athlete. The rest of his days were spent as a filing clerk for the headquarter division.
“I look back at that as a true blessing,” he says. “I was going to teach school, work out on my own and pay my own way to the meets. The Army became my vehicle for training.”
While in the Army, Bennett seized the opportunity to participate in the 1972 Olympic trials and qualified. He says he felt intense pressure to perform well just to make the team going to Munich.
The day before the Olympic decathlon was scheduled to start, terrorists took several Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. Ultimately, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, a West German policeman and five terrorists were killed.
“It was like a roller coaster of emotions,” Bennett remembers. “No one knew what was going to happen. Would the Games continue? I realized, ‘If they cancel the Games, I may never get another chance.’”
Officials decided to resume the competition, but Bennett did notice a change. Soldiers with automatic weapons replaced the friendly guides at the gates.
Bennett, who was the smallest decathlon competitor at just 5 feet, 8 inches and 152 pounds, excelled in the running events and the pole vault.
Finishing third in the 100 meters, second in the 400 meters and winning the pole vault offset his lesser marks in the strength events such as the shot put and discus.
Going into the final event, the 1,500-meter run, Bennett was in a distant 13th place. But a courageous performance resulted in a second-place finish in the race that pushed him to fourth place overall — 10 points from the bronze medal.
A half-inch in the long jump or a 10th of a second in the 100 meters would have made the difference and earned Bennett a medal.
“I spent some sleepless nights thinking where I could have made up 10 points,” he says. “But I soon realized that it was just a tremendous experience to compete against the top athletes and finish fourth in the world.”
The next year, he won the Amateur Athletic Union national decathlon championship, but injuries prevented him from competing in the 1976 Olympics, and he eventually hung up his spikes.
Bennett served 30 years in the National Guard while teaching and coaching in the Oklahoma City area before retiring from public education.
But Bennett is still making an impact as an assistant track coach at Oklahoma Christian, where he also serves as associate dean of students.
The Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games will broadcast on NBC starting Aug. 5. The decathlon competition is scheduled for Aug. 17-18.