Bob Mathias (born 1930) was the youngest person ever to win the gold medal in the Olympic decathlon, a feat he accomplished in 1948 at the age of 17. He was also the first person ever to win two Olympic decathlons.
Bob Mathias was born on November 19, 1930, in Tulare, California, the second of four children born to Dr. Charles Milfred and Lillian (Harris) Mathias. With her first child a son, Lillian Mathias had her hopes set on a baby girl for her second child; it is said that she cried when she heard that her new baby was another boy. Even as a baby, however, Mathias displayed a phenomenal level of coordination, a hint of his future talent in sports.
When Mathias was 11 years old, he was found to have a shortage of red blood cells, and his father treated him for anemia. He had to take iron pills, eat a special diet, and take frequent naps to conserve his strength. By the time he entered Tulare High School, however, he had recovered from this illness and joined the football, basketball, and track teams. Within a short time, he was a star in every event he participated in.
By his senior year Mathias had gained a reputation as the best prep football fullback on the West Coast and had a nine-yard average per carry. On the basketball team he scored 18 points per game during his senior year and was an All-Stater. In track and field he was a winner in the shot put, discus, and 220-yard high hurdles; he also won the anchor leg on the winning relay team and tied for second in the high jump. Mathias further distinguished himself by winning the high and low hurdles at California's State High School Track Meet in 1948.
Mathias's coach at Tulare, Virgil Jackson, noted the young man's all-around talent and pegged Mathias as a natural for the decathlon, an event in which athletes compete in ten track and field events. The events include the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400-meter dash, all held on one day, followed by the 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500-meter run on the second day. Each event is scored according to a point system, and the athlete with the highest number of points after ten events is the winner. In the Encyclopedia of World Sport Frank Zarnowski noted that "Patience, a rigorous training regime, and long-term goals are necessary for multi-event success."
Jackson and Mathias didn't have time for any long-term training, because the Southern Pacific Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Games in Los Angeles were only three weeks away, but Jackson was confident that Mathias could learn the events and compete successfully. Mathias had never pole vaulted, thrown a javelin, long jumped, or run distance races, but he trained for the three weeks and won. Shortly after this, in late June of 1948, Mathias amazed onlookers by winning the National AAU championship and Olympic trials at Bloomfield, New Jersey. In doing so, he defeated experienced decathlete and three-time national champion Irving "Moon" Mondschein. His score of 7,224 points was the best in the world since 1940.
On his way to the 1948 Olympics in London, Mathias was the youngest member on any U.S. Olympic track and field team ever. He worked hard right up to the event, spending most of his time training. Unfortunately, training without allowing his body any recovery time caused elbow and knee injuries. These injuries, as well as the high caliber of the competition, made Mathias's prospects for a medal look dim.
At 7 a.m. on August 5, 1948, Mathias breakfasted on steak and orange juice, then headed to London's Wembley Stadium, where 70,000 spectators waited in a cold rain. Although he was not allowed to warm up before running his first event, the 100 meters, he managed to race the distance in 11.2 seconds, a tie with his own personal record for the event. On the broad jump he went over 23 feet, but fell backward. On his next try, he only made 21 ″ 8 1/2 ″ . This score was very low, putting him near the bottom of the field of 35 contenders. For the shot put, Mathias threw a distance of over 45 feet. However, because he unknowingly violated a technical rule in the way he stepped out of the shot put circle after the throw he was forced to settle for a distance of 42′ 9 1/4″.
Between events the rains continued, and Mathias waited for his high jump event wrapped in a blanket. Missing his first two tries, the young man began to worry. If he missed a third time, he would be disqualified. On the third try, however, he made it, sailing over at 6 ′ 1 1/4 ″, his best height ever. His last event, ten hours after the start of the day's competition, was the 400-meter run, which Mathias finished in 51.7 seconds. After a long, cold, wet, and exhausting day, the high school student from Tulare, California, found himself in third place in the Olympic decathlon.
On the second day of competition, a stiff and sore Mathias awoke to find that it was still pouring. His first event of the day was the 110-meter hurdles, which he almost botched by losing his balance. Losing speed during his balance mishap, he poured on the speed to complete the run, finishing with a personal worst time ever of 15.7 seconds. He threw the discus 145 feet, but competitor Mondschein's discus skidded across the wet grass, knocking Mathias's marker from the place where his discus had originally landed. For half an hour Olympic officials wandered over the field arguing about where Mathias's marker had been before positioning a new marker a foot and a half short of his actual throw. Despite this, the new distance of 144 ′ 4 ″ was good enough to put Mathias in first place, with a 48-point lead.
