Bob Mathias’ emergence was one of the most spectacular ever experienced in the history of Olympic sport. In one of the most complicated disciplines, the decathlon, the American athlete surprised everyone by showing himself to be the strongest on the planet when he was only 17 years old. When he had just started training for it just a few weeks ago. An incredible story of immense and precocious talentwhich would not stop there.
Born in Tulare, California, on November 17, 1930, Robert Bruce Mathias did not have an easy childhood. At least, not when it comes to health. In addition to other common diseases in children in those years, such as scarlet fever or chickenpox, the little one Bob Mathias suffered from anemia. That made him constantly weak, and always underweight.
Luckily, his father was a doctor, which allowed him more attentive care, based on a strict diet, pills, and continuous napswith the aim that the child conserved his strength.
And when puberty arrived, Mathias not only managed to get over it, but he did it with enormous vitality. He began to practice athletics, and the extra effort that he had to make throughout his life now allowed him face the tests with sufficiency. And he was good at almost anything: speed, jumping, throwing… In addition, at Tulare Institute, Mathias also played other sports, such as basketball and American football.
Given so much sporting versatility, it is not surprising that his coach suggested he try the Decathlon. Although there were barely three weeks left until the National Championship, and despite the fact that there was evidence that he had never trained, Mathias accepted the challenge. And in Bloomfield, New Jersey, he proclaimed himself the best triathlete in the country.
That earned him a ticket to the 1948 London Olympic Games. Games that brought Olympicism back to the world after the Second World War. And he did it thanks to the exhibition of great athletes. Bob Mathias was, without a doubt, one of them.
The youngest medal
Mathias arrived in London without any pressure. We must not forget that he alone was 17 years old – he was the youngest athlete on the entire American expedition – and he did just a few months who had started training in the decathlon.
But, to everyone’s surprise, including probably himself, it was made with gold. With two first places – in the high jump and the discus throw – he would finish the event with 7,139 points. Bob Mathias became the youngest winner of any athletics event in an Olympic Games of all time.
Not only that. In 1950 he would get the decathlon world record by reaching 8,042 points in the national championship. He was the first decathlete to surpass 8,000 points.
And all this, while continuing to play American Football. In fact, in 1952 he would compete with Stanford University in the Rose Bowl. A historic appointment, by the way, since it was the first university football game nationally televised.
A historic reissue
But Bob Mathias’s sights were set on the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. An event that, as he himself would acknowledge, and unlike what happened in London four years before, came with great pressure.
A great pressure that he was able to transform into excellent performance. In 8 of the 10 tests he finished on the podium, winning four of them. He set a new Olympic record with 7,887 points. And he was a astronomical distance ahead of the second-place finisher (also an American, Milt Campbell, who eventually won the following Games in 1956), who was 912 points behind Mathias. The largest margin ever achieved in a Games.
Now, Bob Mathias made history again: he became the first decathlete to achieve two gold medals in two Olympic Games. Something that to date only the British Daley Thompson (in 1980 and 1984) and the American Ashton Eaton (in 2012 and 2016) have achieved.
A multifaceted career
After that iconic feat, Bob Mathias decided to retire. He was only 22 years old, but he thought that after two Olympic golds, four national championships, three world records, and eleven consecutive decathlons in which he was victorious, the time had come to leave athletics.
There has been much speculation about what he could have achieved. to have continued a few more years. If only he had been the only decathlete to win three Olympic golds. How many world records he would have broken. But that will never be known. What is known is what he did after his withdrawal. And it cannot be said that it went badly either.
After an unsuccessful attempt to become a professional in American football, despite being chosen in the Draft by the Washington Redskins, found his place in the world of cinema. First, with the movie “The Bob Mathias Story”, in which he acted alongside his wife, the well-known actress Melba. And from there would appear in numerous films, working alongside John Wayne or Jayne Mansfield; series, and television programs. Perhaps her most prominent role would be in the NBC adventure television series The Troubleshooters.
All this only increased the Bob Mathias fame around the world. His renowned figure as an athlete was now joined by that of a movie heartthrob. His travels, especially through Europe, were a constant.
And from there, to the United States House of Representatives. It was necessary to continue exploiting his immense popularity. For eight he would serve as a member politician of the California Republican Party.
Later, a period as Director of the recently created department of United States Olympic Training Centers, until 1983.
In 2014 it was included in the World Athletics Hall of Fame. Perhaps a late recognition, since Bob Mathias had died on September 2, 2006 after years of battling throat cancer.
But without a doubt a more than deserved recognition, for him who was the first great modern decathlete, the first winner of two consecutive Olympic golds, and the youngest decathlon champion in history.