Boy-wonder Mathias elevated decathlon
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

Sports are filled with true-life fairy tales, stories that are more amazing than fiction. But even accepting that premise, the rise of Bob Mathias almost defies belief.

 Bob Mathias
Bob Mathias competed in the Rose Bowl and in the Olympic decathlon in the same year.

One day the 17-year-old Californian is a regional prep star. A few months later, he's a national hero. Before 1948, Mathias had never participated in a decathlon. That summer in London, he won the Olympic gold medal in the grueling 10-event competition.

Quite an accomplishment for anybody, but especially for someone who suffered from anemia in early childhood and had to live on special diets, pop iron pills, and take frequent naps to conserve his strength. He also suffered from the typical childhood illnesses -- chicken pox, measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever.

Mathias overcame all and became a high school track star in, among other events, the discus, shot put, high hurdles, high jump and sprints. For a new challenge his coach suggested that Mathias expand his versatility and compete in the decathlon.

If ever a coaching suggestion hit the target, this was it. Mathias became the youngest men's winner of a track and field event in the history of the Olympics in 1948 and four years later he became the first to win consecutive Olympic decathlons. Unbeaten in 11 decathlons in his career, he won four national AAU championships and three times set world records.

In 1952, the 6-foot-3, 204-pounder became the only athlete to ever play in the Rose Bowl (for Stanford) and compete in the Olympics in the same year. From 1967 through 1974, he served four terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican Congressman from California.

He was born on Nov. 17, 1930 in Tulare, Calif., a small farming town of 12,000. When his mother learned that he was not the daughter she had been hoping for (there already was one son), she cried. His father was a doctor and former tackle at the University of Oklahoma, who encouraged his three sons and one daughter to participate in sports.

Though anemic, Mathias displayed what has been described as an amazing sense of coordination almost from infancy. The Mathias backyard was used for track events, and by the time Bob was 12, in his last year in grade school, he could high jump 5-6.

At Tulare High School, the muscular Mathias played basketball four years (averaging 18 points as a senior), was an outstanding fullback for three years, and won some 40 first places in track, including being the California Interscholastic Federation discus and shot put champion in 1947. The next spring, Virgil Jackson, Tulare's track coach, suggested that Mathias, who by then was 6-foot-2 and weighed 190 pounds, try the decathlon in the Southern Pacific AAU Games in Los Angeles.

Mathias agreed, even though he had only three weeks to prepare for the event and had never competed in the pole vault, long jump, javelin or 1,500-meter run. At the start, he had difficulty clearing eight feet in the pole vault. But with the help of a track manual, Mathias became competent in the pole vault as well as the javelin.

He won the competition with comparative ease. Then, with financial contributions from the folks in Tulare, he traveled was across the country to Bloomfield, N.J., where, two weeks later in June, he was the surprise winner of the National AAU (which served as the Olympic Trials). He beat three-time national champion Irving "Moon" Mondschein by 123 points.

At the Olympics, the unknown Mathias was in third place among the 39 athletes from 20 countries after the first day. The second day's competition started at 10 a.m. on August 6 and didn't end until 12 hours later because of bad weather and general confusion. When Mathias wasn't competing, he spent most of his time huddling under a blanket as he sought to protect himself from the cold and heavy rain.

The discus was Mathias' specialty, and he responded with the best throw of the day at 144-4. It put him into first place. Before the javelin throw, the next-to-last event, cars were driven into Wembley Stadium and their headlights were turned on to illuminate the foul line because there were no infield lights.

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The final event was the 1,500 meters, contested in the gloomy darkness over a wet and clinging track. When a weary Mathias staggered across the finish line in 5:11, he was the Olympic champion. In just his third decathlon, the 17-year-old had registered 7,139 points, the only competitor to surpass 7,000.

"In rain, on a track covered with water ... in fading light, and finally under floodlights, it was an amazing achievement," wrote Allison Danzig in The New York Times.

When asked how he planned on celebrating, the teenager said, "I'll start shaving, I guess." He was so tired he went right to sleep and had to be awakened the next day to take part in the victory ceremony.

When people in Tulare heard on the radio that Mathias had won, the town celebrated. Factory whistles and fire sirens blared for 45 minutes. A spontaneous parade of cars clogged the downtown area and the nearby interstate highway.

Mathias won the 1948 Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. Because his scholastic record in high school did not match his athletic achievement, he spent a year at the Kiski School in Salzburg, Pa., before enrolling at Stanford in 1949.

He abandoned an early resolution not to play football, and played two seasons as a fullback. In November 1951 against Southern California, in the showdown for a Rose Bowl berth before 96,130 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Mathias scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 96-yard kickoff return, to spark Stanford to a 27-20 victory. Less than two months later, Mathias played in the Rose Bowl (which Stanford lost 40-7 to Illinois).

In 1952, he won his fourth National AAU championship, a feat never before accomplished. The weather in July was better in Helsinki, Finland, than it had been in London, and so was Mathias' performance. He beat his career bests in the javelin (194-3) and the 1,500 meters (4:50.8) in romping to his second gold medal. In breaking his own world record by 62 points with 7,887 in a revised scoring system, he triumphed over teammate Milt Campbell by a whopping 912 points, the largest margin in Olympic history.

Mathias was selected as the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year for his performances. He was later elected to the National Track and Field and U.S. Olympic Hall of Fames. His career after graduating Stanford in 1953 was as versatile as the ability he showed competing in the decathlon. He became an officer in the Marines, acted in Hollywood films, and was a director of his own boys' camp before being elected to the U.S. Congress in November 1966. He served four terms being losing his reelection bid in 1974.

After Congress, he was director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and, later, of the National Fitness Foundation. He also served as the president of the American Kids Sports Association.

About the Olympics, Mathias once observed rather shrewdly: "Years ago, in the days of the Greeks, wars were postponed to make room for the Olympic Games. In modern times, the Games have been postponed twice -- to make room for wars."