CK Yang and Rafer Johnson after 1500 meters
CK Yang and Rafer Johnson after the completion of the 1500 meter race and the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

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.

The Best I Can Be CoverAs 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.”

1960 Decathlon results table

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.

Rafer Johnson on CK Yang's right shoulder in 1500

 

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

Dibiasi Webster and Gompf_Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency
On the Medal Stand at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: Klaus Dibiasi (Italy) Bob Webster (USA), Tom Gompf (USA)_from the book Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

It’s an oft-told tale – the aimless youth meets the experienced veteran who sees the potential the youth does not see.

Bob Webster was one such youth growing up in California in the 1950s. While Webster would accomplish the astonishing – winning gold medals in the 10-meter platform dive competition in two consecutive Olympics – he had no idea he had a career in diving in high school….until he met Sammy Lee.

“I was a gymnast growing up in the local YMCA, but when the gymnastics coach left town to take another job, we were left hanging,” Webster told me, referring to his time at Santa Ana High School. “That summer of my sophomore year, we went to the community pool and did somersaults into the water.” Webster explained that they were going to the pool to self-train themselves in gymnastics, but in essence, that is how he got his start in diving.

Bob Webster profile
Click on image to see footage of Webster diving at the Tokyo Olympics.

Webster graduated from high school and stayed local by going to Santa Ana Junior College, which did not even have a pool. More importantly though was what Santa Ana Junior College had very nearby – Sammy Lee. “Of all people, who sets up his practice there in Santa Ana? Dr. Sammy Lee! How lucky am I?”

Webster explained that one of his diving buddies actually walked into Dr. Lee’s office, and said something to the effect of – we got this kid who went to Santa Ana High School and you have to check him out. “How many times has he heard that,” thought Webster. But Webster did indeed set up a time to meet Dr. Lee, who was at this time, one of the most renown American Olympians of his time – a US Army medical doctor who had won gold in the 10-meter platform dive in 1948 (London) and 1952 (Helsinki).

Sammy Lee card

“When I went to meet Sammy, I was a nervous wreck,” said Webster. “He watched me dive, and he said, ‘I think you can win in the Olympic Games.’ I didn’t have any goals, but Sammy gave me the greatest gift – he lit the fire in my belly. He got me to believe in myself. ‘Bob I will be glad to train you,’ he told me. ‘We can do it at my home.'”

In fact, Webster trained off of a diving board above a sand pit, set up in Dr. Lee’s backyard. “That is how it started. He told me, ‘here is what I expect from you. You have to focus on this. And I will coach you.’ He didn’t charge me. He got me to believe in myself.”

Webster remembered Dr. Lee as a taskmaster, which is exactly what he needed. “I had some talent and desire, and Sammy drew it out of me. He was my idol, but we also called him the little general. ‘Do this. Do that,’ he’d say. But I’d do everything he told me to do. He must have made me do dives over and over until it was right. But he also had a great sense of humor. When I was training for the 1960 games in Rome, if I missed a dive, he’d sing Arriverderci Rome.”

Said Dr. Lee of Webster, “Diving-wise, he was the greatest competitor I’ve ever coached. He really held up under competition, as both of his Olympic medals were by narrow margins. I told him early on that he could be an Olympic champion and Bob finally said, ‘If you’re serious, I’m serious.’ I wrote to the University of Michigan and told them I had the

1964-tokyo
Manikavasagam Jegathesan of Malaysia (#415) at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Life is long, and full of complexity. As one can’t see the forest for the trees, one also can’t know how actions today will shape one’s situation months or years later. Manikavasagam Jegathesan of Malaysia was only 16 years old when he took center stage in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the first of three Olympiad appearances. Little did he know that his entire life would be shaped by the Games, particularly those in Tokyo in October of 1964.

“When the Rome Olympics started, every winner became my hero. I was so impressionable,” Jegathesan told me. “Livio Berrutti was the 200-meter champion, and he ran in sunglasses. I was targeting him. I was going to be him. From that point on, I never ran a race without dark glasses. In my first heat, I ran against Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh. He was another hero.” Jegathesan did not make it beyond the first heat in Rome, and his Olympics competition was done.

1960-400 hts first round with milka
Jegathesan running a heat with Milka Singh at the 1960 Olympics

But when the Tokyo Olympics rolled around in 1964, Jegathesan was the fastest man in Asia, Asian Games champion in both the 100 and 200-meters. And when he crossed the tape at 20.5 seconds in Singapore a few months before the Olympics in a 200-meter race, there were hopes he could challenge for the finals in Tokyo.

