Before 1948, Bob Mathias had never completed a decathlon. In fact, he'd never even started one. Mathias, a 17-year-old athlete studying at Tulare High School in California, took up the sport just four months before the Games on the suggestion of a coach at his school.
He proved a prodigiously good choice, revelling in the challenge of the multiple disciplines and the hard work that the sport demanded. Less than three months after the idea was first put to him, he had qualified for the US Olympic team.
His inexperience occasionally shone through. His best throw in the shot put was disqualified after he walked out of the front side of the throwing ring, a rule that Mathias had never heard of before. In the high jump, he failed with his first two attempts and only saved his chances by resorting to a crude technique to hurl himself over the bar.
Confidence restored, he ended up with the joint best clearance.
After the first day, he found himself in third place. The decisive second day proved long and arduous for everyone, starting at 10am and finishing more than 12 hours later. There were no infield lights in the stadium and so, as the gloom encroached, car headlights were used to illuminate events. Athletes, already under pressure, now had to keep their calm as night drew in.
Mathias moved into the lead after the discus, which was his strongest event, and he never looked back. As he staggered across the line at the end of the 1500m, the 17-year-old became the youngest track and field gold medallist in Olympic history. When he was asked how he'd celebrated, he told a reporter: “I’ll start shaving, I guess”. In fact, he marked his victory simply by sleeping and had to be woken up to come back to the stadium to collect the gold medal he had worked so hard to win.
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