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Two Friends, 10 Events : Johnson Outlasted Yang 30 Years Ago in Olympic Decathlon

September 06, 1990|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Accompanied by thunder and lightning, two athletes completed a two-day struggle for a gold medal that is as well remembered for the athletes' unique relationship as it is for their magnificent struggle.

It was the decathlon at the Rome Olympics, Sept. 5-6, 1960. Thirty years ago today.

Two athletes, two countries . . . but the same university, the same coach.

Rafer Johnson, a UCLA graduate, was the heavy favorite. He was 25 and just off a world record-breaking performance at the U.S. Olympic trials at Eugene, Ore., where he'd broken the world record before the end of the ninth event.

Yang Chuan-Kwang, called C.K. by most people, was a 27-year-old UCLA freshman from Taiwan who had trained for two years almost daily with Johnson and under UCLA track coach Elvin "Ducky" Drake.

When it all came down to two stormy, summer days in Rome, Johnson was the winner because he wouldn't fold in the stretch of the final event, the 1,500 meters. Yang lost, he says today, because he wound up in the wrong 1,500 meter heat--with Johnson.

The day Johnson won his final decathlon--he never competed again--was arguably one of track and field's most memorable days. On the same day Johnson and Yang were waging the final hours of their decathlon, Herb Elliott of Australia ran away from a great 1,500-meter field and set a world record, 3:35.6, that would last for seven years. And Otis Davis of Los Angeles, in a photo finish, won the 400-meter final in 44.9, another world record.

But seldom had two athletes, tethered so tightly to each other's aspirations as these two, competed so fiercely on such a stage. Some historians went back to the 1924 Paris Olympics for a comparison, when boxers Joe Salas and Jackie Fields, representing not only the United States but the Los Angeles Athletic Club as well, wound up in the gold medal bout at featherweight.

Rafer Johnson came to UCLA from Kingsburg, Calif., a San Joaquin Valley town where his father, Lewis Johnson, found work as a railroad section hand, at a peach cannery and in an animal food processing plant.

At the age of 14, Johnson watched another San Joaquin Valley Olympic decathlon champion, Bob Mathias, win a decathlon at nearby Tulare. Studying the competition, Johnson figured he could beat half the athletes in the field and he hadn't even gone out for track at Kingsburg High yet.

He won a decathlon as a high school senior while being recruited by virtually every football coach on the West Coast. None of them won. Ducky Drake, the UCLA track coach, did.

"I just had a great rapport with Coach Drake, and wanted to compete for him," Johnson says today. "I wanted to play football, too, and Red Sanders and I talked a lot about it. But I just couldn't fit it in. In 1955 it was the Pan American Games, in 1956 it was the Melbourne Olympics . . . "

Yang was a teen phenom in Taiwan. A member of the Takasago ethnic group, which inhabited the island of Taiwan for centuries before the Chinese arrived, Yang caught the eye of several officials of the Taiwan national track and field federation, who raised funds and sent him to the U.S. to train.

He spent more than a year in UCLA extension classes, mastering English, before enrolling as a freshman in 1958.

Suddenly, Drake had the world's two best decathlon performers on his track, every day. Drake, who died at 85 in 1988, was a UCLA institution. When he enrolled at UCLA as a freshman in the 1920s, the campus was on Vermont Ave., six years before the move to Westwood.

When he coached, he coached them together. When they competed, he coached them separately, from the first row of the stands. Sportswriters covering the 1960 Games were fascinated at watching first Johnson visiting privately with Drake, exchanging whispers, Yang waiting patiently a few yards away, for his turn.

"Before the 1,500 at Rome," Johnson said recently, "Ducky told me: 'You've got to run the race of your life, Rafe, because C.K. is going to run the race of his life.' He handled that situation wonderfully. To this day, neither C.K. nor I know which one of us he favored, if he did. That's why we've stayed so close all these years."

Johnson came to Rome in 1960 as the decathlon's premier performer. Track and Field News called his 8,683-point performance in the trials "staggering." With a 233-foot, 3-inch javelin throw, his first throw in the ninth event, he broke the world record of the Soviet Union's Vasily Kuznetzov (who would finish third in Rome). His final total surpassed Kuznetzov's by 326 points.

Few noticed, however, that Yang, too, broke the old world record, by 69 points.

Today, Johnson, 55, is the volunteer president of California Special Olympics, funded by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation. He has two salaried jobs, as spokesman for the Hershey Track and Field Program and for Reebok USA.

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