Congressional Democrats were feeling pretty good about their chances when they lined up against a team of Republicans for a basketball exhibition in the spring of 1970.
After all, the Dems featured former University of Arizona basketball star Morris Udall.
What they didn’t have, however, was the world’s greatest athlete.
As Time magazine reported in its March 16, 1970, edition, the Republicans squeaked out a 13–12 victory in the 24-minute exhibition, “Thanks largely to California Congressman Bob Mathias.”
Mathias had reached national celebrity status after winning the 1948 Olympic decathlon as a 17-year-old and then defending his title four years later — he even played himself in a 1954 movie made about his life. Upon parlaying that popularity into an election to the U.S. House of Representatives, however, he quickly learned the difference between being an Olympian and an elected official.
“Probably the toughest part was getting used to going from sports, where everyone likes you ... to politics, where if 51 percent of the people like you, you can stay in office,” said Mathias, a Republican from California, according to the Los Angeles Times. “In that world, people stomp on you and say bad things about you.”
Mathias, who served in Congress from 1967 to 1974, was one of several Olympians who later served the United States as an elected representative. Although no U.S. Olympians are running in the elections today, ties to the Olympic Movement in this country abound. The U.S. Olympic Committee is one of the only national Olympic committees in the world that receives no federal funding for Olympic programs. However, the USOC has an office in Washington, D.C., and routinely works with Congress and the Administration to promote the Olympic and Paralympic Movements.
At the top of the 2012 ticket, both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have shown to be supporters of the Olympic Movement.
For Obama, it was traveling in 2009 to Copenhagen to stump for his hometown Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games. In becoming the first U.S. president to lobby the International Olympic Committee in person, Obama told the members: “peaceful competition between nations represents what is best about our humanity.”
Rio de Janeiro wound up winning the bid, but Obama and his wife, Michelle, continued to support the Olympic Movement. Michelle Obama led the Presidential delegation at the London 2012 Olympic Games and spoke to many U.S. Olympians and Paralympians at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Media Summit in Dallas.
For Romney, it was taking the call in 1999, when the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games were in turmoil. Romney took over as the CEO of the local organizing committee and, in the words of Sports Illustrated, “took over an organization that was beset by a bribery scandal and financing problems and put on a Games that turned a $100 million profit.” More recently, a dressage horse owned by Romney’s wife, Ann, was part of Team USA at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“The Games were a showcase for the great qualities of the human spirit: we saw in the athletes the determination, courage, teamwork, character, faith,” Romney said earlier this year at a 10-year reunion for of the 2002 Games, according to Politico.
U.S. Olympians are no strangers to politics. Here are some who have tried their hand at the political arena after competing in sporting arenas:
• After leading the U.S. basketball team to a gold medal in the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games and playing 10 seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks, Bill Bradley served as a Democratic Senator from New Jersey from 1979 to 1997. In 2000, Bradley unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for president.
• Fellow basketball player Tom McMillen, a 20-year-old forward-center on the U.S. team that famously lost to the Soviet Union in the gold-medal game at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games (the Soviet Union controversially beat Team USA on a last-second layup) later represented Maryland as a Democrat from 1987 to 1993 in the U.S. House of Representatives.
• The pre-eminent American middle-distance runner of his time, Jim Ryun ran the 1,500 meters at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, earning a silver medal in Mexico City in 1968. Nearly 30 years later, in November 1996, Ryun filled a vacancy in the U.S. House and remained a Republican congressman from Kansas until January 2007.
• Ralph Metcalfe, a 1932 and 1936 Olympic sprinter who in his prime was known to be even faster than Jesse Owens, later became a an alderman in Chicago before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat, serving from 1971 until his death on Oct. 10, 1978.
• Fellow 1936 Olympian Dave Albritton, a silver medalist in high jump who also set a world record that year, later became a Republican state representative in Ohio.