Bob Mathias: American decathlete (1930 - 2006)
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Bob Mathias
American decathlete

Bob Mathias

Bob Mathias
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Bob Mathias
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Robert Bruce "Bob" Mathias (November 17, 1930 – September 2, 2006) was an American decathlete, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the event, a United States Marine Corps officer, actor and United States Congressman representing the state of California.

Early life and athletic career

Mathias was born in Tulare, California. He attended Tulare Union High School, where he was classmates and long time friends with Sim Iness, 1952 Olympic discus gold medalist. While at Tulare Union, Mathias took up the decathlon in early 1948, at the suggestion of his track coach, Virgil Jackson. During the summer after his high school graduation, he qualified for the United States Olympic team for the 1948 Summer Olympics held in London.

In the Olympics, Mathias's naïveté about the decathlon was exposed. He was unaware of the rules in the shot put and nearly fouled out of the event. He almost failed in the high jump but was able to recover. Mathias overcame his difficulties and won the Olympic gold medal. At 17, he was the youngest gold medalist to win a track and field event.

Mathias continued to fare well in decathlons in the four years between the London games and the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. In 1948, Mathias won the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete, but because his scholastic record in high school did not match his athletic achievement, he spent a year at The Kiski School, a well-respected all-boys boarding school in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. He then entered Stanford University in 1949, played college football for two years and was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Mathias set his first decathlon world record in 1950 and led Stanford to a Rose Bowl appearance in 1952. After graduating from Stanford in 1953 with a BA in Education, Mathias spent two and a half years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was promoted to the rank of captain and was honorably discharged.

At Helsinki, Mathias asserted himself as one of the world's best athletes. He won the decathlon by 912 points, an astounding margin, and established a new world record, becoming the first to successfully defend an Olympic decathlon title. He returned to the United States as a national hero. His 7,887 point total at the Helsinki Olympics remained the school record at Stanford for 63 years, finally broken in 2015 by a freshman, Harrison Williams. In 1952, he was, therefore, the first person to ever compete in an Olympics and a Rose Bowl the same year. After the 1952 Olympics, Mathias retired from athletic competition. He later became the first director of the United States Olympic Training Center, a post he held from 1977 to 1983.

He and his wife Melba can be seen on the 29th April 1954 edition of You Bet Your Life. During the discussion he mentions a forthcoming film in which the couple played themselves, called The Bob Mathias Story. He also starred in a number of mostly cameo-type roles in a variety of movies and TV shows throughout the 1950s. In the 1959–1960 television season, Mathias played Frank Dugan, with costars Keenan Wynn as Kodiak and Chet Allen as Slats, in the NBC adventure series The Troubleshooters, which focused twenty-six episodes on events at construction sites. In 1960, he also appeared playing an athletic Theseus in an Italian "peplum," or sword-and-sandal, film: Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete.

Political career

Between 1967 and 1975, Mathias served four terms in the United States House of Representatives as a Republican, representing the northern San Joaquin Valley of California. (These were the same eight years in which Ronald Reagan served two terms as Governor of California.) He defeated Harlan Hagen, the 14-year Democratic Party incumbent, by about 11 percent in the 1966 election. This was not too surprising, since this area had started to pull away from its New Deal Democratic roots.

Mathias was re-elected three times without serious difficulty, but in 1974, his district's boundaries were radically altered in a mid-decade redistricting. His district was renumbered as the 17th District, and picked up a large chunk of Fresno while losing several rural areas. Mathias was then narrowly defeated for re-election by John Hans Krebs, a member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Mathias was one of several Republicans swept out in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

From June to August 1975, Mathias served as the Deputy Director of the Selective Service. Mathias was also involved in the unsuccessful 1976 Presidential re-election campaign of President Gerald Ford.


Bob Mathias was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, and died as a result in Fresno, California on September 2, 2006 at age 75. He is interred at Tulare Cemetery in Tulare, California. He was survived by wife Gwen; brothers Eugene and Jim; sister Patricia Guerrero; daughters Romel, Megan, Marissa, and Alyse Alexander, and son Reiner.


