'The' Classic Decathlon Duel: Johnson vs. Yang, Rome Olympics, 1960
Today, despite its inherent grandeur and hoary historical roots on the plains of ancient Greece, the decathlon competition, the most enduring and challenging of all athletic events, is an afterthought at modern-day Olympiads.
To this writer, there’s one obvious reason: the drawn-out pace of the decathlon, 10 track and field events contested by single individuals over two days, doesn’t lend itself to the normal attention-deficit-disorder sports narrative on television, with its emphasis on spectacular last-second shots or bottom-of-the-ninth home runs.
Back in 1960, however, the attention and build-up prior to the decathlon competition were exceptionally intense: three athletes, all of whom possessed the world’s record for a decathlon at one point and as a group considered the best athletes on earth, gathered to compete for the title of ‘World’s Greatest Athlete.’
Of the three, Vasily Kuznetsov, a Russian who was a two-time bronze medalist and could have added a Cold War edginess to the proceedings, suffered some injuries prior to Rome, and was never a significant factor there.
It was to be a classic battle between the American Afro-American 25-year-old Rafer Johnson and 27-year-old C.K. Yang, of Nationalist China [called Formosa then, Taiwan or Chinese Taipei now.].
Rafer Johnson, raised in central California, was a superb all-around athlete in high school, winning varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball and track. As a halfback on the football team, he averaged 9 yards a carry, and hit .400 one season in baseball. He decided to focus exclusively on the decathlon after observing Bob Mathias, winner of the Olympic decathlon at the age of 17, competing in a meet near his home. “I realized I could have beaten most of the guys [I saw there],” Mr. Johnson noted later.
He matriculated at UCLA as an undergraduate, and became so popular he was elected student body president and was the first black inductee into a predominantly Jewish fraternity.
C.K. Yang of Taiwan had a more circuitous journey to the 1960 Olympics: recognized very early on as an athletic prodigy, in a country desperate to raise its profile since its creation in 1949, he was sent by his government to the United States to utilize its better coaching and training facilities. After a year acclimating himself to American culture and learning English, he enrolled at UCLA in 1958 at the age of 25.
And, there at UCLA you have the initial stirrings of a magnificent competition: Johnson and Yang trained together for the decathlon at UCLA, both under the tutelage of the same coach, ‘Ducky’ Drake. The two became very close friends, and, in fact, assisted each other with coaching advice and words of encouragement throughout their university days.
You couldn’t ask for a more perfect tableau: the two most dominant performers in the decathlon, enrolled and training at the same university, fast friends, set to compete on an Olympic stage, mano-a-mano. A mythic tale was about to be written.
A decathlon schedule looks like this: on day one, in order, there is a 100 meters sprint; long jump; shot put; high jump; and last, often late at night, the brutal 400 meter run.
On day two, the events are, again in order: the 100 meters hurdles; discus; pole vault; javelin throw; and, last of them all, the 1,500 meter run.
Strategy is fundamental: each athlete has events in which he excels, and events in which he is weak. He tries to win by a lot in his favored events, and cut his losses in his weak contests. Rafer Johnson asserted at the time, “My intent was not to be annihilated by C.K. in his two best events, pole vault and 1,500 meters. Then I would try to annihilate him in my two best events [that coincided with] his two worst, the shot and discus.”
And, so it commenced. The weather on the first day was miserable: a heavy downpour drenched the stadium track and field. Despite the weather, day one did not result in either man taking a commanding lead: Yang won the 100 meters, 10.7 seconds to 10.9; in the long jump, 7.46 meters to Johnson’s 7.35. In the shot put, Johnson thrashed Yang 15.82 meters to 13.33. Finally, in the 400 meters race that started at 11:15 PM, an event that Johnson confessed to ‘hating’, Yang won 48.1 to 48.3 seconds. After the five events, Johnson, although losing 4 events, was leading by a slim 55 points.
The second day at least began with much improved weather. Once again, neither man could take an insurmountable lead: in the 100 meters hurdles, for instance, one of Yang’s strengths, he beat Johnson handily, gaining almost 200 points on Johnson; later in the day, though, Johnson overwhelmed Yang in the discus throw, and gained 272 points against him. And, so it went, back-and-forth, until the final climactic 1,500 meter run [the metric equivalent of one mile]. The lead was Johnson’s, by 74 points [an extremely narrow lead, as winners in decathlons often accumulate 9,000-10,000 points by its conclusion.]
And it was the 1,500 meter race, after two days and nine events had already taken their toll on two exhausted, mentally spent athletes, which catapulted the Rome 1960 Decathlon into one of those classic, timeless Olympic sagas.
The 1,500-meter run [4 times around the track] was a strength of Yang’s; his best surpassed Johnson’s best by 13 seconds. In order to win the entire competition, C.K. Yang had to defeat Rafer Johnson by 10 seconds or more, certainly achievable.
Two decathlon champions at the top of their game, with one last exhausting event to go. The darkening night and autumnal nip in the air added to the tension. Johnson, for one, felt the incredible pressure as they approached the starting line at 9:20 – “It was a chore for me to even breathe before that race. I knew it was going to be tough. This is pressure time.”
Johnson’s plan was simple: sticking with C.K. Yang “like a shadow, dogging his footsteps stride for stride”, was the way he put it afterwards. Midway through the race, Yang, ahead, picked up the pace, but Johnson stayed with him, and even put himself in a position so Yang would see him when he turned around; he surprised Yang by being so close behind.
By the final lap, Johnson continued to lag, but only three yards behind. Yang made one more acceleration, a final push to break into the clear. It did not work – Johnson remained on his tail. What was Rafer Johnson thinking at that moment? “My huge advantage, I think, was that I knew this was the last time I was ever going to do a decathlon; C.K. would compete probably several more times; this was not his last race. I would never run a 1500 again, not after nine other events. Never. Never.”
With that sort of positive/negative thinking, Rafer Johnson crossed the tape only 1.2 seconds behind C.K. Yang. Johnson had won the 1960 Olympics decathlon gold medal by 58 points.
C.K. Yang and Rafer Johnson remained close friends for decades, right up to Yang’s death in 2007. At C.K. Yang’s funeral in Los Angeles, Rafer Johnson, after delivering the eulogy, weeped openly at his rival’s grave.