Too bad Bob Mathias isn't with us any longer. He would have been 81 when the Summer Olympics begin Friday in London, where he won a decathlon gold medal at the 1948 Games, when he was 17. You would be hard-pressed to name another American better-suited to take part in the opening ceremonies — where ritual, symbolism and idealism unite without irony or hypocrisy, at least for a little while.
Of course high-profile sports events are never completely without corporate or political influence, and the Games, even back in 1948, were no exception. Three years after World War II ended, much of the world was still recovering from the horrors and wasn't in an all-forgiving mood: Germany and Japan were banned from participating. The Soviet Union chose not to send any athletes to the London Games.
Post-war England's economic struggles included food rationing. No Olympic Village was built. The athletes — 3,714 men and 390 women — and their coaches and support staff had to make do with existing accommodations. The Olympics of 1948, the first to be held since Hitler's Berlin Games 12 years earlier, became known as the Austerity Games.
As in any Olympics, several heroes emerged, including Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of three who won four gold medals; and Marie Provaznikova, president of the International Gymnastics Federation, who became the Games' first political defector when she sought asylum and refused to return to Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.
But for Americans, the 1948 London Games belonged to Bob Mathias, who came out of the San Joaquin Valley — tall, strong, swift, handsome, humble, articulate, with a searing competitive drive — but could have just as easily emerged from Hollywood central casting.
In fact, six years later, that's exactly what he did, starring in the title role of "The Bob Mathias Story."
If you've ever seen "The Bob Mathias Story," it's easy to snicker at its corniness — the all-American hero dramatically re-enacting his Olympic performance. It's easy to assume "The Bob Mathias Story" is sanitized, exaggerated — the California schoolboy wrapped in blankets and raincoats to protect against London's cold and rain as the second and final day of the grueling decathlon stretched into evening, and darkness descended on Wembley Stadium. It's easy to dismiss the goose bumps and patriotic pride as manipulative sentimentality, watching Mathias throw the discus and javelin and run the 1,500 meters, rallying to win Olympic gold.
But it's startling to discover that, if anything, "The Bob Mathias Story" is modest in its representation of Bob Mathias' story.
Covering the 1948 Summer Games for The New York Times, the esteemed sportswriter Allison Danzig wrote of Mathias' victory: "... in rain, on a track covered with water, on jumping and vaulting runways that were slippery and a bit risky, in fading light and finally under floodlights, it was an amazing achievement."
Mathias' victory came two months after graduating from Tulare Union High School and six weeks after competing in his first decathlon.
Four years later, in the 1952 Summer Games at Helsinki, some seven months after playing fullback for Stanford in the Rose Bowl, he won decathlon gold again, at 21.
"There was no pressure the first time because I didn't know any better," Mathias told The New York Times in 1982. "Nobody thought I would even finish. The second time was difficult because everybody put pressure on me and I got a lot of pressure from myself."