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Jock of All Trades : Olympian-Politician-Businessman Bob Mathias Now Focuses on Kids in Sports

May 07, 1988|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

Bob Mathias says winning isn't everything. Can you believe it?

After all, even as a kid, Mathias was one of the world's most successful athletes. He was the Olympic decathlon champion when he was just 17.

Nevertheless, he wants to tell Orange County and the world that kids don't have to finish first for sports to be fun.

Mathias is president of the nonprofit American Kids Sports Assn., which from July 1 to 10 will stage the 1988 Earth Games--a sort of a glorified, exaggerated playground romp where, as the saying goes, it doesn't matter if you win or lose.

Children from the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China, Cuba, East and West Germany, Japan, Canada and the United States will flock to Irvine to participate in events ranging from baseball and table tennis to soccer and volleyball.

In the end, everyone will get on the winner's platform.

Can this be? Mathias never shared a winner's platform with anybody.

We're talking Bob Mathias here. The world's greatest athlete. The first man ever to win two Olympic gold medals in the decathlon. The personal representative of President Eisenhower to the 1956 Olympic Games. The director of his country's first Olympic Training Center. Four times elected to the House of Representatives. A key figure in the reelection campaign of President Ford. A Wheaties cover boy. A hopscotch player.

A hopscotch player?

Therein lies the secret. Even though his name became synonymous with winning, Mathias as a youngster played sports the same way any kid of the era did: strictly for fun.

"I played marbles and hopscotch," said the Laguna Niguel resident, fondly recalling his childhood in Tulare in California's San Joaquin Valley. "And kick the can up the mountains; hide-and-go-seek."

"When I was 13 and under, I really wasn't in organized sports," Mathias said. "I started formal sports when I was a freshman in high school, when I was 14. Before that it was playground sports and doing it for fun."

This is not to say that Mathias was not competitive. He loved winning his 1948 Olympic gold medal. And he loved even more winning the second gold four years later.

But if you want to see Mathias' eyes really light up, ask him about a 1961 movie some of you may have forgotten: "Theseus and the Minotaur."

"I played Theseus," Mathias will tell you. "I was the main lead, and they really had a cast of thousands. It was a period of costumes--'Samson and Delilah,' 'Ben Hur.' They had great big sets. It was a hell of a big picture. In color. It turned out good."

What did others think? Well, a New York Times movie critic called it a "dubbed Italian costume epic" and the latest in an "inexhaustible flow of bibulous battles between slaves and sirens that Italy is rolling off the assembly line."

OK, OK, so "Theseus and the Minotaur" didn't win any Academy Awards. Let's allow this fellow some leeway.

After all, Mathias has been to winning what gold is to medals. He may not have threatened Clark Gable at the box office, but in Mathias' athletic career he treated competitors like Theseus treated minotaurs.

But during his preteen years it was participation, not winning, that Mathias valued.

"My parents never did stress winning," he said. "I had no rewards for winning. I'm sure they thought it was great, but there was absolutely no pressure on me whatsoever."

Even later in organized competition, winning was not demanded of the gifted young Mathias, who competed in 10 decathlons and won them all.

"During my high school period--when I was out for football, basketball and track, even in my senior year (when) I was winning most of that stuff . . . there was no pressure.

"And that's why it was fun for me."

The life and times of young Bob Mathias may seem out of kilter today, with the current emphasis on competitive, organized youth sports.

But Mathias is banking that his Earth Games will appeal to kids because they love to participate, regardless of whether they win or lose. Accordingly, there will be 18 "demonstration sports," such as roller skating, bicycle and skateboard stunts, obstacle-course running and the old playground standby, dodge ball, which are more often associated with fun than winning.

"The objective is not to have the Olympic Games competition," said Mathias at the association's headquarters on the 17th floor of the Irvine Marriott. "The logo is 'Participation Is Victory,' so participating is the main thing."

Appropriately for an event headed by Mathias, the Earth Games will be organized like a decathlon, with youngsters competing in several sports, not just in those in which they excel.

"I'm sure some country will send their best 100-meter (runner). . . . That's fine, but we're not really looking for that. We're not looking for the best-in-the-world competition."

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