A friendly rivalry – the Iron Man of Asia C.K. Yang and his American buddy Rafer Johnson

·7-min read
American athlete Rafer Johnson (left) and Yang Chuan-kwang of Taiwan together after completing the 1500m event of the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Johnson went on to win the decathlon with Yang in second place. (PHOTO: Keystone/Getty Images)
American athlete Rafer Johnson (left) and Yang Chuan-kwang of Taiwan together after completing the 1500m event of the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Johnson went on to win the decathlon with Yang in second place. (PHOTO: Keystone/Getty Images)

By Yu-hsin Yang

When the two of them arrived exhausted at the finish line, Rafer Johnson leaned on the shoulder of his close friend "C.K." Yang Chuan-kwang for support. 

That moment, when the 1960 Rome Olympics men’s decathlon came to an end, was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of sportsmanship, of “competing fairly on the track and building lifelong friendships off the track”, allowing the two men, who shared a coach, to create one of the most touching moments in Olympic history.

“It’s hard to describe my feelings upon seeing that moment. Sportspeople like us compete to win, everyone else is the enemy, and it’s very rare that enemies are able to go back to being best friends after they cross the finish line,” that's the view of Taiwan's former Olympic athlete, Chi Cheng, who recalls being filled with amazement and admiration at seeing the image. 

“That was why people who were there at the time said that both of them should have got the gold."  

Yang was an aboriginal Taiwanese from the Amis tribe and hailed from the Taitung area, while Johnson was an African American. They had to overcome poverty, racism and the complex political issues of the time (the conflict between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party and the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union). Through all this, they struggled and strived to create a multicultural competitive environment.

Yang was born in 1933 and inherited his father’s talents in both baseball and athletics. An only child, he loved to play baseball in his younger days, but was such a slow runner that people made fun of him. His tall, slim build also led people to say that he looked like a bamboo stick.

Yet, he was not perturbed by the mockery he encountered, and with his relatives telling him that he could build up his muscles when he got older, he never gave up on sport. Besides baseball, Yang also dabbled in the long jump and high jump. 

In 1954, when the Asian Games were to be held in Manila, Yang decided to abandon baseball and focus on athletics, but he failed to take first place in the national selection events and thought he had missed out on a place in the team. As he got into a taxi to leave the Zuoying Training Center (the predecessor of the National Sports Training Center), he heard his name being announced on the radio in the car and discovered that he had become the 21st team member (the team was officially supposed to have 20 people). On hearing this, he wept with happiness.

At the tender age of 21, he was curious and ambitious about everything during his days in Zuoying, and spent a lot of time reading Japanese training manuals and practising the skills by himself. Whatever discipline they were practising, he would continue to push himself while others were resting and recovering,

As a result, he was close to or better than many of the national track and field records at the time. His coach was amazed and thought that his all-round abilities would make him a natural fit in the decathlon. For this reason, he made the decision to send Yang to Manila just three weeks before the Asian Games opened.

The men’s decathlon is one of the most arduous athletics disciplines. 

The two-day event tests speed, power and jumping ability on the first day, with a 100m sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400m race in succession. This is followed on the second day by tests of technique, endurance and stamina involving a 110m hurdle race, discus, pole vault and javelin, culminating in a gruelling 1,500m run.

At the time, Yang didn’t even understand how the points were calculated for the decathlon, and he had never actually completed a whole two-day decathlon trial before he left for Manila. In the end, he finished with 5,454 points, edging the second-placed Japanese athlete by just 25 points, winning Taiwan’s first athletics gold medal at the Asian Games, and earning the nickname "the Iron Man of Asia".

At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Yang joined the ranks of the world’s top sportspeople for the first time, coming eighth in the decathlon, while Johnson won the silver medal. Over the next few years, their fates overlapped as they competed in major events together. 

Watch: The Olympic star who learned her sport using a giant elastic band

Yang took second place in a US track and field competition, earning an opportunity to train in the US, while Johnson was chosen by renowned magazine Sports Illustrated as Sportsman of the Year in 1958.

The two men trained together under celebrated athletics coach Elvin Drake at University of California, Los Angeles. Johnson took the younger Yang under his wing and helped him adapt to his new environments. He even invited Yang to his house for dinner, and took him to church services as though he were a member of his family. 

In 1959, Johnson suffered a serious back injury in a car accident. During his recovery and physical therapy, Yang stayed by his side to help him, in the hope that the two of them could compete in the Rome Olympics together.

Rafer Johnson, born in 1934, had become a famous and influential athlete in America, but radical civil rights campaigners demanded that he boycott the Rome Olympics to protest the country's racism at the time. 

Johnson tactfully declined, telling the campaigners, “I will never give up, I will defeat everyone to prove that I’m right." He eventually became the first African American to carry the flag for the US team during the Olympic opening ceremony and the first black captain of the US athletics team.

Watch: The little boy who grew up to beat his Olympic idol Michael Phelps

“(Yang and I) were very good friends. We both knew that the coach had told us that the decathlon would come down to the two of us, and we would have to fight for the win,” Johnson recalled. 

When they stepped onto the field at the 1960 Rome Olympics, they got back to pure competition mode and talked less, but both had conflicted feelings, in that they hoped their opponent would do well, but also wanted to win themselves.

Yang won three of the five events on the first day, but was too far behind on the shot put, as Johnson took the provisional lead. On the second day, Yang made a mistake in the discus, but came out on top in the 110m hurdles and the pole vault. By the final event, his total score still lagged behind Johnson.

In the final 1,500m event, Yang needed to be 10 seconds ahead of Johnson to win gold, but Johnson hung on close behind him, with the pair crossing the line less than two seconds apart. Johnson won the Olympic gold medal with a score of 8,392 points, while Yang took silver just 58 points behind. 

This was the first time a person of Chinese ethnicity had won an Olympic medal and the two exhausted men supported each other as they celebrated, before lying down on the field, their smiles captivating the audience.

Rafer Johnson (left) competes against Yang Chuan-kwang in the 1500m event of the decathlon competition during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. (PHOTO: Robert Riger/Getty Images)
Rafer Johnson (left) competes against Yang Chuan-kwang in the 1500m event of the decathlon competition during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. (PHOTO: Robert Riger/Getty Images)

Johnson later recalled, “I had one other advantage, and I don’t think C.K. knew this at the time. This was my last decathlon. I was prepared to run as fast as I had to in this last race of my life.” 

He was nonetheless grateful to his friend, as their struggle together enabled him to keep going to the final moment of this epic battle.

The two of them remained firm friends after that moment until Yang’s death in 2007, shortly after which Johnson commented that “I was happy that we got to know each other because of sport, and that we opened our hearts to one another”. 

Johnson passed away at the age of 86 in late 2020.

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