Rafer Johnson beat his friend, UCLA's C.K. Yang, to set a world decathlon record in Rome.
Rafer Johnson was like a Greek god who knew first-hand, as Homer wrote, that "there is no greater glory that can befall a man than what he achieves with the speed of his feet or the strength of his hands."
Johnson, a black man and civil rights symbol, is also a heroic patriot and humble Christian.
A product of Kingsburg, California, his younger brother is Jimmy Johnson, a UCLA football star and All-Pro with the 49ers, who regarded him as is hero after Rafer saved him from drowning when they were kids.
Johnson was UCLA's student body president, competing for legendary track coach Ducky Drake, and he placed second in the 1956 Olympic decathlon at Melbourne. After his college eligibility ended, he trained alongside another Bruin decathlete, C.K. Yang of Taiwan. They were friends, pushing each other while competing in international competitions against the formidable Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union.
"C.K. taught me about the pole vault, which he set the world record in," Johnson said. "I helped him, too. He started lifting weights to gain the kind of strength I had."
Johnson was chosen to carry the U.S. flag at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
"I was called a credit to my race," he recalled in his book, "The Best That I Can Be", "when I wanted to be a credit to my entire community. I would rather strive to be the greatest Christian in the world than the greatest athlete."
Johnson, Yang and Kuznetsov had all achieved world records, with Johnson setting it last at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
As the result of Red China's effort to oust Taiwan, Yang competed for Formosa, the embattled island's original name.
The political and social ramifications in Rome included a Taiwanese citizen competing in the face of Chinese threats; a white man vs. a black man vs. an Oriental; a couple of friendly-yet-competitive UCLA teammates; America vs. Russia, East vs. West, and capitalism vs. Communism--all set against the televised backdrop of the Cold War, the Space Race, the Kennedy/Nixon campaign, and the civil rights struggle.
"We each wanted the other guy to do well," said Johnson, "but we wanted even more to win."
In a photo op with Kuznetsov, Johnson insisted his friend, Yang, be included, angering the Chinese and Soviets.
"In sports we do not carry on a cold war," said Kuznetsov, a remark that probably made Nikita Kruschev's veins expand four inches.
In the muggy Italian summer heat, four false starts drained Johnson in the 100 meters. His 10.9 was three-tenths of a second less than his Trials time, a 132-point scoring differential.
After a 24-foot long jump, Johnson went to lunch ahead of Kuznetsov but trailing Yang by 130 points.
Johnson put the shot 52 feet to Yang's 44 to lead by 143 as the sky grew ominously dark. After sleeping during a rain delay, he came out at night to high jump 6' 3/4", but Yang topped it by two inches to narrow the lead to 75.
At 11 PM, running in puddles, Yang edged him in the 400 meters, 48.3 to 48.1. After a 15-hour day, they slumped to bed, Johnson ahead by a razor-thin 55 points.
Johnson slept from 1 to 6 AM.
"The pressure inside me was intense," he recalled.
The hurdles were all Yang, 14.6 to15.3 to take the lead by 62. It was now obvious Kuznetsov could not keep pace.
"I had never felt as much pressure as I did before the discuss throw," Johnson said of his "best single effort," 159' 1", to regain the lead.
Yang pole-vaulted 14' 1 1/4" to Johnson's 13.5' 1/4". Johnson by 22.
Johnson's javelin toss was six feet better than Yang, so it all came down to the 1500 meters.
Before the race, Yang and Johnson went separately to Drake, who with perfect impartiality gave both athletes the advice they needed to win.
Yang, a much better distance runner, was now favored. Under a full moon, before what was left of a big crowd on a muggy night not unlike what Johnson was used to in Central California, he reached back for that extra effort the great ones seem to find.
Johnson stuck with Yang like a shadow, despite an increased pace. He dogged him stride for stride, on his inside shoulder, a couple steps behind. On the third lap Yang tried to break Johnson's will with an all-out sprint, but Rafer, his strength almost gone, dipped "into my last dregs of energy."
Johnson finished two strides and 1.2 seconds behind his friend, who had needed to win by 10 seconds to win. Johnson going for and winning the Gold remains one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.
He went on to a fine business career, carried the torch at the 1984 LA Games, and is now an elder statesman of sports and society.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism