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Sports Then and Now



When Rafer Johnson Broke the Decathlon World Record—After Only 9 Events 1

Posted on October 12, 2012 by Rojo Grande

Many who witnessed Ashton Eaton’s incredibly moving decathlon world record at the 2012 Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon swear they will never see another sporting performance so inspiring.

I would never attempt to minimize such sentiments, as it truly was one of the signature moments in all of track and field.

Yet 52 years earlier, decathlete Rafer Johnson drew upon the same Hayward Field magic to lay down an earlier version of one of the sport’s most grueling accomplishments.

Let’s take a look back at another episode in the amazing legacy of Hayward Field.

The U.S./USSR Cold War rivalry of the mid-20th century was typified by the decathlon’s back-and-forth world-record duel between the American, Rafer Johnson, and then-current record-holder (8,357 points) Vasili Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union.

The record, in fact, had alternated between the two athletes four times since 1955.

And so it was, at the 1960 Amateur Athletic Union’s decathlon championships in Eugene, Johnson’s patriotic intent was as much to break Kuznetsov’s record as it was to secure a berth on the 1960 Rome Olympics team. 

In an uncanny subplot, Johnson’s UCLA teammate and good friend, C.K. Yang of Formosa (Taiwan), stood as a potential roadblock to the American’s quest. He was, after all, the defending collegiate national champion and a legitimate contender for the record in his own right. 

Johnson, UCLA coach Drake, and Yang

Rafer was a powerfully built hybrid of speed and strength, evidenced by his expertise in the sprints and throwing events. The three-time AAU champion was the silver medalist at the 1956 Melbourne Games but was on the comeback trail after an automobile accident had derailed his entire 1959 season.

Yang was a chiseled, wiry athlete who excelled in the hurdles, jumps and mid-distance races. As a foreign citizen, he was not eligible for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but was competing as a UCLA representative and of course, was himself cognizant of Kuznetsov’s record. Read the rest of this entry →

1960 Olympic Decathlon: A Duel For The Ages 11

Posted on December 05, 2009 by Rojo Grande

The decathlon duel between Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang was the highlight of a star studded 1960 Olympics.

The decathlon duel between Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang was the highlight of a star studded 1960 Olympics.

The decathlon is one of the most grueling competitions in all of sport. It consists of ten events, negotiated over two days. Points are awarded based on the order of finish as well as the distance, height or time achieved in each event. Final standings in a decathlon competition are therefore expressed as total accumulated points.

The particular events are designed to test the athlete’s speed, strength and endurance – in essence, an entire track meet in one competition. Because of the versatility and overall athleticism required to win, the Olympic decathlon champion is often referred to as  the “World’s Greatest Athlete”.

This is the story of one of the most dramatic battles for that coveted distinction. As you will read, this struggle for gold and glory carried with it some very interesting under currents.
The 1960 Rome Olympics was one of the most memorable in terms of drama, future legends and athletic achievement in all of modern Olympic history. Names like Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Wilma Rudolph, Al Oerter and the Russian sisters Irina and Tamara Press were but a few of the jewels set in the crown of Rome that year.

Among the gathered elite, probably none drew more attention than the top two decathletes in the world at that time: Yang Chuan-Kwang of Formosa (Taiwan) and the American world record holder, Rafer Johnson.

The decathlon in those days had worldwide appeal, due primarily to its dominance during the 1950s by Bob Mathias, who shocked the world by winning the 1948 Olympic gold as a 17 year old kid.

Yang, better known as C.K.Yang, was a member of the Takasago – an aboriginal tribe who inhabited Formosa long before the Chinese arrived. His athletic skill was recognized at an early age. He developed his art to the extent local facilities and competition would permit. He was good enough to finish eighth in the decathlon at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Eventually, track and field officials raised enough money to send him to the U.S. to train.

Read the rest of this entry →

Rafer Johnson 2

Posted on August 02, 2009 by Dean Hybl
Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson

In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the 1984 Summer Olympics, we are honoring as the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Week the person who received the prestigious honor of lighting the Olympic Flame at the opening ceremonies of those games.

Because success in the decathlon requires high-level performances in 10 significantly different events, decathlon champions have traditionally been considered to be the best athletes in the world. Few have ever been better than Rafer Johnson.

Read the rest of this entry →

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