Thirty one years after he won his second decathlon in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (the only man ever to do it twice), Bob Mathias still looks as though he could give a repeat performance, at the seniors level anyway.
His presence fills a room. His job is director of the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, a reminder that America is finally doing something about catching up to the Russians. All that raw talent now has a place to develop.
Asked why the United States didn't establish an Olympic training center of its own sooner, Mathias replied: ''Our system here is so different than most countries that there really was no one in a position who could step forward and take charge. With no government-appointed Minister of Sport to do the job for us , the way they handle things in Russia for example, we had to wait until Congress passed some laws that would allow us to move in this direction. Even then it came slowly.''
The center, located on the site of an abandoned Air Force base, was opened in 1977 and has been steadily improved ever since. It now has excellent facilities in a number of sports, enabling more than l2,000 young Americans each year to get the kind of training and conditioning that previously had been available only to top competitors. Basically the activity in Colorado Springs is a tune-up process to help the United States stay closer to the Soviets and other countries which take a more professional approach to the Olympic Games.
''The training center is something we've obviously needed for a long time,'' Mathias explained. ''It's a logical way to organize and coordinate our joint efforts so that we don't have a lot of people all going off in different directions. However, there will always be certain athletes who prefer to train on their own and that's all right, too.''
Mathias was only a 17-year-old schoolboy when he won the gold at the 1948 Olympics in London. One account has described the conditions he competed under as ''preposterous.''
It rained throughout the second day, forcing him to huddle under a blanket much of time. Officials spent an hour and a half trying to find the impression left by one of his discus throws when a marker flag was carelessly removed. And the competition was so drawn out, the decathlon's final three events were contested in a dimly lit stadium after dark, with only a scattering of spectators left as Mathias clinched victory in the last of the 10 events, the 1, 500 meters.
Four years later at the 1952 Helsinki Games, Bob repeated his decathlon victory - a feat still unmatched in Olympic history.
To win a decathlon, a man has to be consistently strong in 10 different events, although he seldom will approach a world record in any of them. To devote too much time to one or two specific events would mean sacrificing too many points elsewhere.
''The way athletes train for the decathlon today is entirely different than the way we went about getting ready for this event,'' Mathias said on a recent visit to this site of the upcoming 1984 Games. ''Back then we were primarily track men who went out for the decathlon once a year. We didn't specialize the way they do today, and we got most of our coaching by imitating others.''
Questioned about the chances of anyone else ever winning an Olympic decathlon twice, Mathias replied:
''I wouldn't want to be the one who says it can't be done, because what can be done once probably can be done twice. The problem is that so much time goes into preparing for an event like this that eventually you reach the point where you don't feel like pushing yourself anymore. Other things keep getting in the way, one of the biggest being that sooner or later everyone has to stop and make a living.''
Mathias, all whipcord and whalebone even today, received the Sullivan Award as the country's outstanding amateur athlete in 1953 and the US Chamber of Commerce Award as one of America's 10 outstanding young men. Bob also graduated from Stanford University in 1953 and served 21/2 years in the Marine Corps, emerging with the rank of captain.
He later starred in the 1954 movie ''The Bob Mathias Story,'' had roles in three other films, appeared in a television series, and for a time was a US congressman from California.
Pressed about what makes a winner, Mathias said that he found it a tough question to handle off the top of his head but that a positive mental attitude had to be a major part of it.
''Once you get past the obvious reasons like talent and having the time to train properly, I think it probably all comes down to your mental approach,'' Bob said. '' You can't go into anything thinking you are going to lose and, looking back, I'm sure that got me over a lot of rough spots. But at the same time you can't mistake cockiness for confidence or you might neglect to do some of the things that keep you in top shape physically. I know I always tried to be ready in both areas.''