Year Comment
November 17, 1930 Bob Mathias was born, the second of four children (including older brother Eugene, younger brother James, and younger sister Patricia), to Dr. Charles and Lillian Mathias.
1948 At age seventeen, graduated from Tulare high school after an illustrious high school athletic career in football and track and field. Wins National Decathlon Championship at Bloomfield, N.J. According to the movie (starring himself and his wife) "the Bob Mathias Story" he actually did not have enough credits to graduate from high school, after concentrating solely on all the events of the decathlon- and get into Stanford, so his parents sent him to a prep school out of town where he could make up his academic shortcomings and get into college, as he wanted to be a Dr like his father and older brother Eugene.

He qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team and went on to win gold medal in decathlon at the Summer Olympic Games in London, England.

After huge celebration and parade in Tulare, presented with "Key to the City" by Mayor Elmo Zumwalt. Enrolls at Kiskiminetas Prep School, Saltsburg, Pa. Honored with the James E. Sullivan Award, presented each year to America's top amateur athlete.

1949 Won National Decathlon Championship at meet held in Tulare.

Enrolled at Stanford University, where he starred in track and field and in gridiron football.

1950 Won National Decathlon Championship at a meet held in Tulare.
1951 Mathias played football during junior and senior years at Stanford. In the University of Southern California vs. Stanford football game, Mathias returned U.S.C.'s Frank Gifford's kick-off 96 yards for a touchdown.

Spent the summer at U.S. Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, California.

1952 On New Year's Day, he played fullback for Stanford University in the Rose Bowl.

Won the National Decathlon Championship and Olympic Trials at meet held in Tulare.

Won the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon at Helsinki, Finland, setting a world record.

1953 Graduated from Stanford and commissioned as a 2nd Lt in the U.S. Marine Corps. Drafted by the Washington Redskins, though he never played in National Football League.
1954 Married his first wife, Melba. They later had three daughters, Romel, Megan, and Marissa. Mathias and his wife starred in the movie The Bob Mathias Story.

Entered active duty in the Marine Corps as a Second Lieutenant.

1954–56 Visited more than forty countries as America's Good Will Ambassador.
1956–60 Continued work for the State Department as a Good Will Ambassador to the world.

Acting career took off, employed by John Wayne's Batjac Productions. Starred in the movie "China Doll" with Victor Mature, the TV series "The Troubleshooters" with Keenan Wynn, as King Theseus in the movie "Theseus and the Minotaur" and in the movie "It Happened in Athens," opposite Jayne Mansfield.

1966 Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican, serving four two-year terms.
1974 Lost his re-election for fifth term.
Inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame
1976 Mathias and Melba are divorced.
1977 Appointed director of U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Bob and Gwendoyln Alexander married. Gwen has one daughter Alyse, from a prior marriage to Bill Alexander, former U.S. Congressman. Bob also has a son, Reiner, from a prior relationship.

Tulare high school stadium renamed in Mathias's honor.

1983 Appointed executive director of the National Fitness Foundation.
Inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame
1988 Returned to the Central Valley, in rural Fresno County.
1996 Olympian Sim Iness died. He was Mathias's high school classmate and teammate at the 1952 Olympics.

Doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in Mathias's throat.

June 6, 1998 "Across the Fields of Gold," a tribute dinner honoring Mathias on the 50th anniversary of his first Olympic medal, was held in Tulare. More than 300 people from throughout the state attended, including Olympic medal-winners Sammy Lee, Bill Toomey, Dave Johnson and Pat McCormick, and Sim Iness' widow, Dolores.


  • The Bob Mathias Story (1954) - Bob Mathias
  • China Doll (1958) - Capt. Phil Gates
  • Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete (1960) - Prince Teseo
  • It Happened in Athens (1962) - Coach Graham (Last appearance)

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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