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Mathias, Robert Bruce ("Bob")

MATHIAS, Robert Bruce ("Bob")

(b. 17 November 1930 in Tulare, California), track and field athlete who was the first to win two Olympic gold medals in the decathlon and, at the turn of the century, remained history's youngest male Olympic track and field champion.

Mathias was the second of four children of Charlie Milfred Mathias, a physician, and Lillian Harris Mathias, a homemaker. He was born a few months after the family relocated from Oklahoma to Tulare, a small town in California's farming-rich San Joaquin Valley. His father had been a tackle at the University of Oklahoma in the 1920s, and all of the Mathias children exhibited athletic prowess. Mathias suffered from anemia in early childhood, so his father prescribed large doses of iron pills and built a minitrack in the family backyard, complete with jumping pits and throwing circles. By the time Mathias was twelve years old he was able to high-jump five feet, six inches. "We knew we had an athlete on our hands," remarked his mother.

At Tulare Union High School, Mathias starred at basketball (averaging eighteen points per game his senior year), football (as a running back), and track and field (as a hurdler, sprinter, and thrower). On Mathias's seventeenth birthday, the track coach Virgil Jackson suggested that he begin working on additional events like the javelin and pole vault. After Mathias's senior track season (1948), Jackson suggested that his versatile star try the decathlon. Neither knew all ten decathlon events. "Work hard at it, and I bet you make the Olympic team … in 1952," Jackson said. The two-day, ten-event decathlon is designed to determine track and field's most versatile athlete; its champion is universally known as the world's greatest all-around athlete. Each athlete must compete in the 100-meter sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400-meter race on day one. On the following day the athlete contests the 110-meter hurdles (42-inch barriers), discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500-meter race.

Surprisingly the six-foot, two-inch, 190-pound Mathias won the Southern Pacific Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) decathlon in early June 1948, qualifying him for the Olympic trials in Bloomfield, New Jersey. His high school and the local Elks club raised funds to send him to the trials, where he again won, sending him to the Olympic Games in London, England. Three months shy of his eighteenth birthday, the unflappable Mathias, under cold and rainy conditions, totaled 7,139 points (under the 1934 International Association of Athletics Federations [IAAF] tables) to become the youngest male ever to win an Olympic track and field gold medal. He was awarded the 1948 Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. When asked what he would do for an encore, Mathias reportedly replied, "I'll start shaving, I guess."

That autumn Mathias enrolled at the Kiski(minetas) School, a preparatory school in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, to enhance his grades; in autumn 1949 he enrolled at Stanford University in California, where he pursued both football and track. Mathias dispelled any notion that his London performance was an aberration by annexing the 1949 and 1950 national AAU decathlon titles—the latter in front of hometown fans, with a world-record score of 8,042 points. On the gridiron his ninety-six-yard kickoff return for a touchdown led Stanford to a 1951 win over the University of Southern California and into the 1952 Rose Bowl. At age twenty-one, now six feet, three inches tall and 204 pounds, he went back to Tulare in July 1952 and rewarded an enthusiastic home crowd by winning the combined AAU nationals/Olympic trials with a second world decathlon record. So vast was his improvement that he posted new lifetime bests in eight of the ten events.

Twenty-four days later at the Helsinki Olympics in Finland, Mathias overcame a leg injury to record his second Olympic victory and his third world record (7,887 points on a new set of IAAF scoring tables). He became the first athlete to play in the Rose Bowl and win an Olympic gold medal in the same year. He then retired from the decathlon undefeated, a four-time national champion, three-time world record holder, and two-time Olympic champion, all by age twenty-one.

Mathias graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in education in June 1953, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1954, when Allied Artists decided to produce a movie about his life, they cast about for someone to portray him. The studio searched for someone bright, with matinee-idol good looks, who was also a good athlete—they selected Mathias himself, and the role cost him his amateur standing. During his two-and-a-half-year stint in the marines he served as a goodwill ambassador to numerous Third World nations. On one U.S. State Department tour of the Far East, Mathias presented a javelin to an unheralded Formosan teenager named C. K. Yang, who went on to break the decathlon world record in 1963. After three seasons without competition or training, Mathias won the 1956 interservice decathlon, scoring 7,193 points (without running the 1,500 meters) and illustrating that he would have been a contender, had he been allowed, for the 1956 Olympic title.

Mathias married Melba Wiser in June 1953; they had four children. He subsequently had a movie and television career and established the successful Bob Mathias Sierra Boys Camp. He then served four terms (1967–1975) in the U.S. House of Representatives for California's Eighteenth Congressional District. A Republican, he lost his seat in the Democratic sweep of the post-Watergate era. President Gerald R. Ford, who was the Republican leader of the House of Representatives in 1966 when Mathias came to Washington, D.C., said of him, "You were initially attracted by his name, his presence, and appearance, but once you got to know him, it was his sound judgment that was very impressive." Many of Mathias's final-term legislative efforts focused on solving the amateur sports dispute between the AAU and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). His efforts resulted in the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, passed after he left Washington. From 1977 to 1983 Mathias served as the director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and subsequently as the executive director of the National Fitness Foundation. Mathias and Wiser divorced in 1977; he married Gwen Haven on 31 December 1977.

Mathias's place in sporting history would have been secure had he done nothing but win the 1948 Olympic decathlon. Of that experience Paul Helms of the Helms Athletic Foundation said it best: "We sent a boy over to do a man's job, and he did it far better than any man ever could." During Mathias's decathlon career he was acknowledged as the world's greatest all-around athlete. He was honored by a dozen halls of fame, including the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame. A half-century after his Olympic triumphs, his name remained one of the most recognizable in sport.

Mathias's candid memoir, A Twentieth-Century Odyssey: The Bob Mathias Story (2001), was written with Bob Mendes. Mathias's decathlon career is chronicled in two books by Frank Zarnowski, The Decathlon: A Colorful History of Track and Field's Most Challenging Event (1989), and American Decathletes: A Twentieth-Century Who's Who (2001). Chris Terrence, Bob Mathias: Across the Fields of Gold (2000), offers numerous family photos and quotes from peers. Dwight Chapin, "Before There Was Dan and Dave There Was Bob," Los Angeles Times (5 July 1992), is a clever newspaper piece. The film The Bob Mathias Story (1954), produced by Allied Artists and starring Mathias, emphasizes his Olympic success and ends with his enlistment into the U.S. Marine Corps.

Frank Zarnowski

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