CK Yang pole vauilting
Asian Iron Man C.K. Yang in his strongest decathlon event – the pole vault.

He had barely lost, losing by a mere 58 points in the decathlon to his best friend, Rafer Johnson, at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. Using the 2nd place finish as motivation, C. K. Yang went on to break the world record in April, 1963, and was viewed as the heavy favorite for gold at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

But it was not to be. Not only did Yang fail to win gold, he fell to a disappointing fifth place. In fact, Yang was in ninth place at the end of day one, but had a very strong day two in which he won the 400-meter hurdles, pole vault and javelin throw events, clawing his way to fourth place before the final event. But Yang’s 13th-place finish in the final 1500-meter race meant that two Germans, a Russian and an American would finish ahead of him in the final placements.

A chance at a first-ever gold medal for Taiwan faded into that cool evening of October 20, 1964. Two explanations have been provided for Yang’s disappointing results: a recent change in the way scores were tallied for the decathlon, and Yang’s mysterious illness.

The decathlon scoring system was always considered complicated, as administrators have time after time adjusted the benchmarks and formulas to come up with scores that were perceived as fair so that athletes were satisfied with their points for a strong jump, or a speedy run, as well as with their points for a fantastic jump or a spectacular run. In 1964, the scoring tables were revised yet again. And the rule changes appeared to be heir apparent, Yang, at a disadvantage. Technology advancements in plastics resulted in the increasing prevalence of fiber-glass poles. Yang had mastered the new pole more quickly than others, enabling him to claim a world indoor record in the pole vault. As legendary New York Times sports writer, Arthur Daley, explained in a preview to the 1964 Olympic decathlon, the scoring revision hurt Yang.

“Not too long ago the International Amateur Athletic Federation updated and revised the decathlon scoring tables. This has hit Yang harder than most because he no longer can make a blockbuster score of fifteen hundred points in the pole vault. He still will be the decathlon favorite but not by the preponderant margin that once had been assigned to him. “

Daley went on to quote Yang that he wasn’t overly worried. “Of course I lose points by the new tables,” he said. “But I don’t think it will affect me over the whole thing.” Others, though, believed that Yang was indeed psychologically affected by the rule changes, particularly regarding the pole vault.

Willi Holdorf and C. K. Yang in 1964
Willi Holdorf and C.K. Yang after the decathlon’s 1500-meter race in Tokyo 1964, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964 Kyodo News Service

Based on the revised scoring system, Yang’s world record of 9,121 points would convert to 8,087 points, which is significantly higher than gold medalist Willi Holdorf’s winning point total of 7,887. But clearly, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Yang did not come close to his world-record times and distances of his 1963 world-record setting effort. The explanation at the time was that Yang was not 100% healthy. As his coach Ducky Drake said, Yang hurt his left knee about five weeks ago. He never got into shape and this was reflected in his performances.” Another report said that Yang was suffering from a cold.

But Yang’s buddy, Rafer Johnson, revealed in his book, The Best That I Can Be, a shocking explanation for Yang’s unexpected performance in 1964. Remember, this is the time of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, Mao’s China and Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan.

In the 1970s, C. K. had dinner with a man from Taiwan’s counterpart to our FBI. They were talking about the 1964 Olympics when the man dropped a bombshell: C. K. had been poisoned, he said. Because of the tension with mainland China, Taiwan had assigned two bodyguard to C.K. at the Games. Despite that precaution, this man told him, a teammate had spiked C. K.’s orange juice at one of their meals. Shortly afterward, that athlete and two Taiwanese journalists defected to Red China. C. K. had always considered himself unlucky for having gotten ill at the wrong time. Instead, he may have been a victim of political warfare. “I was so angry I thought I would cry,” he told me.

Woah.

For more stories on C. K. Yang, see the following:

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marny_jolly_with_sukarno_1_asian_games_1962_2
Mariana Jolly meets President Sukarno at the Asian Games in 1962, from the collection of Mariana Jolly

She was a 14-year old, and yet an artifact of colonial Asia – the daughter of British parents representing Singapore in The Asian Games. When Mariana Jolly was asked to join the national swimming team to represent Singapore at the Asian Games, she had no idea that she would catch the attention of the most powerful man in Indonesia.

