Great Athletes Finally Meet - Almost

AS small-town Californian Bob Mathias won back-to-back Olympic decathlons in 1948 and '52, potentially his stiffest rival sat home in Estonia. Heino Lipp was denied traveling privileges because of his unfriendly relationship with the communists who had taken over his Baltic homeland.

"I didn't know the reason he wasn't there [at the Olympics]," said Mr. Mathias at a first-ever gathering of decathlon legends, held here in conjunction with the Barcelona Games. "By 1952, I had kind of heard about him, but I didn't know his scores."

Mathias had come to this hastily called Reebok function attended by such Olympic champions as Daley Thompson (1980, '84), Bruce Jenner ('76), and Bill Toomey ('68), hoping to meet his near rival of long ago.

"The Track and Field News actually rated Lipp first in the world in 1948, because his scores were so much superior to Bob's and everyone else's," says Frank Zarnowski, an authority on the decathlon. Zarnowski found that Lipp had carried the Estonian flag in Barcelona's opening ceremony.

But, he says, "By the time we finally messaged Heino, he had just left for the airport to return home."

Several years ago, at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, Zarnowski had bumped into Lipp, a physical education teacher at the Pedagogical Institute of Sport in Talinn, Estonia, before retiring. He got Lipp's address and passed it along to Mathias, who in 1948, at age 17, had become the youngest male track champion ever at the Olympics.

"I wrote Heino a letter saying I was sorry we didn't get to compete," says Mathias, who received a one-page response. Mathias says now he will probably drop him another note. The message surely will be, "See you in '96."

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