Mathias Is Dubbed the “World’s Greatest Athlete”

At the fourteenth modern Summer Olympic Games, Bob Mathias of the United States won first place in the decathlon competition. Only seventeen years old, the decathlete’s performance in a diverse set of rigorous events led him to be considered the “world’s greatest athlete.”

Summary of Event

Bob Mathias was born and grew up in the farming town of Tulare, California. His father was a former athlete and recognized that Bob had advanced athletic skills compared to those of his peers, but Bob’s father was also a doctor. Dr. Mathias diagnosed Bob with anemia, which resulted in Bob having to take frequent naps and iron pills. Despite his anemia, Mathias was a star athlete in football, basketball, and track at Tulare High School. During his senior year of high school, he won five different events in a track competition, so his coach suggested that he try the decathlon after graduation. At that time, Bob Mathias was six feet two inches tall and weighed 190 pounds, but he still suffered from symptoms of anemia. [kw]Mathias Is Dubbed the “World’s Greatest Athlete” (Aug. 6, 1948)
[kw]”World’s Greatest Athlete”, Mathias Is Dubbed the (Aug. 6, 1948)[Worlds Greatest Athlete, Mathias Is Dubbed the]
[kw]Athlete”, Mathias Is Dubbed the “World’s Greatest (Aug. 6, 1948)[Athlete, Mathias Is Dubbed the Worlds Greatest]
Olympic Games;1948
Decathlon;1948 Olympics
Athletes;Bob Mathias[Mathias]
Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics]
Olympic Games;1948
Decathlon;1948 Olympics
Athletes;Bob Mathias[Mathias]
Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics]
[g]Europe;Aug. 6, 1948: Mathias Is Dubbed the “World’s Greatest Athlete”[02600]
[g]United Kingdom;Aug. 6, 1948: Mathias Is Dubbed the “World’s Greatest Athlete”[02600]
[c]Sports;Aug. 6, 1948: Mathias Is Dubbed the “World’s Greatest Athlete”[02600]
Mathias, Bob

In May of 1948, Mathias entered his first decathlon competition, the Southern Pacific AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Amateur Athletic Union, U.S. Games in Los Angeles, California. He had never before competed in the pole vault, long jump, javelin, or fifteen-hundred-meter run. He had to study a track instruction book to learn the recommended techniques for the pole vault and the javelin, but he still won the competition. Two weeks later, the trials to earn a spot on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team were held as part of the National AAU Track and Field Meet. Again, Mathias won the decathlon, thus earning a spot on the U.S. team. He beat the second-place finisher by 123 points.

At the Olympic Games of 1948, in London, England, Bob Mathias was the youngest member of the U.S. team. The Olympic decathlon was held in London’s Wembley Stadium on August 5-6. There, thirty-nine athletes representing twenty countries entered the decathlon. On day one of the decathlon competition, August 5, Mathias competed in the one-hundred-meter run, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump and the four-hundred-meter run. At the end of the day, he was in third place. The next day’s events began at 10:00 a.m. and did not end until 10:30 p.m. because of rain, fog, resulting schedule changes, and confusion by the officials. It was a cold and rainy day, diminishing the energy and endurance of the athletes, whose muscles were already tired from the exertions of the previous day.

The five remaining events were the 110-meter hurdles, the discus throw, the pole vault, the javelin throw, and the 1,500-meter run. Mathias was seen often that second day huddled under a blanket trying to resist the rain, cold, and fatigue exaggerated by his anemia. Sometimes, there were long waits between events, contributing to his muscle stiffness. Mathias took the lead for good, however, in his specialty event, the discus throw. He had the best discus throw of the day at 144 feet 4 inches. Wembley Stadium did not have lights, so the final two events, the javelin throw and the 1,500-meter run, would take place in the fading light of day, in darkness, and in fog.