“It was the Asian Games, but I was the only European there,” Jolly told me. “Sukarno organized a lot of these social events for the athletes, there were quite a few. And the first time, he took one look at me and came to me. He asked me if I was Dutch. I said ‘no’, and he smiled. I danced with him at a barbecue, and I sang to him in Malay at another party.”

Little did Jolly know that the Asian Games they joined ignited the heated feud between Indonesia and the IOC, resulting in the last-second decision by Indonesia and North Korea to boycott the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

marny_jolly_with_sukarno_2_asian_games_1962_2
Dancing with Sukarno, from the collection of Mariana Jolly

Post-war, post-colonial Asia was a mess, a political vacuum, a time of economic experimentation that led to social upheaval. In the midst of those turbulent times, Malaysia emerged as a new nation in 1963, bringing together the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak.

Indonesia in the early 1960s was an emerging political power in Asia, led by that country’s first president, Sukarno. Leading the fight against the colonial rulers from the Netherlands, Sukarno was imprisoned by the Dutch rulers, freed by invading Japanese forces in 1942, and then appointed President of Indonesia when Japan surrendered to the United States and the allies at the end of World War II.

After decades of fighting Dutch colonial rule, Sukarno was anti-imperialist, and by extension, anti-West. While he did secure billions of dollars in aid from the United States and the Kennedy administration, Sukarno cultivated strong ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union.

And to reflect Indonesia’s growing power and influence, Sukarno won the rights to hold the Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962. The Asian Games is held every four years like the Olympics, and brings together the best athletes of Asia. In 1962, the participating countries included the PRC, which was boycotting the Olympic Games, as well as nations in the Middle East. Sukarno decided to make a statement – he would not invite athletes from Israel, which was the enemy of so many of Indonesia’s allies in the non-aligned world, nor athletes from Taiwan, which the PRC did not recognize.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), led by then president, Avery Brundage, took umbrage, reiterating the importance to separate politics from sports, and indefinitely

Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase
Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase

It was 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, and the Cold War was heating up.

Making their first appearance at the Olympics were the Soviet Union. And in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the favorites were Russians Vladimir Kazantsev, and Mikhail Saltykov, both world record holders with times under 9 minutes. Horace Ashenfelter, an American whose best at the time was nearly 18 seconds slower than Kazantsev’s best, was not given a chance to win the steeplechase competition.

And yet the American press played up the geo-political theme, particularly since Ashenfelter was an FBI agent in the US government. As Red Smith wrote in his column on July 26, 1952,

It was evident at Wednesday’s steeplechase heats that the final would bring about the carnival’s first head-on, man to man clash between an American and a Russian. A lot of people had been waiting for such a match ever since it became apparent, long before the games opened, that the 15th Olympics would be chiefly a Russian-American struggle. Before the heats, however, nobody had dreamt that the match might come about in the steeplechase. All the tall tales about a generation of supermen rehearsing behind the iron curtain had made special mention of Vladimir Kazantsev of Kiev, who had been charging over the obstacles at speeds the outside world had never seen.

With such a foe looming, Ashenfelter was given little chance. In the book, The Heart of a Champion, he was teased about his likely fate at the hand of the Russians:

“Horace, how is it going to feel to be out there running on the track when Kazantsev is in taking a shower and on his way home?” Another team-mate said, “I’ll bet Horace will have only three laps to go when Kazantsev is getting his gold medal.”

And yet, Ashenfelter was never fazed by the challenge. As stated in this interview, Ashenfelter was in prime shape and had nothing to lose.

I’m a pretty confident guy, actually and – put it this way – he had to beat me. It was the first time and only time where I had about three weeks of controlled training and rest. I had fine tuned my weight and weighed 128 pounds which I carried on five feet nine frame as compared to my normal weight of 140. I was in outstanding shape and had no bad luck occur. I was just going to stay with the pace as long as I could and to make the pace if I had to – I didn’t mind that.

He got suckered by his coaches as his plan they had was for him to stay with me. That meant that he was running on my right shoulder the whole race and adding three or four yards to each lap. I ran him a little bit wide on the corners and we bumped several times as he was running that close to me. That didn’t bother me but it may have bothered him – I don’t know. I knew I had a lot left at the end.

