Decathlete Mathias defends the indefensible
Winning the Olympic decathlon title is one of the most demanding challenges in sport. Defending the title has remained beyond the dreams of all but a tiny handful of athletes.
Doing so requires the ability to maintain incredible levels of technique, strength and stamina over a period of many years. It also needs some luck. Decathletes tend to be bedevilled by injuries due to the extreme physical pressures to which they have to subject their bodies. Staying fit and healthy is often the hardest part of the challenge.
At Helsinki 1952, the USA’s Bob Mathias set out to do something no other decathlete had ever achieved before. Four years earlier in London, as a 17-year-old prodigy, he had been the surprise winner of the decathlon gold. Now, though, everyone knew about him, and the expectation was that he would win again.
His status as hot favourite was hardly surprising. His decathlon record sheet read: competed in nine, won nine. And in the course of those victories he had twice broken the world record. He was fit and healthy going into the Games, and was bolstered by the knowledge that he had a strong team behind him.
In the end, Mathias’ greatest rival turned out to be his US team-mate Milt Campbell, who led after the first two events. But Mathias then asserted himself in the third event, the shot put, winning it with ease, and was equally commanding in the other two throwing events, the javelin and discus.
Mathias ended the two days of competition with another world record total of 7,887 points, putting him more than 900 points clear of Campbell in second. Amazingly, his score after just eight of the ten events would still have been enough to see him take the silver.
Still just 21, Mathias effectively retired from competition after Helsinki. He later became a “goodwill ambassador” for the USA, and subsequently pursued a career in politics, going on to serve eight years in the US Congress.