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Jock of All Trades : Olympian-Politician-Businessman Bob Mathias Now Focuses on Kids in Sports

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Times Staff Writer

Bob Mathias says winning isn’t everything. Can you believe it?

After all, even as a kid, Mathias was one of the world’s most successful athletes. He was the Olympic decathlon champion when he was just 17.

Nevertheless, he wants to tell Orange County and the world that kids don’t have to finish first for sports to be fun.

Mathias is president of the nonprofit American Kids Sports Assn., which from July 1 to 10 will stage the 1988 Earth Games--a sort of a glorified, exaggerated playground romp where, as the saying goes, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose.

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Children from the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China, Cuba, East and West Germany, Japan, Canada and the United States will flock to Irvine to participate in events ranging from baseball and table tennis to soccer and volleyball.

In the end, everyone will get on the winner’s platform.

Can this be? Mathias never shared a winner’s platform with anybody.

We’re talking Bob Mathias here. The world’s greatest athlete. The first man ever to win two Olympic gold medals in the decathlon. The personal representative of President Eisenhower to the 1956 Olympic Games. The director of his country’s first Olympic Training Center. Four times elected to the House of Representatives. A key figure in the reelection campaign of President Ford. A Wheaties cover boy. A hopscotch player.

A hopscotch player?

Therein lies the secret. Even though his name became synonymous with winning, Mathias as a youngster played sports the same way any kid of the era did: strictly for fun.

“I played marbles and hopscotch,” said the Laguna Niguel resident, fondly recalling his childhood in Tulare in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “And kick the can up the mountains; hide-and-go-seek.”

“When I was 13 and under, I really wasn’t in organized sports,” Mathias said. “I started formal sports when I was a freshman in high school, when I was 14. Before that it was playground sports and doing it for fun.”

This is not to say that Mathias was not competitive. He loved winning his 1948 Olympic gold medal. And he loved even more winning the second gold four years later.

But if you want to see Mathias’ eyes really light up, ask him about a 1961 movie some of you may have forgotten: “Theseus and the Minotaur.”

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“I played Theseus,” Mathias will tell you. “I was the main lead, and they really had a cast of thousands. It was a period of costumes--’Samson and Delilah,’ ‘Ben Hur.’ They had great big sets. It was a hell of a big picture. In color. It turned out good.”

What did others think? Well, a New York Times movie critic called it a “dubbed Italian costume epic” and the latest in an “inexhaustible flow of bibulous battles between slaves and sirens that Italy is rolling off the assembly line.”

OK, OK, so “Theseus and the Minotaur” didn’t win any Academy Awards. Let’s allow this fellow some leeway.

After all, Mathias has been to winning what gold is to medals. He may not have threatened Clark Gable at the box office, but in Mathias’ athletic career he treated competitors like Theseus treated minotaurs.

But during his preteen years it was participation, not winning, that Mathias valued.

“My parents never did stress winning,” he said. “I had no rewards for winning. I’m sure they thought it was great, but there was absolutely no pressure on me whatsoever.”

Even later in organized competition, winning was not demanded of the gifted young Mathias, who competed in 10 decathlons and won them all.

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“During my high school period--when I was out for football, basketball and track, even in my senior year (when) I was winning most of that stuff . . . there was no pressure.

“And that’s why it was fun for me.”

The life and times of young Bob Mathias may seem out of kilter today, with the current emphasis on competitive, organized youth sports.

But Mathias is banking that his Earth Games will appeal to kids because they love to participate, regardless of whether they win or lose. Accordingly, there will be 18 “demonstration sports,” such as roller skating, bicycle and skateboard stunts, obstacle-course running and the old playground standby, dodge ball, which are more often associated with fun than winning.

“The objective is not to have the Olympic Games competition,” said Mathias at the association’s headquarters on the 17th floor of the Irvine Marriott. “The logo is ‘Participation Is Victory,’ so participating is the main thing.”

Appropriately for an event headed by Mathias, the Earth Games will be organized like a decathlon, with youngsters competing in several sports, not just in those in which they excel.

“I’m sure some country will send their best 100-meter (runner). . . . That’s fine, but we’re not really looking for that. We’re not looking for the best-in-the-world competition.”

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The Earth Games will start a 26-week TV program by the for-profit arm of Mathias’ operation, the American Kids Sports Network. The program, which will be aired twice a week on ESPN, will be the first “children’s” show carried by the cable network.

