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06 Sep 1960
Rome 1960

Friendship comes second for decathlon star Johnson

The decathlon produced a truly classic battle in Rome between the USA’s Rafer Johnson and his friend C.K. Yang, who trained with Johnson but was representing Taiwan.

Their upbringings had been very different – Johnson's family moving from Texas to California when Rafer was nine, Yang, meanwhile, grew up among rice farmers in Taiwan. However, the two came together as students at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). They shared accommodation, trained together under coach “Ducky” Drake and developed a close friendship.

Both men had competed in the Games four years earlier, with Johnson finishing second and Yang eighth. But now they were both stronger and more experienced, and clearly the class acts in their event. Johnson had broken the world record in 1958, which had confirmed him as the world's most celebrated decathlete. But he, better than anyone, knew that Yang was not far behind.

So it proved during the competition. After the first day of competition, Johnson led by just 55 points, a very narrow margin in the context of a decathlon.

The first event of the second day, though, saw Yang assume top spot after a much better performance in the hurdles. But the discus proved pivotal, with Yang producing a weak throw that was nearly nine metres behind that of his American rival. Johnson reclaimed the lead, holding onto it despite losing out to Yang in the pole vault.

Going into the final event, the 1,500m, Johnson led by 67 points but it was Yang who was the stronger runner. Johnson decided to sit behind him, keeping as close as possible. Yang tried to break away, but Johnson responded, finishing just six yards behind to win gold by just 58 points.

The two men fell into each other's arms, utterly exhausted. Yang had beaten his great rival in seven out of ten events, but Johnson's greater all-round consistency had delivered him the gold. Between them they had served up one of the greatest decathlons in Olympic history.

Johnson retired from decathlon and became an American footballer, an actor, a broadcaster and later a political activist. He was alongside Senator Robert Kennedy when the latter was shot dead, and was one of those to apprehend the assassin.

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