Bob Mathias, who won the gold medal in the Olympic decathlon in 1948 at age 17, and again four years later, then later served four terms in Congress, died Saturday in Fresno, Calif. He was 75.
The United States Olympic Committee announced his death. The cause was cancer, his brother Eugene told The Associated Press.
“Bob Mathias was one of those rare individuals with the ability to inspire a nation through his determination and perseverance,” Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of theU.S.O.C., said in a statement.
By the time Mathias retired from decathlon competition in 1952, he had nine victories in nine competitions, four United States championships, three world records and two Olympic gold medals, all before he was 22.
He was so popular that his life became the basis of a 1954 movie, “The Bob Mathias Story,” with Mathias himself in the leading role.
“He is not only the greatest athlete in the world,” said Brutus Hamilton, the University of California track coach, “but he’s also the greatest competitor.”
He was also modest, clean-cut and self-confident, the epitome of the all-American boy. And yet his early boyhood showed little promise of athletic success. He was anemic and growing too fast, so his father, a doctor, prescribed iron pills, liver pills and a daily nap.
The regimen worked. By the time Mathias was competing in track and field in high school, he was 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, specializing in the shot-put and the discus.
Three months before Mathias graduated, his coach, Virgil Jackson, suggested that he might be interested in competing in a decathlon meet in Los Angeles. As Mathias recalled for Olympic Review in 1975, he said: “That’s great, Coach, it sounds like fun. But just one question: What’s a decathlon?”
As Mathias told American Track and Field in 2004: “Coach probably taught me out of a manual. What he told me to do worked.”
Mathias went to the Los Angeles meet and won, qualifying for the national championship two weeks later. He won that, too, beating the three-time champion Irving Mondschein and qualifying for the United States Olympic team. Four weeks later, two months after graduating from high school and six weeks after competing in his first decathlon, Mathias became the youngest man to win an Olympic track and field title.
In that Olympic decathlon in London, the second day’s competition lasted 12 hours in rain and cold. Between events, Mathias wrapped himself in blankets and raincoats. It was so dark for the next-to-last event, the javelin, that cars were driven into Wembley Stadium and headlights were put on so the officials and the athletes could see the foul lines.
Allison Danzig wrote of the victory in The New York Times that “in rain, on a track covered with water, on jumping and vaulting runways that were slippery and a bit risky, in fading light and finally under floodlights, it was an amazing achievement.”
President Harry S. Truman welcomed him home. Mathias received 200 marriage proposals and won the Sullivan Award as America’s outstanding amateur athlete.
“I wouldn’t do this again in a million years,” he said.
He did it again four years later, in Helsinki, Finland, as a Stanford University senior. He won again, by a huge margin, despite a pulled thigh muscle. He was the first Olympic decathlon champion to repeat.
Robert Bruce Mathias was born Nov. 17, 1930, in Tulare, a farming town in California’s Central Valley, and grew up there. He was a three-sport star in high school and went to Stanford, where he was also a football fullback. In 1952, he became the only athlete to compete in the Olympics and play in the Rose Bowl in the same year.
He graduated in 1953 and was an officer in the Marine Corps from 1954 to 1956. Later, he acted on television and in several movies besides “The Bob Mathias Story.” He owned and ran a summer camp for children, traveled as a good-will ambassador for the State Department and became a motivational speaker.
He is survived by his wife, Gwen; two brothers, Eugene Mathias of Tulare and Jim Mathias of Three Rivers, Calif.; a sister, Patricia Guerrero of Tulare; four daughters, Romel, of Twain Harte, Calif., Megan, of Colorado Springs, Marissa, of Folsom, Calif., and Alyse Alexander of Medford, Ore.; a son, Reiner Mathias of Sandy, Utah; and 10 grandchildren. From 1967 through 1974, Mathias served as a Republican from the Fresno area in the House of Representatives.
After leaving Congress, he became a full-time consultant to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and a part-time fund-raiser for the U.S.O.C. From 1977 to 1983, he was the first director of the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
In 1974, Mathias was elected a charter member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, and in 1983 he was enshrined in the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
Although Mathias won gold at the Olympics twice, the experiences were very different.
“There was no pressure the first time because I didn’t know any better,” he told The New York Times in 1982. “Nobody thought I would even finish. The second time was difficult because everybody put pressure on me and I got a lot of pressure from myself.”