Before there was Jeremy Lin or Yao Ming, Tiger Woods or Se Ri Park, Nomo or Ichiro, or even Bruce Lee for that matter, there was C. K. Yang.
Iconic Asian athletes are far and few between, but Yang Chuang-Kwang, or C. K. Yang as he was popularly known, was called The Greatest Athlete in the World several times in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Competing in three Olympics as a decathlete – Melbourne in 1956, Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, Yang of Taiwan set an indoor record for the pole vault in 1963, set the world record in the decathlon later that year, and still is the only Asian to ever hold the world record in that category. And in an epic, down-to-the-wire finish, Yang lost the gold medal to his best friend and biggest competitor, Rafer Johnson of the United States, at the Rome Summer Games.
He did not win the championship, but he made an entire nation, and quite possibly, an entire race proud. And there was one person in particular who was immensely proud – Mr S. S. Kwan.
Yang sat down with Robert Creamer of Sports Illustrated for a lengthy interview, and in this article, Yang expressed his keen gratefulness to Kwan, who was a successful architect and businessman who supported Yang’s development. In fact, Kwan, who was the president of the China National Amateur Athletic Federation in Taiwan, personally financed Yang’s travel and living expenses when Yang visited the United States to get experience in AAU meets.
Eventually, it was recommended that Yang stay in the US, where he enrolled at UCLA to train under the renowned coach, Ducky Drake, and become teammates with rising star, Rafer Johnson. Kwan supported it all.
“He (Kwan) was like a father, you know,” Yang told Creamer. “And then at Rome, I got second place, Mr. Kwan was so happy. I never saw him so happy as he was at Rome. He said, ‘Ahh! Now I have achieved my goal.’ He said, ‘We broke the egg.’ The egg, that was the zero, you know? Up to then we had never won a medal in the Olympic Games. Rome was the first. So I broke two eggs: the gold medal at the Asian Games, the silver medal at the Olympic Games. Mr. Kwan was so happy.”
Soon after Yang won silver at the Rome Olympic Games, Kwan passed away. As was often said of the relationship, “no SS Kwan, no CK Yang.”