Darkness fell over the stadium, and car headlights were used to provide enough light for the finish line area of the final event, the 1,500-meter run. Mathias summoned his last reserve of energy and willpower, running a very good time of five minutes and eleven seconds on a wet track. It was very newsworthy for an inexperienced seventeen-year-old to win such a demanding athletic event, but the story took on a surreal aspect as well for the witnesses. Running the last event in the darkness, one of a group of shadowy, ghost-like figures who were all but invisible, Mathias—dressed in a white uniform—appeared out of the darkness into the light and all but collapsed at the finish line.

Back in Tulare, hundreds of the hometown citizens were gathered in public areas listening to radio coverage of the decathlon, together cheering and celebrating the victory by their native son. The final standings of the decathlon, announced at the end of the competition, August 6, 1948, were: Mathias, United States, 7,139 points, gold medal; Ignace Heinrich, France, 6,974 points, silver medal; and Floyd Simmons, United States, 6,950 points, bronze medal. It is believed that when he finally got to bed later that evening, Mathias slept for most of an entire day. Later that year, he won the Sullivan Award Sullivan Award , an award voted to the United States’ most outstanding amateur athlete.

In 1949, Mathias was admitted to Stanford University and played on the varsity football team for two years. During his college years, he continued to train and compete in the decathlon, and he set a new world record in 1950. In 1952, Mathias again won the decathlon event at the National AAU Championships to qualify for the Summer Olympics Decathlon;1952 Olympics
Olympic Games;1952 in Helsinki, Finland. There, he became the first decathlete successfully to defend his gold medal, winning by a margin of 912 points over his American teammate, Milt Campbell, and establishing another new world record by 900 points.


After the 1952 Olympics, Mathias retired from track competition. During his career in track and field, he won all eleven of the decathlon competitions that he entered, including four AAU national championships. He was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983. In the fall of 1952, Mathias played fullback for the Stanford Stanford Cardinal (football team)
Football;collegiate University football team. In one game against the University of Southern California, played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, he scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter (one of which was scored on a ninety-six-yard kick-off return) before 96,130 spectators. Stanford won 27 to 20. A few weeks later, Mathias played for Stanford in the annual Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, California. He was named the Associated Press male athlete of the year.

For the rest of his life, Mathias remained a public figure and role model. He graduated from Stanford in 1953. In 1954, he played himself in an autobiographical Hollywood movie, The Bob Mathias Story, and acted in several other less significant movies. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954 to 1956 and in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1956 to 1965. He later was elected and served four terms as the U.S. Congressman from the Eighteenth District of California (1967-1975). From 1977 to 1983, he had the distinction of being the Director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is credited as using his fame and influence to raise significant funds to upgrade the training facilities and contributing to the success of U.S. Olympic athletes during and after his tenure.

Mathias became an American sports hero with a performance in the first Olympic Games to be covered on television. He went on to win a second gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Games and was the world record holder in the decathlon for several years. The decathlon consists of ten different athletic events performed over a two-day period, requiring the utmost skill, endurance, and strength while running, jumping, and throwing. The winner is considered by many to be the “world’s greatest athlete.” Mathias remained a prominent American role model, later serving in the Marine Corps and the House of Representatives and as director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado. Olympic Games;1948
Decathlon;1948 Olympics
Athletes;Bob Mathias[Mathias]
Track-and-field athletics[Track and field athletics]

Further Reading

  • Hoist, Don, and Marcia S. Popp. American Men of Olympic Track and Field. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. A book of interviews with many famous U.S. Olympic athletes, including Bob Mathias.
  • Terrence, Chris, and Randall Preister. Bob Mathias: Across the Fields of Gold. Lenexa, Kans.: Addax, 2000. A biographical account, richly illustrated, telling of Mathias’s track-and-field accomplishments and public life.
  • Zarnowski, Frank. American Decathletes: A Twentieth Century Who’s Who. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. An athletic history of 319 of the best decathletes from the United States, including Mathias.

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