The American press lapped up the victory. As Smith wrote in his column, “The G man, reluctant to keep his back turned on a Commie, trotted back and slapped Kazantsev on the blouse of his britches.”

It was not known at that time that Kazantsev was also a KGB Agent, but one could imagine that Red Smith’s rhetoric would have been even more provocative.

As for Ashenfelter, he could care less about the Cold War drama on the track. “He was just an opponent. The media writes what they think and what they believe will attract readers.”

On January 6, 2018, Horace Ashenfelter passed away at the age of 94.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_1

I grew up on comic books, thrilled by the Marvel world of super heroes fighting evil in the universe while dealing with their own complications of making a living, family strife, and acne. The reason that Hollywood is enamored with the Marvel and DC universes is because of the powerful character development of superheroes who were learning as they went, uncovering personal flaws, while wisecracking and cracking heads.

But perhaps in my youth, I was overly forgiving.

I picked up a 1980 comic book because it was related to the Olympics – Marvel Treasury Edition #25, Spider-Man vs. The Hulk at the Winter Olympics.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_3

And boy, it is bad. The illustrations are fine. The story is ridiculous. The writing is awful – way too much explanation.

According to this article, there was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Marvel and DC were locked in a Cold War – Détente relationship. When DC put out a large-sized comic book called DC’s Limited Collector’s Edition, Marvel did the same with Marvel Treasury Edition. Measuring 10 inches by 14 inches, the Marvel Treasury Edition was significantly bigger than the standard 6.5 by 10 inch mag.

But Marvel featured primarily reprints. Inspired by the coming Winter Games in 1980, Marvel decided to use the Marvel Treasury format in issue #25, creating original content in commemoration of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, complete with appearances by Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. Despite the writing, and storyline, the art is still pretty cool.

I wonder if they were thinking to do one on the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. I guess we’ll never know.

Spiderman vs Hulk at the Winter Olympics_2

misha-the-bear

The headlines in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s was of economic malaise, Three Mile Island, the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the presidential campaign pitting incumbent Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan.

It was the Cold War, and the temperature was below zero. And yet, then president of stuff toy manufacturer and importer, Dakin & Co., Harold A. Nizamian, thought the planned mascot for the 1980 Moscow Olympics was charming. So he bought the license to create a stuffed bear and began producing and selling “Misha the Bear“.

Dakin began producing 240,000 Misha the Bear toys a month in early 1979, and the bear was selling. According to this Inc. article, Nizamian implies that he had global licensing rights as he claims the “the Russians were delighted and tried to buy it from us”.

But when the United States government announced that America would boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and forbade American companies to do business in relation to the Olympics, orders were cancelled, and Misha was suddenly a victim of a bear market.

misha-the-bear-dakin-adI actually had one of those bears. I remember getting a whole bunch of Moscow Olympic swag because NBC had the US broadcast rights for those Games, and my father was working for NBC at the time.

What’s fascinating about Misha the Bear is that ironically, this lasting symbol of the Soviet Union is one of the best known of all Olympic mascots in the world, its image gracing t-shirts, coffee mugs, pins, posters, and toys. In other words, the Soviet Union created the first commercially viable and globally popular Olympic mascot.

According to the Huffington Post, “no other mascot has done more for its country than Misha from Moscow. As the smiling tiny bear touted as Russia’s cuddly ambassador to the world, Misha served as a warm child-friendly sight as the peak of the Cold War. His image, starkly different from the traditionally gruff bear common in Russian lore, propelling Olympic merchandise sales forward while 55 nations boycotted the games.

It is said that Misha the Bear’s farewell during the Closing Ceremonies was one of the most memorable moments of the 1980 Moscow Games.

As for Dakin, Nizamian had $1 million dollar’s worth of Misha the Bear sitting in his warehouse. So what did he do?

Nizamian decided to give the bear a new nationality and a new lease on life. He removed the belt and reintroduced Misha in an assortment of T-shirts. “I Am Just A Bear,” one read; another proclaimed “U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Bear,” trading on the stunning victory by the United States at the winter Olympics. “It moved fairly well,” he explains. “We were able to dispose of about half of our stock by using that vehicle.” Dakin donated another 100,000 bears to the Special Olympics, a competition for handicapped children, and sold the final 100,000 to liquidators.

spassky-fischer
Boris Spassky and Bobby Fisher
I was only 8, going on 9.

