- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Track and field has fallen into such disfavor in this country that the death of Bob Mathias causes barely a ripple in the 24-hour news cycle. It might help if I reminded everybody that Mathias was fueled by a breakfast steak, not “the cream” or “the clear,” when he won the Olympic decathlon in 1948 at age 17.

Granted, 1948 is a long time ago. And 1952, the year he won his second decathlon gold medal, is almost as distant. But there’s more to the public’s forgetting of Mathias than that. He’s also, I’m convinced, paying for the sins of Ben Johnson, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones and countless others in later generations who have damaged the sport’s credibility.

One of the beauties of the decathlon, Bruce Jenner once told me — and he could have been talking about all track events, really — is that “it’s standardized throughout history. You can compare your performance against Jim Thorpe’s.” It’s harder to make those comparisons, though, in an era of designer steroids and Human Growth Hormone. We just don’t know whether Gatlin is faster than Bob Hayes was or whether Jones could outrun Evelyn Ashford in her prime. Worse, fewer and fewer of us seem to care.

We should care about Mathias, though. In fact, we should care about him more than ever — hold him up as an example, even, of what an athlete is supposed to be. If track could somehow find its way back to Bob Mathias, to a time when the best man won — rather than the man with the best chemist — the sport might actually become relevant again.

Though I’m not quite old enough to have seen him compete, Mathias has always been a part of me. You see, two of the books I kept under my bed as a kid — and would read and reread until I practically had them memorized — were “100 Greatest Sports Heroes” and “100 Greatest Sports Feats,” both written by Mac Davis. Mathias was featured in the first as the “King of the Decathlon” and in the second as “The Olympian Prodigy” who won a gold medal as a high schooler.

I know this not because I have total recall but because a couple of years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I bought used copies of the books. The other day, after learning of Mathias’ death at 75, I broke out “Sports Heroes” and “Sports Feats” and reminisced. I was reminded that he “had a perfectly wretched childhood. Although he received the tenderest of care, he was anemic at seven and seemed vulnerable to every juvenile disease that came along. At one time or another, he suffered from chicken pox, measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever. … For years, [he] lived on special diets to counteract the effects of nosebleed and anemia. Until he turned 13, he was obliged to take frequent naps every day in order to conserve his puny strength.”

And to think, just four years later, he took up the decathlon at the suggestion of his track coach in Tulare, Calif. (population: 12,000), and, despite being a novice in many of the events, became the Olympic champ. The second day of competition, Davis wrote, “was the worst day in Olympic Games history. Dressed in a rain slicker and huddling under a blanket, Mathias remained on the field for 12 hours. … He had to pole vault with a pole too slippery to grip, he had to hurl the javelin when it was too dark to see the takeoff line, and when he was called to run the 1,500-meter race, it was already after 10 o’clock at night.”

Mathias dragged himself across the finish line in 5:11, which gave him enough points to edge France’s Ignace Heinrich for the gold. Afterward, according to Time magazine, his teary-eyed mother told reporters, “I don’t want my baby ever to do it again. It’s too hard.”

But, of course, her baby did do it again — and even better. In ‘52, he won by 912 points, an Olympic record.

The Redskins drafted Mathias in the 30th round that year — he’d starred at fullback for Stanford — but the Marines had drafted him first. When he was discharged, he tried acting for a while, moved over to the production side at a company owned by John Wayne and later served four terms as a California congressman. I finally got to meet him in 1994, during an appearance at the Naval Academy with America’s other living decathlon gold medalists. I didn’t tell him about “100 Greatest Sports Heroes,” but I did ask him about two-sport guys like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders — and how their feat compared to his.

“The decathlon isn’t just pure athleticism,” he said. “You really have some skill events. All your weight events are skill events. The pole vault is an extremely technical event. And the high jump has become a technical thing with the Fosbury Flop. It takes years and years to develop the necessary style and technique. Every event’s different. Some people say, ‘Gee, Michael Jordan, he’s fantastic. He’s trying baseball now and all this stuff.’ But he might not be able to cut it as a decathlon guy. A decathlon guy is special.”

And so was Bob Mathias.

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