“The competition is sort of the sidelight that gets them all together, but the show is really an educational show,” Mathias said. “It’s a sports show, but it’s a vehicle for the educational message.

“I’ve always wanted to work with kids. I always have, and I guess I’m still a kid at heart. It feels familiar and easy for me to work in that area. Plus, I love TV, so the whole thing fits together.”

Mathias has been at work for two years on this, his latest endeavor. A resident of Laguna Niguel with his wife, Gwen, since 1985, he is the image of what might be expected of a one-time 17-year-old decathlete who has reached age 57.

That he is a three-time grandfather and that his hair is gray are nearly his only concessions to age. He has the lean look of a habitual tennis player, and his 6-foot, 4-inch frame distributes its 225 pounds exactly the way 225 pounds should be distributed. Considering that 36 years ago, when he won his second gold medal, Mathias weighed 203, he hasn’t exactly let himself go to seed.

“When he walks in a room he certainly has a presence,” said Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion. “He’s a dynamic, still good-looking big guy.”

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Santa Ana physician Sammy Lee recalls those qualities about Mathias from when they first met 40 years ago.

“We made one hell of a pair . . . the long and the short of it,” recalls the 5-foot, 1 3/4-inch Lee, who won Olympic gold medals in diving the same years Mathias won his medals.

“Another thing that amazed me about Mathias . . . he grew 3 or 4 inches after he was 21.”

Lee and Mathias toured Southeast Asia on behalf of the State Department before the 1956 Olympics, putting on exhibitions of their skills.

“When we walked through the lobby of the hotel, you could hear all the women’s necks crack as they turned their heads,” Lee said. “I got tired of answering the room phone for him.”

The young, handsome Mathias not only attracted admirers, he attracted challengers.

“Every Tom, Dick and Harry wanted to race him in the 100 meters and hurdles,” Lee said. “The way he was performing when we went through Southeast Asia, he could have won (the Olympic decathlon) the third time.”

Perhaps the only obstacle was the stringent rules of the day regarding amateurism.

Mathias had made a movie, “The Bob Mathias Story,” and had made several endorsements, capitalizing on his Olympic fame. It is a practice virtually without penalty in the 1980s.

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In 1955, however, such enterprise was not well received by the governing bodies of amateur sport.

In a letter to the head of the Amateur Athletic Union, which had jurisdiction over U.S. Olympic track and field athletes, Mathias wrote that “I’m still in shape, I want to be in the ’56 Games, what do I need to do to compete?”

The reply listed a number of legal hurdles for Mathias to clear before he could compete again for his country.

“No. 1 (was) give back all the money you made in your picture and in your endorsements,” Mathias recalled. “Well, by that time the money was gone.”

He can say today with a smile: “It would have been fun (to compete for a third medal). I was still in shape . . . still maturing.”

British Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson will be 30 when he tries to win his unprecedented third gold medal this year. Bill Toomey was 29 when he won the decathlon for the United States in 1968. And Bruce Jenner was 26 and Rafer Johnson was 25 when they won for the United States in 1976 and 1960, respectively.

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“It takes years to perfect these events,” Mathias said. “It takes that length of time to become good.”

Had he been allowed to compete in the 1956 Olympics, Mathias would have been merely 25.

“The perfect age,” Mathias said, laughing at the irony, an irony that perhaps no other man who has ever lived can quite appreciate as he can.

By the same token, however, Mathias readily conceded that the Olympic gold medals he won charted his life’s course, making things far different than they would have been had he won silver medals. The Olympic successes provided opportunities.

“Politics is name value,” he said. “People spend millions of dollars just to get their name known, so it absolutely . . . helped in politics. In business . . . at least they know your name. It’s a door-opener.

“But you still have to know your subject matter. . . . You just can’t run on your name and do a lousy job. You have got to work at it.”

Within two years of winning his second medal, “The Bob Mathias Story” was playing in theaters coast to coast.

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It was a good era for movies about athletic prowess, and Mathias was not the only athlete to star in a film about his life. Baseball’s Jackie Robinson and football’s Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch also parlayed their athletic successes onto the silver screen.

“Once I was going somewhere and I met Elroy in the airport,” Mathias recalled. “He was carrying his life-story film. I really rubbed it in.

“I said, ‘Gee, Elroy, do you always carry your life story around with you?’

“I said, ‘You know, I made a film like that too. I’m going to start carrying it around.’ ”

After completing his movie, Mathias spent two years in the Marine Corps. When he got out he went to work for a movie production company owned by John Wayne and appeared in “China Doll,” a film starring Victor Mature.

