The sprinting heir-apparent to Wilma Rudolph in 1960, was Edith McGuire, a member of the famed Tennessee State University Tigerbelles. Clearly, SI hadn’t heard about Wyomia Tyus, who won the 100-meters championships and the crown of fastest woman in the world, but didn’t merit a listing in SI’s top three in that event.
When you see a champion, there is almost always a role model.
For Olympic champions like Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Evelyn Ashford, the role model is Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. Crowned the fastest women in the world at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph easily won the gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and anchored the American 4×100 team to victory.
Due to her modest grace and her apparent beauty, as well as a life story of overcoming difficult odds to become the best in the world, Rudolph was in the early 1960s the most famous female athlete in the United States, if not the world.
And while she is well known for helping to integrate her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee when she insisted on the relaxation of segregation laws during her Clarksville Welcome Home celebrations, she has perhaps had a more lasting impact on the success of women, particularly black women, in sport.
At the banquet in her honor during “Wilma Rudolph Day” on October 4, 1960, she made this statement: “In every effort I have been motivated by one thing: to do justice to those who believe in me and to use my physical talents to the glory of God and the honor of womanhood.” David Maraniss, in his book Rome 1960, pointed out that phrase as a symbol of Rudolph’s true lasting influence.
…it was the last phrase of her banquet speech – the honor of womanhood – that resonated deepest and longest. She was by no means the first great woman Olympian, but a unique combination of personal and cultural forces – her style and attractiveness, her candor and pride in who she was and where she was from, the leg braces of her childhood, the fact that she flashed onto the scene so brilliantly at the first commercially televised Olympics, her international esteem – made her a powerful symbol of the rise of women in sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore of women athletes, her profile would be one of the four chiseled faces. “For every woman athlete who came after, she was the person who opened the door,” Ed Temple said later. “Wilma opened that door, and for all women, not just in track and field. She had that smile. She had that charisma.”
Maureen M. Smith wrote the book, Wilma Rudolph: A Biography, and proclaimed, “Wilma Rudolph’s story is more than the races she won and world records she established. It is the story of a young woman who overcame tremendous obstacles that should have kept her from ever experiencing athletic success, and yet she is the epitome of triumph.”
Here was a woman that women, particularly black women, could look up to with pride, and set as the bar for achievement. When Rudolph passed away in November, 1994, here’s what Joyner-Kersee had to say about her idol.
She was someone I could always talk to. She was very inspirational. She was always in my corner. If I had a problem, I could pick up the phone and call her at home. It was like talking to your sister or your mother, someone you knew for a lifetime. I always thought of her as being the greatest, and not only athletically. You respected her as a woman.
None other than 1960 Olympics teammate and USA team captain, Rafer Johnson, wrote in his autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, that Rudolph’s contribution cannot be overlooked.
One of the most important changes has been the advancement of female athletes. In my day, the public suffered under the assumption that women could not compete in the same sports as men, or had to be protected if they did. I remember women’s basketball, for instance, when each team had an offensive and defensive unit so the players did not have to run full court. Most of the male athletes I knew had great respect for their female counterparts; we were not surprised to see the strides women have made since Wilma Rudolph dazzled the world in Rome.
Today, the sheen off the 10-event, 2-day competition known as the decathlon has dimmed. It’s a generalist’s competition in a day and age when specialists reign, which commonly means that kids growing up do not find it on offer in their schools.
That was true for young Ashton Eaton, who competed in football, basketball, running, soccer and wrestling in Mountain View High School in Oregon. A swift 400-meter runner and long jumper, Eaton did not generate much interest from the top universities. He decided to go to the University of Oregon, and focus on the decathlon. From that point on at the University of Oregon, Eaton became a perennial favorite in the decathlon, becoming the first to ever win three consecutive NCAA decathlon championships in the US.
While Eaton failed to make the US team for the Beijing Olympics, he not only qualified in 2012, but won gold at the London Games. Now he is seeking in Rio to be the third person to be crowned “Greatest Athlete in the World” at two consecutive Olympics.
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.
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.
For more stories on C. K. Yang, see the following:
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
Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, and the internet flooded with tears.
A great man has passed, and all we can do is remember.
In 1960, Ali was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay. The 18-year-old from Louisville was certainly one of the noisiest Americans at the Rome Olympic Games. He did claim to be the Greatest to anyone who would listen, but he was not viewed as a leader of the US team. According to David Maraniss in his book, Rome 1960, Clay was simply not recognized on the same level as fellow US Olympians like decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, high jumper John Thomas, basketball players Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.
As discus thrower Rink Babka, the discus thrower from USC was quoted as saying, “When I think of 1960 and hear people say Cassius Clay was Mr. Olympics and everyone went to see him – bullshit.”
But one person in particular found Clay to be a kind of kindred spirit, or rather an alter ego. Maraniss wrote touchingly about the relationship between 1960’s Greatest Athlete in the World, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, and boxing’s self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time.