Jegathesan took to the blocks first with the 100 meters, where he hoped to be the first Malaysian to make it beyond the first round. He made the cut with a time of 10.6 seconds, but was eliminated in the second round – which was OK. He got the nerves out of the way, and was ready to do damage in the 200-meter competition.

In round one of the 200-meter competition, Jegathesan ran toe to toe with Canadian superstar, Harry Jerome, who had already taken the bronze medal in the 100-meter finals. Then in the quarterfinals, Jegathesan ran against Paul Drayton, who eventually won silver in the 200 meters, and his hero, Livio Berruti, the 1960 200-meter champion from Italy. He finished just behind those two to qualify, becoming the first Malaysian to make it to the semi-finals. That would take place the next day, so Jegathesan was ready for a good night’s sleep.

But a good sleep never came. He awoke in the middle of the night, his throat sore, his body feverish. He could not sleep, his condition now feeding a growing anxiety about his prospects in the 200. When morning arrived, he took off for the stadium, angry that his chance at glory was at risk. Jegathesan ran as hard as he could, but finished last in his semi-final heat. He trooped on as a team member of the Malaysian 4×100-meter relay team, but ran poorly, and pulled out of the 4X400 meter relay.

His Tokyo Games finished, Jegathesan went to the Olympic Village infirmary and met the physician on call, Dr Yoshio Kuroda. The doctor diagnosed chicken pox, which is a contagious, uncomfortable disease. So the doctor ordered Jegathesan to bed in the hospital, and thus could not participate in the closing ceremonies. Jegathesan did go on to compete in the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where he made it again to the semi-finals of the 200-meter competition, and set the Malaysian record of 20.92 seconds, which still stands.

Time passed. Jegathesan completed his medical studies and went on to practice as a medical officer for the Malaysian government. In 2003, Dr. Jega, as he is now often called, was at an international athletics meet in Hyderabad, India. He was serving at the medical station for this event when in walked a man from Japan who took one look at him and said, “You’re the guy with chicken pox!” Dr Jega was reunited with his doctor at the Tokyo

Lee Calhoun in 1960
The finish of the 100m hurdles at the Olympic games in Rome in 1960, just won by Lee Calhoun from the USA ahead of Willie Mae also from the USA.

Lee Calhoun was the 110-meter hurdles champion at the 1956 Melbourne Games. And like many other athletes in the post-war years, he was not financially well off. He was about to get married, but he wanted to keep his dream alive of repeating his gold-medal success at the 1960 Rome Games.

For many athletes in America up until about the 1980s, this meant sacrifice, scrimping and saving to maintain just enough to get by and be able to train. In 1958, Calhoun intended to marry his college sweetheart, but was under no illusion of being able to afford anything special.

His fiancé, Gwen Bannister, had an idea. Based on a tip from Calhoun’s college coach, LeRoy T. Walker, Bannister would apply for participation on the popular game show, “Bride and Groom”. On this program from the 1950s, couples would actually get married, revel in their wedding gifts presented on the show, and then be sent off on an all-expenses paid honeymoon.

Bride and Groom_NBC title screenshot

As she explained to David Maraniss in his wonderful book Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World, Bannister said that Calhoun was not a party to the idea, but was all for it when he heard about it. “If they enjoyed your letter, they would put you on the show. Mine must have been a humdinger,” Gwen told Maraniss. “I didn’t tell Lee about it until I knew for sure. He thought it was wonderful. We knew we didn’t have anything; didn’t even have a job. [But] it was my choice. Lee didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Lee Calhoun cardThen fell the heavy hand of the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union, which was the overarching governing body for sports in America recognized by the IOC. Only a week before Lee Calhoun and Gwen Bannister were to be married on television, Dan Ferris of the AAU informed the couple that Calhoun would no longer be considered an amateur if he appeared on “Bride and Groom”. As Maraniss explained, “Calhoun was unduly benefiting from his status as an athlete and that the couple would not have been invited on Bride and Groom had he not been a track star.”

Calhoun thought the judgment was unfair, “that anyone could be on the TV show, not just athletes.” So Lee and Gwen rolled the dice and got married on Bride and Groom.

Calhoun was suspended from competing in track and field for a year. Fortunately, he was able to continue his Olympic journey after the suspension, go to Rome, and win gold in 110-meter hurdles.