Rafer Johnson was expected to win gold in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Intelligent, articulate, powerful and handsome, he was selected with great favor to be the US Olympic team’s captain, and flag bearer in the opening ceremonies.
Johnson came close by taking silver in the decathlon in 1956, so he was hungry for victory in 1960. But the decathlon is grueling, both physically and mentally – ten running, throwing and jumping events over two long days. On top of that, his biggest rival was a very close friend, the up-and-coming C. K. Yang from Taiwan. Despite very little English language capability, Yang moved to California to train under UCLA coach Ducky Drake, and train with Johnson, who immediately helped Yang with English, introduced him to his friends, took him to activities and parties, and trained with him.
As Johnson wrote in his autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, they were more than just good friends – they brought the best out in each other.
C. K. taught me a lot, especially about the pole vault, which he was so good at that he later broke the world record. I helped him too, especially with the weight events – javelin, discus, and shotput. We worked side by side, pushing each other like teammates with a common purpose, spotting each other’s weaknesses and helping to correct them. Each of us understood a basic truth: If I help him be the best he can be, he’ll help me be the best I can be. We never faltered in this belief, even at the height of our competition.
It was an overcast and humid day on September 5, 1960 when the decathlon commenced. First up was the 100 meters, which did not start well for Johnson. Even in the decathlon, there are heats, and in Johnson’s heat, the decathletes dealt with four false starts, and in one of them Johnson had already sprinted 40 meters before realizing that someone else had jumped the gun. “I was so bothered by the distraction that I lacked sharpness when we finally ran the race,” recalled Johnson. In the decathlon, there is a scoring system that assesses points to times or distance. His time of 10.9 seconds was 0.3 seconds off his best, or a difference of 132 points. In contrast, Yang won his heat in 10.7 seconds, placing him 86 points in the lead.
In the long jump, Yang again bested Johnson, thus increasing his lead to 130 points. But then it was time for the shotput, Johnson’s strength to Yang’s weakness. Predictably, a powerful throw by Johnson, and a throw that merited 14th best by Yang put Johnson in first place by 143 points. After waiting through a two-hour thunderstorm, the athletes had to re-start their motors. Johnson edged Yang in the high jump. And at 11 pm that evening, they lined up for the 400 meters, where Yang defeated Johnson by 0.2 seconds. By the end of Day One, Johnson had a slim lead of 55 points.
Wrote Johnson in his autobiography, “nearly fifteen hours after taking the field that morning, I collapsed into a seat on the bus and returned to the Olympic Village. By the time I got to sleep it was after 1:00 A. M. Five hours later, I awakened tired and sore. After a light breakfast, I boarded a bus to the stadium. The pressure inside me was intense. I was the favorite, the world-record holder, the captain of my team, trying to complete the quest I had begun nearly ten years earlier.”
On Day 2, Yang burst out of the blocks to best everyone in the 110 hurdles. Johnson’s fifth place finish immediately catapulted Yang back into first place overall. Fortunately, the next event was a throwing event, a weakness of Yang’s. The Asian Iron Man as Yang was called finished 11th in the discus, returning Johnson back to the top.
Next was Yang’s best event, the pole vault. As a world record holder in the indoor pole vault, it was expected that Yang would finish first. But Johnson stayed close with a third-place finish and clung to a 24-point advantage, a narrow one at best. Then Johnson threw his javelin a little more than a meter and a half longer than Yang, giving Johnson a slim 58-point lead heading into the final event – the 1,500 meter race.
Clearly, the deviser of the decathlon rules was a sadist, placing the longest running event at the end. Almost all the other events required an intense burst of energy. Even the 400 meter race finished in less than a minute. The 1,500 meter race would be nearly 5 minutes of pain and exhaustion. Neither had to win the race, they just had to finish in front of the other. In order to overcome his 58-point deficit, Yang had to beat Johnson by about 10 seconds. In fact, Yang’s best time in the 1500 was 13 seconds better than Johnson’s best, so Yang had a legitimate chance to come from behind to win gold.
Ducky Drake was in Rome as the coach of the Taiwan track and field team, and thus was Yang’s coach at the Olympics. And yet, as David Maraniss explained in his book, Rome 1960, Drake was impartial, imparting the right advice to his two stars as they readied themselves for the 1500 meter race, in which they would run together.
Johnson’s confidence was not shaken now, but he needed more advice, so he approached his coach a the edge of the stands. How should he run this most important race of his life? Drake had already thought it through. “The key thing is that when C. K. tries to pull away – and he will try – you have to stay with him. At some point C. K. will look back to see where you are, and you have to be there. If he opens up, you have to do with him. You cannot let him build that yardage.”
Easier for Drake to say than for Johnson to do, but still it was a sound plan, perhaps the only plan that could save him. Rafer nodded in agreement and walked back toward the track. About halfway there, he turned and saw none other than C. K. approaching the same spot at the edge of the stands. Ducky, after all, was his coach too. “Ducky said to me, ‘C.K., you run as fast as you can. Rafer cannot keep up with you!” Yang later recalled.” At that moment, Drake was like a master chess player competing against himself. He saw the whole board and was making the best moves for both sides.
Again, after a long day, the runners pulled up to the starting blocks at 9:20 pm. Both Johnson and Yang knew that the outcome of the 1500 would determine the winner of the title – World’s Greatest Athlete. Halfway through the race, Johnson was not far behind Yang – “I stuck to him like a shadow,” recalled Johnson. And when Yang made his move, Johnson accelerated, staying visible behind Yang’s right shoulder. In fact, when Yang took a glance back as Drake predicted, Johnson made sure he had a big smile. And he had nothing to lose. He knew this was his final competition and that he could give this final push his absolute all. As Johnson repeated in his head the thought – “I don’t have to do this again”, he made sure he stayed as close to Yang as possible as they headed to the tape.
Yang crossed the line with the 12th fastest time, while Johnson finished 15th. But the overall 1500 results were inconsequential. The question was, how many more seconds did Yang finish ahead of Johnson. The answer: 1.2 seconds. Johnson was the best he could be – the 1960 Olympic champion in the decathlon.