My sports consciousness was not yet developed. Although the New York Mets had won the World Series in 1969, the New York Knicks had won the NBA Championships in 1970, and the New York Jets won the Super Bowl in 1970, I don’t have any memories of those amazing moments in New York sports history.

It was chess that first got my competitive juices flowing.

It was July, 1972, and before the Munich Olympics took center stage, the biggest global “sporting” event of the year was the World Chess Championship. Yes. Chess.

bobby-fischer-teaches-chess
I owned and treasured this book as a kid.
Bobby Fischer was taking on Boris Spassky for chess supremacy in Reykjavik, Iceland. But it was more than a chess match. It was the Cold War, and the 1972 championship featured an opportunity for a maverick chess savant from Brooklyn, New York, Bobby Fischer, to take down the best chess player in the Soviet Union, and thus the world, Boris Spassky.

I had learned chess from my father and I played games with friends at schools, so I was proficient enough to follow along. But chess players weren’t the only ones tuning into public television to watch two people sit at a table and not move most of the time – a good part of the American public were as well. Why? Because it was democracy vs communism, capitalism vs socialism, America vs the Soviets.

It was not just my sports consciousness that was switched on, it was a political consciousness. Like everyone around me, I wanted the American to beat the Russian. Bobby Fischer was my genius boy from New York. I had his book, Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. I even went to chess classes at the famed Manhattan Chess Club where he had played.

I just watched the film, Pawn Sacrifice, and it brought back those memories of my youth. The film went into the quirks and paranoia of Fischer, which is today well documented and known, but for me, a kid from Queens, I had no idea. All I knew was that Fischer had to beat Spassky.

And Fischer did, most gloriously and dominantly.

XXIII Olympic Summer Games

In the 1970s, after the tragic Munich Olympics in 1972, and the financially disastrous Montreal Olympics in 1976, there were not many cities that had an appetite for the 1984 Olympics. In fact, Los Angeles may have been the only real bid, and thus were able to extract significant financial concessions from the IOC. LA Olympic Committee head, Peter Ueberroth then kept costs low by getting corporate sponsors to contribute massively. In fact Corporate America played a huge role in bringing financial accountability and world-class production values to the Olympics.

In the case of the Olympic mascot, Ueberroth was able to rely on a trusted member of corporate America, Disney. While Disney was a bidder for the mascot design project, it was true that one of the member of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee’s executive committee was Card Walker, then chairman of the board of the Disney Corporation. Thus it was no surprise that Disney won the bid.

The design of the Olympic mascot was handed to legendary artist and publicity art director, Bob Moore, whose work has been seen in such films as Fantasia, Bambi and Dumbo. In the early stages of the design process, Moore and his team worked on ideas that would emphasize the sunny Pacific Coast environment and weather, or symbols of the state, California. As a matter of fact, they thought they could use the Golden Bear, which is California’s state animal…until they realized that following on the popular Moscow Games mascot, Misha the Bear, would be more than a small cold war embarrassment.

bob-moore
Bob Moore

According to this detailed explanation of the development of the 1984 Olympic mascot from Mouse Planet, Moore’s team of 30 artists drew up animated versions of orange and palm trees, cactuses, bisons, snakes and turtles. Apparently, a beefed-up bison standing on two legs looked awkward and was abandoned. I suppose that was true for the humanoid cactus….

In the end, the bald eagle became the symbol of choice, with its associations to freedom, independence and fighting spirit. In fact, Sam the Eagle, as the mascot was eventually called, represented the very motto of the Olympic Games “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which is Latin for faster, higher, stronger. How a “short, stubby, cuddly little eagle” as Mouse Planet describes Sam represents faster, higher, stronger is debatable, the idea that the stuffed toy would sell millions was not. As Mouse Planet explains, 43 companies ended up licensing to sell Olympic branded products. Sam the Eagle was featured on t-shirts, cups, pins, keychains, watches, picture frames, even Frisbees and spoons.

Sam the Eagle soared, as did the American Olympic Team, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Although Misha the Bear may have had a word or two for Sam the Eagle….

