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Jim Murray

Tulare's Best Became Best in the World

February 11, 1988|Jim Murray

There were better athletes. But not many. There were guys who could run faster, jump higher, throw farther. But not all three at the same time.

You want to talk running with the football? Bob Mathias once ran 96 yards for a touchdown against USC to put Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The last guy between him and the goal line was Frank Gifford, to give you an idea. He missed.

If basketball was your game, he was the original power forward. He threw in 18 points a night in high school in Tulare, Calif., and out-rebounded whole teams.

He could hit the curve ball, return the serve, he could putt a little.

But, what Bob Mathias really was, was a one-man track team. He didn't have to do much about it. God and nature anticipated him. Whatever a mountain lion could do, Bob Mathias could do. He was brought up in the sunshine and breezes of the San Joaquin Valley, where vegetables and men grow in size to twice the national average.

He won the first decathlon he ever saw. Two weeks before, he had never even had a javelin or a pole vault in his hands.

His form was atrocious. He gripped the spear like a guy killing a chicken. He went over the vault like a guy falling out of a moving car and his high jump looked like a guy leaving a banana peel. All he did was win.

He was like a guy dropping a handful of aces in the middle of a card game and saying innocently "Are these any good?"

People who had to work at it wanted to kill him. It was almost the old cliche: Someone strained and grunted and sweated--and put the shot. And, Mathias, passing by, picked it up and threw it back at his feet--underhanded. Four months after he took up the sport, he was beating the world at it--at the '48 Olympics in London. He was 17 years old. "We sent a boy to do a man's job," wrote the columnist Vincent X. Flaherty, "and he did it."

As if the process weren't daunting enough, the London decathlon was played out in a driving rain better suited to kayak pairs than pole vaulters. You almost needed a coxswain instead of a coach. "You couldn't even see the crossbar half the time," Mathias recalls. The shotput not only sank into six inches of mud, so did the shotputter.

The contestants sat under blankets between turns in the pit. "The only lights they had were for the dog track and most of our events were by flashlight. The British had just come through a war, and they didn't believe in spoiling you."

A decathlon has to be competed for in a 48-hour period, but Mathias remembers both days going on to the witching hour.

"I think there were two minutes left to midnight the day when we finished the pole vault in the rain." The 1,500-meter run, last event of the sport, was held in a blackout as dense as any in the blitz with Big Ben just about to boom 12.

Four years later, when he had time to perfect form and technique, Bob Mathias not only broke his own record, he won the decathlon by a whopping 900 points, more than anyone ever had or would.

He retired to try his hand at movies where he was no threat at all to Laurence Olivier and at politics where he went to Congress but stopped well short of the Oval Office.

"I was working for John Wayne's company when someone asked him to do a TV series and, when he turned it down, to recommend someone in his company. Unfortunately, he recommended Jim Arness. That program was 'Gunsmoke,' " Mathias says wryly.

No one had ever won two Olympic decathlons before. Now, the brave Brit, Daley Thompson, has. He will go for his third at Seoul.

It is a matter of history that Thompson won one Olympic decathlon boycotted by the West and the other boycotted by the East. It is also a matter of history that he beat one bloc in one Olympics and the other in the other.

He will be 30 years old, 9 more than Mathias was when he won his last decathlon. The man whose record he will break if he wins his third says, "My hat's off to him if he can do it."

Said Mathias: "Ours is the only country in the world that doesn't provide government funds for its athletes. We have to depend on donations by companies like Hilton. Imagine what it would mean to history if Jesse Owens never got to Berlin. What if Mark Spitz never got to Munich, or (then) Cassius Clay never got to Rome, or Billy Mills to Tokyo or Bob Beamon to Mexico?"

Or if Bob Mathias never got out of Tulare?

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