At noon Mathias was exhausted, cold, soaking wet, and hungry. However, officials refused to let him go to lunch, saying he might have to do his pole vault soon. They then divided the athletes into two groups, with Mathias in the second group. It would be six hours before it was his turn to vault. All the contenders had encountered difficulty with the pole vault because the pole and runway were slippery due to the rain. Mathias waited until the bar was over ten feet to take his turn. By now, it was twilight, the only light coming from the Olympic torch, flickering through the rain and a string of 50-watt bulbs lighting the stands. Although the contest became almost dangerous in these conditions, Mathias continued vaulting on higher and higher bars until he cleared 11 ′ 5 3/4 ″ . By now he was in second place, with only Ignace Heinrich of France ahead of him.
The next event was the javelin. It was night, and Mathias threw by the light of an official's flashlight, even losing his javelin in the dark. By the end of the event, however, he was only 189 points behind Heinrich. If he could win the 1,500-meter run, he would also win the gold. Exhausted, hungry, and suffering from pain in his foot and his stomach, a determined Mathias won the run with a time of 5 ′ 11 ″, earning 354 points to make his point total 7,139 compared to Heinrich's 6,974. As recorded by James D. Whalen in Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, sportswriter Allison Danzig commented of Mathias's performance: "In rain, on a track covered with water, in failing light, and finally under floodlights, it was an amazing achievement."
Barefoot, Mathias sloshed to the stands and hugged his mother, as his father and two brothers cheered him. According to Cordner Nelson in Track's Greatest Champions, he assumed that all decathlons were held in such grueling conditions, and told his father, "No more decathlons, Dad ever again." After the win, according to Larry Schwartz of ESPN.com, a reporter asked Mathias what he would do to celebrate. Mathias replied, "I'll start shaving, I guess." He then immediately went to sleep, and had to be awoken the next day so he could participate in the victory parade. He received a congratulatory telegram from President Harry S Truman, was besieged by a crowd of 5,000 people at the airport on his return home, and was the star of a victory party in his hometown of Tulare.
After winning the Olympic decathlon, Mathias graduated from high school and enrolled at Kiski Preparatory School in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. He intended to make up for his lack of scholastic achievements, which did not match his athletic ability. Mathias was at Kisco for only a year before he was flooded with offers of college scholarships, based on his outstanding athletic ability. In 1949 Mathias enrolled at Stanford University, but didn't play football until his junior year. In that year, he led the team to its first Pacific Coast Conference title in 11 years. From there he went to the Rose Bowl, which Stanford lost to Illinois. According to Nelson, when Stanford coach Jack Weiershauser was asked how Mathias could be so good at so many events without much training, he responded: "He just does it, that's all. Especially when we need it. It's all in his mind."
At the national AAU championships in 1950, Mathias set a world record with a win of 8,042 points. Officials later revamped the point system, revising his total to 7,444 points, but still a world record. Two years later, at the 1952 AAU championships held at Tulare, Mathias was determined to win again. This event was the final trial to determine who would be on the U.S. Olympic team at the 1952 games, to be held in Helsinki, Finland. He won with a world record-setting score of 7,829 points, far beyond his previous record of 7,444.
At the 1952 Olympics, the veteran Mathias was favored to win, and he did. He beat his own world-record decathlon score by earning 7,887 points, 912 points ahead of second-place contender Milton Campbell, also from the United States. According to Whalen, Mathias's comment after winning was, "I've never been so tired in my life."Although often compared to famed U.S. decathlete Jim Thorpe, Mathias beat all of Thorpe's decathlon event records except for the 1,500-meter run.
A year after his second Olympic victory, Mathias retired from amateur competition, remaining undefeated in the decathlon. He married Melba Wiser, a drama major at Stanford. The couple had three daughters. Mathias served two-and-one-half years in the Marine Corps and later became a member of the U.S. Marine Corps reserve. He appeared in four films, one of which, The Bob Mathias Story, was about his own life. He also was a star of a television series. In 1961 Mathias and his wife founded a sports camp for boys, and started a similar camp for girls in 1969. Remaining a popular figure in his state, Mathias served as a Republican representative to the U.S. Congress from California's 18th District from 1967 to 1974. After serving in Congress he was appointed director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs and eventually headed the National Fitness Foundation. He was also president of the American Kids' Sports Association. In 1974, he was inducted in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame as a charter member. He also became a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Encyclopedia of World Sport, edited by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, ABC-Clio, 1996.
Hanley, Reid M., Who's Who in Track and Field, Arlington House, 1973.
Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions, Houghton, Mifflin, 1995.
Nelson, Cordner, Track's Greatest Champions, Tafnews Press, 1986.
"Boy-Wonder Mathias Elevated Decathlon," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/ (December 20, 2000). □