Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26, 1952: Mathias' second straight

HELSINKI, Finland - The light was fading, the competitors visible only because of the illumination from the scoreboard. The 21 competitors were running the 1,500 meters, the final event of the grueling two-day decathlon.

Among them was Bob Mathias, the defending Olympic champion in the event and probably the most well-known American athlete at the 1952 Olympics. The 1,500 was a struggle for him today, as he had badly injured his leg in the long jump the day before. But wasn't under a great deal of pressure to do well in this last event of the decathlon; his victory was virtually assured. He was running in an attempt to set another world record.

Four years earlier, Mathias competed in the London Olympics as a 17-year-old high school student. His age and inexperience showed; he was unclear on the rules for the shot put, to the point where he was very nearly disqualified, and he came close to failing on all his high jumps before finally posting a score. But Mathias put his early troubles aside and went on to win the gold.

Returning home, he enrolled in Stanford, where he played football. By appearing with Stanford in the 1952 Rose Bowl, Mathias became the first man to play in the Rose Bowl and compete in the Olympics in the same year. By the time the Helsinki Olympics came around, Mathias was well known, no longer the inexperienced high schooler of London.

There wasn't much question about whether Mathias would win the decathlon again in 1952. The only question was whether he would break the world record he set two years earlier. The leg injury he suffered in the long jump on the first day of the decathlon put that goal in doubt, at least for a while. But Mathias recovered, winning the event in a record score that would last for three years.

Interviewed after winning the event, shifting his weight from leg to the other in the fading Finnish daylight, Mathias told reporters that he had competed in his last decathlon. He was true to his word, retiring from all athletic competition at the age of 21.

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