June 26, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford was sacred ground in middle of the 20th century. It was the home of the world's greatest athlete.
Bob Mathias announced himself as such by winning the decathlon gold medal at the 1948 London Games as a 17-year-old recent high school graduate. When he won it again as a Stanford student, in 1952 in Helsinki, it was his swan song in the sport, but not of his legend.
Mathias became the first to ever win decathlon gold twice - first with one of the most stunning results individual performances in sports, and finally with a world record in his final meet.
Mathias won all 11 decathlons he ever took part in and became a football star at Stanford after taking the sport up as a junior, five years after he last played the game in high school.
His name remains one of the most distinguished in American sport. Here's why:
Mathias never competed in a decathlon until eight weeks before the Olympic Games, and did so at the encouragement of his Tulare (Calif.) Union High School coach, Virgil Jackson. Even then, he learned to pole vault and throw the javelin from a manual, published in Finland.
He quickly proved to be a natural, winning the Pasadena-Southern Pacific AAU Games and U.S. Olympic Trials in succession to earn passage to London, where he was the youngest of the 38 competitors.
The opening of the two-day 10-event competition took place in a light rain and Mathias found himself in third place. But the second day took place in a downpour. There were 82,000 at Wembley Stadium earlier in the day, but by the time of the decathlon's final event, the 1,500 meters, there may have been 300.
The competition had taken 12 hours - seven hours alone for the pole vault - and the stadium had no lights. Only the Olympic torch and some flashlights provided the illumination as a soaked Mathias reached the finish line at 10:29 p.m. to complete the epic and unforeseen victory, fighting exhaustion, stomach cramps, and pain in his foot and elbow.
Asked how he would celebrate, Mathias said, "Start shaving."
Afterward, Mathias confided to his mother, "How did I ever get into this? I wouldn't do it again for a million dollars."
But by 1952, Mathias was well established. He set a world record in his hometown in 1950, and a draft board examiner proclaimed Mathias as "the most perfect human being I have ever seen."
At Stanford, he competed in five to seven events in a typical dual meet, and in football provided a number of highlights as a running back and kick returner. In a memorable 1951 game against USC, Mathias returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in a 27-20 victory that helped propel the Indians into the Rose Bowl.
In Helsinki, Mathias vowed to break the world record and then retire. The competition was so one-sided that the quest for the record indeed created the only drama. Mathias needed personal records in his final three events to do so, though a hamstring pull suffered during the long jump hampered his chances.
But Mathias set lifetime bests in the pole vault (13-1½), javelin (195-3 1/8), and 1,500 (4:50) to set the world record with 7,887 points, winning by an astounding 912 points.
Mathias completed his track career, but remained in the spotlight, starring in Hollywood in films such as "The Bob Mathias Story," and "It Happened in Athens" alongside Jayne Mansfield. He served in the Marine Corps, spent four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and became the first director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Mathias died in 2006 at the age of 75.
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Two other Stanford athletes have won Olympic track and field gold medals: Bob King in the high jump in 1928 in Amsterdam and Bill Miller in 1932 in Los Angeles.
King was not a favorite in 1928, but got some sound advice from his Stanford coach, Dink Templeton, who made the trip on his own.
The U.S. team was assigned to practice at the local police training grounds, which featured uneven footing and a sandy jumping apron. When Templeton saw the poor facilities, he told King not to jump at all until the competition.
Templeton feared that the soft surface would sap the strength from King's legs and predicted that the world-record holder, U.S. teammate and defending Olympic champion Harold Osborn, would perform poorly because he continued to jump on the soft surface throughout the week.
Sure enough, Osborn, whose best was 6-8 ¼, managed only 6-3 1/8 to finish fifth. King, meanwhile, won with a leap of 6-4 1/4.
King, Stanford's senior class president, went on to medical school and became a well-known obstetrician.
Miller captured the 1932 pole vault gold after a spirited battle with Shuhi Nishida, who set a Japanese record of 14-1 1/4. But it wasn't enough to match Miller's 14-1 7/8 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The graceful Miller was a three-time state champion for the San Diego High Cavers, but had never won a major vault title until the Olympics. World record holder Bill Graber jumped 13-7 1/4 and decided to pass at 13-9 1/4, a height cleared by three others. Graber re-entered at 13-11 1/4, but failed to clear the bar and was fourth.
Miller followed in a line of top Stanford pole vaulters that began with two-time Olympian Sam Bellah and continued with world-record holders Norman Dole and Leland Scott.
Finally, an Olympic nod should go to Payton Jordan, the Stanford coach who was the head coach for what many regard as the greatest track and field team ever assembled - the United States' men's national team of the 1968 Mexico City Games.
The U.S. team won 24 medals, including 12 gold, and set seven world records, including Bob Beamon's 29-2 ½ in the long jump.
Jordan had to wade carefully through a myriad of difficulties. First, the Olympics would take place at an altitude of 7,200 feet. Jordan helped in the decisions to limit athletes to one event to keep them fresh and to train in the altitude of Echo Summit at Lake Tahoe.
At the Games, U.S. black athletes threatened a boycott, though it never materialized. Finally, Jordan was alerted to the possible Black Power salute that Tommie Smith and John Carlos had in mind for the medal ceremony following the 200 meters. Jordan discussed the situation with them and ultimately allowed them to make their own decisions.
Jordan's deft handling of sensitive situations was just what the team needed in a volatile time.
"I will always think of how lucky I was to be given the honor of coaching the 1968 U.S. Olympic Track and Field team," Jordan once said. "We were fortunate to have the team chemistry that brought out the best performances by our men and women. I am very proud that, through all the adversity, our team turned in what some say is the best performance by any Olympic team in history."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics
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