Rudolf Abel
Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, actual (left) and as portrayed in the film, Bridge of Spies by Mark Rylance

I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, Spielberg needed time to tell the complicated story of how an insurance lawyer from New York ended up representing an arrested English Soviet spy living in New York, and subsequently getting in the middle of a two-front prisoner exchange negotiation in Cold War Berlin between uncertain representatives of the Soviet Union and East Germany, whose own alliance seemed strained at best.

And yet the time of the film zipped by. Tom Hanks plied his Everyman shtick to perfection as the lawyer thrust into geo-political intrigue. Mark Rylance was absolutely riveting as the captured Soviet spy, and the famed Coen brothers helped craft a narrative that was clear, and at times, witty.

One particular scene, which apparently had no basis in fact and was done for dramatic effect (effectively), made me wonder. It was a scene where Tom Hanks’ character, James Donovan, is crossing from East to West Berlin over the wall, and witnesses in horror the shooting of a would-be escapee. What must have been the feelings of West and East German athletes at the Summer Games a few years after the wall went up, especially since they had to compete as one German team? Were they happy? Antagonistic? Were they so focused that they simply didn’t notice each other?

East Germany sent no athletes to the Helsinki Games in 1952. But at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, 37 East Germans joined West Germans on a unified German team. This unified German team was identified by the country code GER, was represented by a flag with black, red and yellow stripes, centered by five white Olympic rings, and was presented gold medals using the opening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.german olympic flag

When East Germany was expected to send around 140 athletes to the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, East and West decided that it was time for both German teams to live and train together. But 15 years of political rhetoric had created a cultural rift between the two sides. For example, as David Maraniss wrote in his book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “it was part of the daily rhetoric of East Germany to denounce West German leaders as former Nazis.” The victories of East German diver Ingrid Kramer were an inspiration to all Germans, but the rise of the Berlin Wall and geo-political tensions made a lie of the unified German team. Again, Maraniss writes,

The Berlin border closing during the Olympics had gone largely unnoticed by German athletes in Rome, but months later it took on an unavoidable physical reality when the Berlin Wall went up. Kraemer called the construction of the wall “a huge surprise…It was very cruel for many, especially the finality of it. We were all shocked, as nothing had hinted to its erection before it happened.” The wall, and the cold war tensions that followed, made a sham of Avery Brundage’s insistence that the Germans bring another unified team to the Olympics in 1964. West German sports officials refused to have anything to do with their East German counterparts after the wall went up, and fielded a combined team in Tokyo in name only, barely able to “maintain the façade of being unified,” in the words of historian Heather L. Dicther.

Read a relevant post I wrote previously, Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story.

Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, East and West Germany competed as one team, under a single flag, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) their national anthem. But the unity of the “German” team was more of a mirage, as geopolitical realities extended Cold War distance to the athletes.

At the time, the Iron Curtain was a philosophical metaphor for the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin was a very real barrier. Only three days before the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games, it was reported that 57 people had successfully escaped from East to West Berlin through a tunnel dug under the wall. As was written in the AP report, “it was believed to be one of the biggest mass escapes since the Red Wall was erected in the summer of 1961.”

During the existence of the Wall, from 1961 to 1989, around 5,000 people escaped in a variety of ways – balloons, tightrope, and tunnels. The 57 who escaped made it through what is now known as “Tunnel 57”.

A civil engineering student in East Berlin named Joachim Neumann was able to sneak past border guards to West Berlin posing as a Swiss student in 1961. And while Neumann continued his studies in West Berlin, he also began to apply his learnings to the building of tunnels under the Wall.

Neumann’s first project was on a team building a tunnel in 1962, resulting in the successful escape of 29 people over two days, September 14 and 15. Neumann had a girlfriend in East Berlin, but was unable to inform her in time of the day of escape. But Tunnel 29, as it is now known, was Neumann’s realization that he would have other opportunities to bring his girlfriend to freedom.

Unfortunately, the next attempt to build a tunnel ended in calamity as the East German secret police uncovered the existence of the tunnel under progress. One of the people arrested was Neumann’s girlfriend, Christina, who was held for 8 months before being sentenced to two years in prison.

Joachim and Christina Neumann
Joachim and Christina Neumann

And Neumann continued to work on tunnel projects from the West Berlin side, including an excavation from April to October in 1964, the very one cited in the AP article above. Here is how the site, Berlin Wall Memorial, tells the rest of the story.

The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who