Celebrating Rafer Johnson: An Olympic Decathlon for the Ages

WeAreSOSC.org previously highlighted Rafer Johnson’s journey to get to the 1960 Rome Olympics and his place in history as the U.S. flagbearer during the Opening Ceremonies. Now, we take you through his gold-medal performance in the decathlon and the bond he shared with fellow competitor C.K. Yang.

By Tracy McDannald

Rafer Johnson would be the first to tell you the idea of competing in a decathlon is “ridiculous,” as he told Larry Schwartz as part of ESPN’s SportsCentury series that ranked him as the 53rd greatest North American athlete of the 20th century.

The decathlon is a test of strength, speed and endurance in 10 events over two days: the discus throw, high jump, long jump, javelin, pole vault and shot put; the 100-, 400- and 1,500-meter races; and the 110-meter hurdles. Ten events in the pursuit of one medal, with the possibility of one poor performance all but erasing the work of a previous event.

Of the 10 events, it was the 1,500 meters that Johnson described as “insanity,” and it was that insane run that placed him in Olympic immortality at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

As noted in the build-up to the Rome Games, the decathlon was expected to be a three-battle between Johnson, Vasili Kuznetsov of Russia and C.K. Yang of Taiwan. While the showdown with Kuznetsov had to wait until the event, Johnson and Yang trained together in 1960 as UCLA teammates once the former worked his way back from injury.

Elvin “Ducky” Drake, the legendary UCLA coach whose name is now on the school’s track stadium, was tasked with preparing the two world-class athletes. His advice, even in the heat of battle throughout the Olympic decathlon, was equally encouraging to put both in position to win.

Johnson was the ultimate competitor, but years later admitted he “didn’t always feel great” when Yang was among his foes on the track.

“We were so close that I was always a little bit ambivalent,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. “I obviously wanted to win.

“Up to that point, we worked out together and did our training. Spent a lot of time away from the track together. It was a unique relationship.”

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So, there was plenty of drama between the friendship angle, the Russian rival and some bad weather to push through—and it still exceeded expectations. But the decathlon didn’t start quite how Johnson envisioned.

Johnson’s heat in the 100-meter dash was marred by three false starts, the last of which he hadn’t realized until he was halfway down the track. While he wouldn’t make any excuses, his eventual time of 10.9 seconds was three-tenths of a second slower than his time in July when he set the decathlon world record at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore.

Johnson’s time landed him in third place to open the decathlon, with Yang’s time of 10.7 seconds pacing the field. Through one event, Yang owned a 1,034-948 lead on Johnson.

Yang’s lead grew to 130 points over his fellow Bruin after they finished 1-2 in the long jump, but Johnson pulled ahead after besting his marks by significant margins in the first of three throwing events. In the rain, Johnson’s shot put traveled a quarter-inch shy of 52 feet—nearly 3 feet longer than the next best throw—and he leapfrogged out to a 143-point lead on Yang, who finished a distant 14th out of 30 in the event.

The rain poured down harder, postponing the final two events on Day 1 into the evening. The 1961 Italian documentary “La Grande Olimpiade,” which translates to The Grand Olympics, noted that the final two events had to be completed before midnight or the previous results would be invalidated, per the rules.

Yang, who owned the top mark in the 1956 Olympic decathlon high jump, tied for the top again at 6 feet, 3 inches, while Johnson cleared 6 feet.

Yang closed the day with a time of 48.1 seconds for second place in the 400-meter run, two-tenths of a second faster than Johnson, and pulled within 55 points of the overall lead. Kuznetsov trailed them both in four of the five events to that point, a fourth-place finish in the shot put.

“Yang is doing better and better,” Johnson said, according to the filmmakers. “I taught him how to do the decathlon. Maybe I taught him too well.”

The start to Day 2 was supposed to be a chance for Johnson to pad his lead. The 110-meter hurdles were widely regarded as one of his better events. Instead, he got off to a slow start, nearly fell after making contact with the second hurdle and his time of 15.3 seconds tied for fifth.

Kuznetsov finished just ahead in fourth and Yang retook the overall lead with a top time of 14.6 seconds. Yang owned a 5,515-5,387 advantage and two of his signature events were still to come.

Kuznetsov applied pressure to both, producing a discus throw of 165.75 feet to lead the next event. For Johnson, it was an event he knew he had to bounce back in because the pole vault followed and Yang had the edge. Johnson rose to the occasion with a 159-foot throw, nearly 30 feet farther than Yang, to pull ahead in the overall standings, 6,281-6,137.

As expected, Yang led all competitors in the pole vault but squandered a chance to make up considerably more ground. Johnson, who considered the event among the more difficult given his 220-pound frame, cleared a personal-best jump of 13 feet, 5 3/8 inches. Yang had his sights on turning in one of his own. However, his final attempt of clearing 14 feet, 9 inches knocked down the bar and he had to settle for a jump of just over 14 feet. Johnson maintained a 24-point lead in the overall standings and it was a clear two-man race for the gold, as Kuznetsov was a distant 573 points behind the silver medal pace.

The javelin was Johnson’s opportunity to create more separation before the final event, as he was the superior thrower. Otherwise, Yang had the upper hand in the 1,500-meter run and the gold would slip away again.

“If I don’t score a lot of points in the javelin throw, Yang will overtake me in the last race,” Johnson told the filmmakers.

Johnson turned in a strong throw of 228 feet, 0.87 inches that traveled about 5 feet farther than Yang’s best attempt. He did enough to grow the overall lead to 67 points.

All that was left was the 1,500 meters. Johnson had to finish within 10 seconds of Yang to hold onto the gold, and the two put on a show. Johnson stayed close on his trail throughout the entire race to finish within 1.2 seconds. In the race of his life, Johnson turned in a personal best time of 4:49.7.

The two friends had just finished 1-2 in what many consider the greatest Olympic decathlon. Although Yang finished higher in seven of the 10 events, Johnson’s 8,392 points set an Olympic decathlon record. What followed was perhaps better than the race itself.

Immediately after crossing the finish line, an exhausted Johnson came up from behind Yang’s right side and rested his face on his friend’s shoulder. The two eventually hunched over, side by side, hands on their knees. With the crowd roaring and cameras surrounding them, the competitors shared a warm embrace and created a moment forever etched in sports history. From then on, the world would come to know Rafer Johnson as Olympic champion and the world’s greatest athlete.

“I was 2 years old when he won his gold medal but by the time I was 5 I knew who he was. He was the greatest athlete in the world,” said Brian Erickson, a member of Special Olympics Southern California’s board of directors and a coach for the South Bay program.

The Rome Olympics proved to be Johnson’s final moments as an athlete, but the world was only just starting to know his name.

In the next installment, we’ll look at Rafer Johnson’s place in the UCLA community and the immediate aftermath of his gold-medal performance.

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