Bob Mathias; Congressman, Twice Olympic Champion

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Bob Mathias, 75, who won the decathlon in the Olympic Games as a teenager and then went on to win it a second time and to represent a California district in Congress, died Sept. 2 at his home in Fresno. A family friend said he died of cancer.

Rep. Mathias served four terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican, from 1967 to 1974.

He was a high school student in Tulare, in California's steamy, sun-baked Central Valley, in 1948 when he began training to compete in that year's Olympics.

The '48 Games were to be held in London and would mark the resumption -- after 12 years -- of the world's premier international athletic competition, which had been suspended during World War II.

If the Olympics were regarded as the supreme test of the amateur athlete, the decathlon was considered the greatest challenge offered in the Games. It was argued that the winner of the Olympic decathlon, with its 10 track-and-field events, was the world's greatest athlete.

The competition required of Rep. Mathias skills in several events with which he was barely familiar, including the pole vault, long jump and javelin throw.

As the youngest member of the 1948 Olympic team, he was said at the time to be the youngest ever to represent the United States.

When Rep. Mathias, as a 17-year-old, struggled across the finish line of the final event, the 1,500-meter run, to win the gold medal, he became a national hero, honored for a demonstration of surpassing strength, versatility and endurance.

It was reported that when asked about how he would celebrate, he replied: "I'll start shaving, I guess."

His feat was described as all the more unusual because he had anemia as a small child.

Robert B. Mathias, whose physician father had played tackle for the University of Oklahoma, went on to carry the football for Stanford University as a fullback and to play in the Rose Bowl in 1952. Later that year, he again won the Olympic decathlon, this time in Helsinki.

After Stanford he served as a Marine officer, appeared in the movie "The Bob Mathias Story" and operated a camp for boys.

Bob Jennings, a family friend, said Rep. Mathias was drafted to play football for the Washington Redskins but never joined the team.

In Congress, he was called "a four-square conservative" by the Almanac of American Politics. He won his seat in 1966, when Ronald Reagan was elected California governor, and he was defeated in 1974, the Watergate year in which Republicans were swept from Capitol Hill.

He later directed the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Survivors include his wife, Gwen; four daughters; a son; and 10 grandchildren.

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