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Bob Mathias, 75; Decathlon Ace Was Actor, Congressman

September 03, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Bob Mathias, a small-town wonder from the San Joaquin Valley farming community of Tulare who was an unknown teenager when he won the first of his two Olympic gold medals in the decathlon and later served four terms as a U.S. congressman representing California, died Saturday. He was 75.

Mathias, who overcame childhood anemia to establish himself as one of the preeminent sportsmen of the 20th century, died at his home in Fresno at 3:30 Saturday afternoon, according to a family representative. The cause of death was not announced, but Mathias had reportedly been undergoing treatment for cancer at Stanford University earlier this year.

A remarkable athlete who also played fullback for Stanford in the 1952 Rose Bowl, Mathias was unbeaten in 11 decathlons in his career, four times won national Amateur Athletic Union championships and three times set world records.

He was 17 when his track coach at Tulare High, Virgil Jackson, suggested that he take up the decathlon, a grueling 10-event competition involving several disciplines that Mathias had mastered but some that he had never even attempted.

Within months, Mathias was an Olympic champion at the 1948 London Games and the youngest men's winner of a track and field event in Olympic history, touching off a spirited, spontaneous celebration back home in Tulare.

Four years later at the Helsinki Games, when he had had time to perfect his form and technique and had added three inches and 15 pounds to his muscular frame, the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Mathias became the first to win consecutive Olympic decathlons, outclassing the field by a whopping 900 points.

"There were better athletes," wrote the late Times columnist Jim Murray in 1988. "But not many. There were guys who could run faster, jump higher, throw farther. But not all three at the same time."

The handsome, blue-eyed Mathias was the first Olympic decathlon winner to cash in on his fame. He tried acting for a time, making movies with Victor Mature and Jayne Mansfield, playing himself in "The Bob Mathias Story" in 1954 and starring in the 1959-60 television series, "The Troubleshooters."

Mathias wanted to compete in the 1956 Summer Olympics, when he would have been 25, but the AAU, then the governing body for the U.S. Olympic team, ruled he would have to return the profits from his endorsements and first movie role.

But the money had been spent, so he continued acting and eventually moved on to politics as a Republican candidate for Congress, where name recognition helped him easily defeat the incumbent.

"You still have to know your subject matter," Mathias told a Times reporter in 1988. "You just can't run on your name and do a lousy job. You have got to work at it."

A self-described fiscal conservative, Mathias said of his time in Washington, "Probably the toughest part was getting used to going from sports, where everyone likes you ... to politics, where if 51% of the people like you, you can stay in office. In that world, people stomp on you and say bad things about you."

His eight-year political career ended in 1974, when Mathias and 56 other Republicans were voted out of office in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Later, he served as director of the U.S. Olympic Committee training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., executive director of the National Fitness Foundation and president of the nonprofit American Kids' Sports Assn.

Born Nov. 17, 1930, in Tulare, Robert Bruce Mathias suffered from anemia as a child. Napping frequently to save his strength, he lived on special diets and ingested iron pills. The youngster also suffered from more typical childhood illnesses -- chicken pox, measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever -- but from an early age Mathias displayed a high level of athleticism.

At Tulare High, Mathias played basketball for four years, averaging 18 points as a senior, and football for three, averaging nine yards a carry.

But it was in track and field that he was truly dominant.

As a junior in 1947, he won California Interscholastic Federation championships in the discus and shot put, prompting Jackson's suggestion that Mathias try the decathlon at the Southern Pacific AAU Games in Pasadena.

Though he had only three weeks to prepare for the event, had never before seen a decathlon and had never competed in the pole vault, long jump, javelin or 1,500-meter run, Mathias won the competition by a wide margin.

Two weeks later -- his friends in Tulare having helped finance a cross-country trip to Bloomfield, N.J. -- the high school senior unseated three-time national champion Irving "Moon" Mondschein to win the National AAU event, which served as the Olympic trials.

"His form was atrocious," Murray wrote years later. "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."

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