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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Willi Holdorf on medal stand
Rein Aun of the Soviet Union (silver) Willi Holdorf of Germany (gold) and Hans-Joachim Walde of Germany (bronze)

To be honest, he looked more like an accountant than a decathlete. He had thinning hair and sloping shoulders, and wasn’t dominant in any of the ten events. And yet, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Willi Holdorf of Germany broke the US stranglehold on the decathlon to be the first non-American to win the prestigious event since 1928.

According to UPI, when the 24-year old student was asked by the press how it felt to be the “World’s Greatest Athlete”, Holdorf replied “‘Nicht ich, nicht ich’, vigourously shaking his head when the question of how it felt to be regarded the greatest of them all wad put to him. In slow, deliberate English, he conveyed the idea that he did not think of himself as No. 1, but genuinely believed (Bob) Hayes was the all-round best even though the speedy Floridian never even competed in the decathlon.”

While decathletes like Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias had created an American stranglehold on this ten-discipline event of running, jumping and throwing, the overwhelming favorite to win gold in 1964 was the Asian Iron Man from Taiwan, C. K. Yang. Yang barely lost to his close friend and UCLA teammate at the 1960 Rome Olympic. The fight, they said, would be for silver. As it turns out, Holdorf won gold, while his German teammate, Hans-Joachim Walde took silver, and a third German finished sixth – an amazing result.

Willi Holdorf_The Olympic Century
Willi Holdorf in the decathlon high jump, from the book The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Highly publicized changes to the decathlon rules prior to the Tokyo Olympics resulted in fewer points assessed to decathletes who had a specialization that was far superior to others in the field. In other words, if an athlete was dominant in a particular event, prior to 1964, they could get an outsized number of points and take an outsized lead. But that advantage was diminished with the rule change. Fortunately for the German squad, they had a decathlon coach, Friedel Schirmer, who had the philosophy to take advantage – consistency uber alles.

Returning home to Germany as a sickly solider after surviving captivity in the Soviet Union shortly after the end of World War II, Schirmer went on to become a seven-time all Germany champion in the decathlon, representing Germany as the flag bearer in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He placed eighth in those Olympics, but it was his philosophy that had such an impact that Germany would consistently medal in the Olympic decathlon in the years following 1964. Here’s how Carl Posey explained it in the book, The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Every elite decathlete’s score took a dip because of the table revisions, but the least affected was a group of Germans. These men were all coached by Friedel Schirmer, who stressed consistency in every event rather than excellence in one or two. Foremost among his protégés was Willi Holdorf, a balding, 24-year-old physical education student from Leverkusen. Holdorf took the decathlon lead after the first event, the 100-meter dash. He fell back as far as fourth place after the shot put and high jump, while the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Storozhenko surged to the front on the strength of a tremendous put. Holdorf regained the lead after the 400 meters and maintained it through the final five events. The gold medalist’s score of 7,887 points was well short of a record, nevertheless, the Tokyo Games validated Schirmer’s decathlon philosophy. Germans claimed three of the top six spots, and Schirmer-trained athletes would dominate the event for the rest of the decade.

Willi Holdorf after 1500 meter race
Willi Holdorf after the decathlon 1500-meter race, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad Kyodo News Service

Sports Illustrated in their November 2, 1964 issue explained that Schirmer had studied up on Soviet and American training techniques and after becoming coach of the German decathlon squad worked them hard in a series of biweekly training and competitive sessions, gearing them for Tokyo. In the end, as is the case in many decathlons, it came down to the tenth and final event, the 1500-meter race. Like Johnson in 1960, Holdorf did not need to win, but he needed to do well enough to maintain his point lead.

In Tokyo, Holdorf took an early lead and held it, though as the exhausting 1,500-meter run, the final event, began, three men were still close enough to beat him. Particularly dangerous were Russia’s Rein Aun and America’s Paul Herman, both of whom could run much faster 1,500s than the German. “I knew that I could win if I could stay within 60 meters of Aun and 100 meters of Herman,” said Holdorf, a tall, balding blond who is built like a wedge of custard pie standing on its point. Aun took an immediate lead, with Herman in desperate pursuit and Holdorf gradually falling farther and farther behind. But at the finish Holdorf, tottering half-conscious over the line, was close enough to salvage victory from Aun by the narrow margin of 45 points.

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

C K Yang Sports Illustrated Cover
World’s Best Athlete – C. K. Yang December 23, 1963 X 9612 (X 9456) credit: Mark Kauffman – contract (BG Eric Schaal)

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.

Ducky Drake
Ducky Drake

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