By 1958 Mathias had left the movie business again for another job, this time with a construction company.

“I was there about three months when I got a call from Keenan Wynn, and he said, ‘We’re doing a TV series, and you’re the guy we want to be my partner,’ ” Mathias said.

“The Troubleshooters” had sort of a “Route 66” story line, except the heroes had permanent jobs.

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“It was two guys traveling the world doing construction jobs, building a bridge, building a skyscraper,” he recalled. “We met the bad guys doing various things.”

The series ran just one year. To honor his two-year contract, the studio offered Mathias the lead in a Greek mythology movie on location in Rome: “Theseus and the Minotaur.”

While in Rome, Mathias also did some TV work for the 1960 Olympics.

“I started to come home in September, and I got another call from another movie company that wanted me to go to Greece . . . to make another picture. So I did that. It was called “It Happened in Athens,” starring Jayne Mansfield. In 1960 I was gone the whole year.”

When Mathias finally returned to the United States in 1961, he was “dubbed the actor,” he recalled. “In four years I made four pictures (and) a TV series. I was busy all the time.”

But all of a sudden he found himself “on my rear end about nine months. The agent didn’t call.”

Then came the realization that “I’m not an actor.”

“It wasn’t a business for me. So I said what do I really want to do? I said I want to start a boys’ camp.”

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For 16 years, Mathias owned a boys’ camp east of Fresno. But during that period, at the urging of friends, Mathias tried his hand at yet another career. For eight years he was a Republican congressman representing the Tulare area.

“I got beat in ‘74, the Watergate year. (I was) a Republican in a bad year,” he said.

After a stint as a deputy director of the Selective Service, Mathias worked in President Ford’s 1976 reelection campaign, advising state chairmen of the new, post-Watergate regulations on campaign finance reporting.

“Of course Jerry got beat in ‘76,” Mathias said. “So . . . I moved back to California to continue my boys’ camp work.

“I no sooner got back than I got a call from the Olympic Committee. They were starting a new concept called the Olympic Training Center. Probably it fit my political background and also my (experience) running a camp. They asked me if I’d be the director.”

Mathias ran the training center for seven years. In 1985, he went to work for the National Fitness Foundation, a proposed training headquarters and research center for coaches and physical education instructors to be built on 175 acres in the Aliso Viejo area of Orange County.

“That was the worst mistake I ever made,” Mathias said.

“I didn’t check George Allen . . . out,” Mathias said of the former professional football coach who has headed that project since its inception.

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“I finally resigned from that organization because they weren’t doing anything under George Allen. He was the . . . chief executive officer and chairman of the board, with no qualifications to do that. So nothing really happened. (The foundation) couldn’t raise money. George is not a fitness expert. He was a coach (and has) no experience in business, whatsoever.”

(Allen said he prefers not to “say anything negative” about Mathias’ tenure with the foundation. “When you try to do something that’s a big project and try to do it through the private sector, it’s always difficult to raise money,” Allen said. “We’re making tremendous progress.”)

Since leaving the National Fitness Foundation, Mathias’ role as president of the American Kids’ Sports Assn. has been to organize the inaugural Earth Games and his subsequent weekly TV show. His task has been to persuade the powerful, the influential and the moneyed to be involved.

“Aligning superstar athletes and entertainers . . . is probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” Mathias said. “The message is ‘America, kids, physical fitness and sport.’ What’s not to like?”

So far the American Kids Sports Assn.’s board of governors and advisers includes the likes of Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson family, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Olympic decathlon winners Jenner and Johnson and local movers and shakers such as Irvine City Councilman C. David Baker and Darrell Metzger of Orange County Centennial Inc.

An old buddy and another former athlete, former President Ford, said he thinks Mathias may have hit upon another winner.

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“If properly organized and managed, it should be a plus,” Ford said of the organization. “Certainly to get a . . . two-time decathlon winner devoting time and effort on behalf of America’s youth is a great contribution. I applaud it.”

Chuck Foster, executive producer for the American Kids Sports Network, pointed to a potential audience of 30 million U.S. children ages 5 to 12 and also to the hope the program will “reach and influence another 60 million yuppie-aged parents.”

Although Mathias is not going to appear on camera, it is hoped that his association will boost the program’s image.

“I think unfortunately there are some athletes who do not abide by the rules . . . of clean living, no drugs, etc.,” Olympic medal winner Lee said. “I’m sure someone like Bob can give that image of being a winner without drugs.”

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