Born Robert Bruce Mathias, November 11, 1930, in Tulare, CA; died of cancer, September 2, 2006, in Fresno, CA. Olympic athlete and politician. Bob Mathias overcame adolescent anemia to win two Olympic gold medals in the arduous decathlon event. He also represented California in Congress for four terms. Mathias, who also played in the Rose Bowl for Stanford University, was undefeated in eleven decathlons, captured four Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, and set world records three times. "There were better athletes, but not many," Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles Times sports columnist wrote in 1988. "There were guys who could run faster, jump higher, throw farther. But not all three at the same time." Mathias also acted, and played himself in the 1954 movie, The Bob Mathias Story.
Mathias was raised in Tulare, California, a farming community in the San Joaquin Valley. To battle his anemia, he took iron and liver pills, which his physician father prescribed, and took frequent naps. When he reached Tulare High School, he was 6-foot-2 and weighed 190 pounds. He averaged 18 points per game for his basketball team over four seasons, and nine yards per carry as a football run-ning back, but he was best in track and field, with the shot put and discus his specialties. He captured state championships in both events.
His track coach, Virgil Jackson, suggested he compete in the decathlon, a demanding competition featuring ten events. They involved "several disciplines that Mathias had mastered but some that he had never even attempted," Jerry Crowe wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Mathias and Jackson familiarized themselves with such events as the pole vault, javelin, and 1,500-meter run by reading textbooks. Mathias held the javelin "like a guy killing a chicken," Murray wrote.
Despite having only three weeks to prepare for the event, Mathias—then a high school junior—won the decathlon at the 1947 Southern Pacific AAU Games in Pasadena, California. Two weeks later, he won the AAU national event, which served as the Olympic trials at the time. His hometown friends raised money to help pay for his trip to Bloomfield, New Jersey, for that event.
At the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London, England, Mathias, then 17, overcame rain, heavy winds, and slippery surfaces to become the youngest-ever track and field gold medalist. He wrapped himself in a blanket between events while dominating his opponents during 12 hours of competition on the second day of the event. "It was so dark for the next-to-last event, the javelin throw, that cars were driven into Wembley Stadium and headlights put on so the officials and the athletes could see the foul lines," Frank Litsky wrote in the New York Times.
His hometown of Tulare celebrated his victory. "Factory whistles and fire sirens blared for 45 minutes after news of Mathias' victory came over the radio," the Los Angeles Times' Crowe wrote. President Harry S Truman welcomed the champion upon his return. Mathias won the Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. "I wouldn't do this again in a million years," he said, as quoted in the New York Times.
But he repeated in 1952, in Helsinki, Finland, becoming the first repeat Olympic champion despite competing with a pulled thigh muscle. He had added three inches and 15 pounds to his frame. Mathias also played fullback for Stanford in its 40-7 loss to the University of Illinois in the 1952 Rose Bowl, making him the first athlete to play in that bowl game and compete in the Olympics the same year. Stanford had qualified for the Rose Bowl two months earlier when Mathias scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 96-yard kickoff return, in a 27-20 victory over the University of Southern California at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Mathias graduated from Stanford in 1953 and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer from 1954 through 1956. He briefly made movies with the likes of Victor Mature and Jayne Mansfield, and operated a camp for boys. His television acting included starring in the series The Shooters from 1950 to 1960. He did not compete in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, because the AAU, the governing body for the U.S. Olympic team at the time, ruled he had to return his movie and endorsement proceeds. However, Mathias had already spent the money.
In the same 1966 election in which California voters elected Ronald Reagan as governor, Mathias, a Republican, defeated seven-term Democratic incumbent Harlan Hagen. Name recognition helped, though Mathias told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, "You still have to know your subject matter. You just can't run on your name and do a lousy job." Mathias, who considered himself a fiscal conservative, represented the Fresno region for four terms until he and other Republicans were defeated in the Watergate scandal-related sweep of 1974. From 1977 to 1983, Mathias was director of the U.S. Olympic Committee training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was also the executive director of the National Fitness Foundation and president of the American Kids' Sports Association, a nonprofit organization. Mathias was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame enshrined him in 1983.
Mathias died at his home in Fresno, California, on September 2, 2006. Earlier that year he had undergone cancer treatment at Stanford. He is survived by his second wife, Gwen; three daughters and a stepdaughter; and ten grandchildren.
Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2006, p. B14; New York Times, September 4, 2006, p. A17; Washington Post, September 4, 2006, p. B7.