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On This Date in Sports July 26, 1952: Mathias Repeats

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

American Bob Mathias becomes the first man to win the decathlon in back-to-back Olympics, leading an All-American sweep at the Helsinki games, as Milt Campbell takes the Silver and Floyd Simmons wins the Bronze. Mathias sets a World Record with 7,887 points, breaking his own World Record, set two years earlier at the Olympic record set by American Glenn Morris at the 1936 Berlin Games.

Bob Mathias was born and raised in Tulare, California. A terrific athlete, he began competing in the decathlon in his senior year of high school. Just months after graduating, Mathias qualified for the U.S. Olympic team at the age of 17. Still a relative novice in the decathlon, he nearly was eliminated during the shot put, as he nearly fouled out due to not being familiar with the rules. He also struggled in the high jump but recovered to become the youngest Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist of All-Time. He would later win the James E. Sullivan award given to America’s top amateur athlete.

The Decathlon is one of the premier events in the Olympics as the winner earns the unofficial title “World’s Greatest Athlete.” Composed of ten separate track and field events, the Decathlon test speed, endurance, and strength competed over two days. Competitors compete in both sprints and long-distance races as it starts with 100-meter, followed by the long jump, shot put high jump, and 400meter on the first day. On day two, the athletes run in the 110-meter hurdles, Discus Throw, Pole Vault, and Javelin Throw, with a 1500-meter race being the finale.

Between his Gold Medal in London and the Helsinki Olympics, Bob Mathias enrolled at Stanford University, where he became a member of both the track and field team and the football team. In 1950, Mathias set his first World Record at the National Decathlon Championships in his hometown in Tulare. On the gridiron, Mathias was just as thrilling returning a kickoff against USC’s Frank Gifford and later playing in the 1952 Rose Bowl. He was eventually drafted by the Washington Redskins but chose not to play in the NFL.

A few months after playing in the Rose Bowl, Bob Mathias returned to the Olympic stage in Helsinki, Finland becoming the first athlete to play in the Rose Bowl and compete in the Olympics. The first day of competition in the Decathlon proved to be grueling for Mathias as he strained a muscle in the long jump competition. Competing with a bandage the rest of the way, Bob Mathias showed the heart of a champion as he clawed his way to the top of the leaderboard, winning the shot put and discus. When he soared to nearly 14 feet in the pole vault, Mathias not only clinched the Gold Medal but had the World Record in reach. The 1500-meter run, taking place in nearly complete darkness, was essentially a victory lap for Bob Mathias as he ran a time of 4:50.8 to set a World Record with 7,887 points, finishing 912 points better than Milt Campbell, who won the Silver Medal with 6,975 points, while Floyd Simmons completed the American sweep with 6,788 points for the Bronze Medal.

Following the Helsinki Games, Bob Mathias retired from athletic competition despite being just 21-years-old. He later served in the U.S. Marine Corps and dabbled in acting, starring in a movie based on his own life. In 1967, Bob Mathias went into politics, serving his home area of North Central California in the U.S. House of Representatives. Mathias would serve four terms in Congress before being swept out of office with several other republicans as part of the fallout from Watergate in 1974. After losing his seat, Mathias became a member of President Gerald Ford’s administration, serving as the head of selective service. Following Ford’s defeat to Jimmy Carter, Bob Mathias was appointed director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He was later inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.  Bob Mathias died at the age of 75, on September 2, 2006, after a decade-long battle with cancer.