“He (Johnson) felt close to the young boxer from the first time they met at the Olympic Village in Rome. Months after they had won their gold medals, they toured the South together on a speaking tour of predominantly black colleges. They were roommates on the road and stayed up late at night as Clay told Johnson precisely how he planned to become an unforgettable character as well as the heavyweight champion of the world. Many of the cocky phrases and poems that Clay – and later Ali – brought to the world, he first tried out on Rafer Johnson in their hotel rooms. Johnson saved those discussions for posterity on a small tape recorder.
The friendship, for Johnson, was an attraction to an opposite, or a repressed part of self, and he was self-aware enough to appreciate it, saying of Cassius Clay: “I love the way he talked. He was just brash and challenged people, and he said it the way he felt it, and he talked about it. I am not that type of person. I carry it inside. I talk about it a little bit, but I don’t need to say everything. He seemed to need to say everything. He wanted to talk about the beginning, and how he was going to do it, and the end, how he was going to finish. I just couldn’t do that. That just wasn’t my makeup. But I loved him for being that kind of person. I loved him for that.”
Clay won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics. He would go on to fame, recognition and notoriety four years later as Muhammad Ali. You can read all about that on the Internet, where Ali will indeed go down in history as the Greatest of All Time.
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
My father was a member of the NBC News Team that covered the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He’s far left, and that’s Rafer Johnson, Rome decathlete champion, seated, also a member of the news crew. The crew are wearing protective masks, being cheeky. They probably saw a lot of Japanese wearing these masks in and around town.
In modern-day Tokyo, men and women routinely wear masks during hay fever season to avoid the pollen, or during the fall and winter months to avoid giving others their colds. But I now realize that in 1964, the reason for wearing the masks was different – the air back then was filthy. Routinely in these crisp winter days, we have perfect views of Mt Fuji. Back then you couldn’t see it for the pollution. In the 1960s, Tokyo was a year-round cloud of dust. Here’s how writer, Robert Whiting described it in the Japan Times: “Tokyoites dwelled under a constant cloud of noise, dust and pollution as the city struggled to rebuild itself from the wreckage of the American B-29 Superfortress bombings.”
The dust, the noise, the smells, the ever-changing skyline and the disorientation with unprecedented change – for many, the transformation of Tokyo was overwhelming. What took the West a couple of generations to do – moving from agriculture to manufacturing – Japan was trying to do much faster. While the pace of change was exciting to many, giving them hope after post-war desperation, the 1960s was also a period of confusion and alienation for those coping with life in the most crowded city in the world.
I took an EdX MOOC course called Visualizing Postwar Tokyo under Professor Shunya Yoshimi of The University of Tokyo in which he highlighted the stress people in Tokyo were under due to this change. He shared the opening minutes of this NHK documentary called “Tokyo”, by director Naoya Yoshida, which shows the crowds, the noise, the traffic and the construction through the eyes of a woman whose father was killed in the Tokyo firebombings and mother who ran away from home.
As the woman says in the documentary, “Tokyo, unplanned and full of constructions sites, is no place for a human being to live. Only a robot with no sense could live in this rough, coarse, harsh and dusty city that doesn’t have any blue skies. Many people complain like this. But I disagree. I think this city is just desperately hanging along, just like me.”
As Professor Yoshimi said, “the woman in this film is a symbol of the isolation in the big cities.”
But again, rest assured. Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, and today, is arguably, the cleanest.
On October 14, 1964, four days after the start of the Tokyo Summer Games, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Fifty one years later, despite Barack Obama becoming the first black in the Oval Office, the state of race relations in the United States appears be getting worse. According to a recent New York Times CBS News poll conducted last week, race relations have regressed. “…nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse. By comparison, two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Obama took office said they believed that race relations were generally good.”
In my view, race relations between blacks and whites in the US have been a long slog of three steps forward two steps back. Sports in some ways has been a leading indicator for race relations, mainly because at some point, ability and outcome outweigh the color of one’s skin.
Here are a few significant moments from sports relevant to this topic, including past Olympiads – this is not a comprehensive list by any means:
Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis in 1935 in a highly publicized match between a white German and a black American, one year prior to the Berlin Games in 1936.
Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, under the glare of Nazi leaders who espoused Aryan racial superiority.
In 1938, Joe Louis dropped Max Schmeling three times in the first round, remaining heavyweight champion of the world.
Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in baseball by becoming the first black ball player in the major leagues on April 15, 1947.
In the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, decathlete Rafer Johnson was the first black athlete to be flag bearer for the US team. Despite protests, apartheid South Africa participated in those Games.
South Africa was suspended by the IOC from participating in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 due to the South African government adopted a policy to prohibit athletes of different races to participate in sports together.
In 1968 at the Summer Games in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who came in first and third in the 200 meter race, were kicked out of the Olympic Games for raising their fists covered in black gloves. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated that year.