Before Michael Jordan, Mary Lou Retton and Bruce Jenner, there was Bob Richards, the first athlete to be featured on the front of a Wheaties cereal box.
Much has changed since Richards, a two-time Olympic pole vaulting champion, was Mr. Wheaties.
“I saw it more as a mission than a job,” says Richards, who was the General Mills cereal’s spokesman from 1956 to 1970. “What we did was vastly more important than making money.
“Now guys like Jordan go on and say, ‘You’d better eat your Wheaties,’ but we went around the country talking to people,” he recalls.
Then considered the best pole vaulter in history, Richards began his stint with Wheaties after winning gold medals at the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games. When General Mills decided to begin using a spokesman to sell the cereal, Richards was chosen from more than 500 candidates.
But to Richards, medals, money and having his face on a cereal box were never as important as the spirit of competition.
“It’s in the striving, not in the winning--that’s the Olympics,” Richards says. “It’s not in the gold medal, but in trying to be your best, in reaching out.
“If we can get the peoples of the world together and just sit down in a common athletic park, that is what the Olympics is all about.”
During a telephone interview from his home in Waco, Richards recalled one particular incident at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki that he says symbolized the true meaning of the games.
“When I won the vault, a Russian came out and hugged me. I thought it was wonderful because that’s the spirit of the Olympics, but people back home were upset because of the Cold War,” Richards remembered.
“Of course I think that was one of the greatest moments of my life, to break through the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ psychology and just hug a human being. Sports breaks through those things.”
At 66, Richards carries on the mission he began nearly 40 years ago as a Wheaties spokesman. He still travels the country talking to people, but today the topic is how to return to the original Olympic ideology.
“The Olympics was meant to solve the problem of war. The idea is you lay down your weapons and instead of the shot put becoming a cannon ball, it becomes a shot put,” Richards says.
“We use the Games for propaganda--that’s not what it’s supposed to be. The Olympics is supposed to glorify the individual, not a nation.”
Richards criticizes the use of steroids in sports, as well as using the Olympic symbol to make a buck.
“The Olympics was supposed to have been an amateur thing, where out of the competition, you would become friends,” Richards says. “I think it’s tremendous what the Olympics do--it’s peace through sports. The ideal is something we should preserve, but now it’s all monetary.
“If we could ever get back to the original Olympic ideology, it would be the greatest thing in the world we could do.”
Richards continues to vault in the Masters division, in the 65-70 age group. He hopes to compete in August at the national competition, where he plans to break some records, just like in the old days.
“I just hope to be able to win,” Richards said. “But I keep thinking I’m going to get 11-6.”
During the 1952 games, Richards set a Games’ record, clearing 14-11 on his final attempt. He upped the mark to 14-11 1/2 in 1956, when he became the first vaulter to win two Olympic gold medals.
Richards still believes there’s no greater feeling than winning an Olympic gold medal and plans to watch much of the games in Barcelona with his two sons, who are also pole vaulters.