The Most Unusual Friendship in Olympic History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even with Olympic glory, it’s not just the winning that counts.
By John Krich and Mike Chinoy
Exhausted, the two men fell into each other’s arms in celebration. They had just crossed the finish line after two days and 10 grueling events, culminating in a 1,500-meter run. American Rafer Johnson and Taiwan’s C. K. Yang, participants in the 1960 Rome Olympics, had thrilled the crowds in the hardest-fought of competitions to determine the world’s greatest athlete: the decathlon.
The duo — one African-American, the other Taiwanese-Aboriginal — had struggled for years to earn a chance at Olympic glory. Their lives, which began at opposite ends of the Earth, seemed destined to be linked, both having overcome poverty, discrimination and complex politics to pioneer a multicultural playing field.
Training together for the two years leading to the 1960 Summer Games — a storied Olympics that introduced the world to Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali — Johnson and Yang faced enormous pressures. The politics of the Cold War and the early shock waves of America’s Civil Rights Movement meant that the pair — who jokingly called themselves a “two-man United Nations” — nearly missed their chance to compete.
The pressure was he had to win a gold medal. He was sent to the U.S. to do that.
Johnson was already a symbol of civil-rights advancement, having been elected student body president at UCLA, and felt the weight of both his race and personal expectations. The reigning world decathlon record holder, he had suffered a serious injury the year before and, after placing second at the 1956 Melbourne games, he knew this would be his last chance to win Olympic gold. Yet he also faced pressure to boycott the games from radical civil-rights activists. Johnson, however, rebuffed their demands, telling critics, “I’m not a quitter. I’ll make my point about civil rights by beating everybody.” And with that he entered the Stadio Olimpico at the front of the U.S. delegation — the first Black man given the honor of carrying the American flag during the opening ceremony.
Yang, although perennially cheerful — and constantly joking — bore even greater burdens. He shouldered the weight of an entire nation: Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China on Taiwan, locked in a bitter struggle with its communist rivals on mainland China. If anyone could put Taiwan on the map, it was Yang. Morever, he carried the hopes of ethnic Chinese around the world: As of 1960, no one with a Chinese surname had ever won an Olympic medal.
The Rome games offered Yang a chance to “break the egg” — which referred to the entire Chinese people’s zero-medal count at the time. That expectation weighed heavily on Yang, according to his wife, Daisy. “The pressure was he had to win a gold medal. He was sent to the U.S. to do that,” she says. Johnson doesn’t remember Yang talking about the stress. “But looking back on it, he dealt with the pressure internally,” he says.
Yet Yang almost saw his Olympic dreams disintegrate because of the politics of the Cold War. Mao Zedong’s communist regime in Beijing was boycotting the games to protest the presence of the team from anti-communist Taiwan. Hoping to convince Mao to end his boycott, the International Olympic Committee decided Yang and his teammates could not participate in the opening ceremony under the flag of Taiwan’s official name, the Republic of China.
Chiang Kai-shek, with American support, initially threatened to retaliate with a boycott of his own, and it seems likely he relented primarily because Yang offered the prospect of winning a medal and bringing glory to the island. Still, instead of entering the stadium as a flag-bearer, Yang was the only star athlete forced to march under a generic Olympic flag — while a team official carried a small sign that read “Under Protest.”
But as much as politics threatened to stand in their way, these competitors had been overcoming obstacles since childhoods that were eerily similar. Yang grew up in the poverty-stricken mountain villages of southeastern Taiwan, while Johnson was raised in the cotton fields of the segregated American South. Oak Cliff, Texas, where Johnson spent his early years, was an all-Black township of shacks, bereft of sidewalks or public facilities. His mother found work as a maid, and his father, trying to support his family as an itinerant laborer, became an abusive alcoholic. The family’s situation finally improved when he took a job with the Southern Pacific Railway and joined the migration of southern Blacks to California during World War II. But even after they settled in Kingsburg, a rural town composed largely of Swedish immigrants, the young Rafer was subjected to racist anger when he tried dating a white classmate.
Much like African-Americans, Taiwan’s 16 native peoples, the so-called aboriginals who have lived on the island off southeastern China for thousands of years, have long used sport as a path out of poverty and discrimination. But none surpassed the achievements of Yang, who honed his running skills as a child chasing the wreckage of American aircraft shot down by Japanese occupiers during World War II. A member of the Ami tribe, the largest native grouping, Yang was born with a “sucked-in chest” — a sign, his family believed, of future greatness — in an encampment in the hills above the town of Taitung. Growing up under Japanese rule, Yang was forced into hard labor and nearly died of malaria. It was only after Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Kuomintang armies fled Mao’s victorious communist forces on the mainland and established the Republic of China on Taiwan that Yang’s father, a local tax collector, picked the surname “Yang” and the first name “Chuan-kwang,” meaning “widely known,” for his son.
By then, the long-legged, crew-cut kid was already drawing attention as a baseball pitcher and all-around high school star. But it wasn’t until he learned that the 1954 Asian Games would be held in the Philippines — where six of his uncles who had been conscripted by the Japanese had disappeared during the war — that Yang began practicing the high jump. He sewed together his father’s old shoes and raised a stick of bamboo in the forest, later graduating to jumping over rows of bicycles, which simulated hurdles. His goal was to make Taiwan’s team, go to Manila and search for his uncles. In the Army, Yang got a chance to train and demonstrate his abilities, and when he beat every track athlete in the country at tryouts — breaking the national pole vault record as well — he was steered toward the largely unknown decathlon.
Yang made the Asian team, competing in the decathlon, though he didn’t fully grasp the rules for the event and collapsed from the strain of it — only to be revived by news that he had won. Sadly, he didn’t find his uncles, but his path was now set. The “Iron Man of Asia,” however, lagged a few paces behind his idol, Johnson, when the two competed in the 1956 Melbourne Games (Johnson won silver and Yang finished eighth). A couple of years later, Yang got permission to compete in the U.S. decathlon championship at Palmyra, New Jersey, where Johnson, chosen as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year for 1958, was the heavy favorite. Yet Yang managed to finish second — a strong performance that prompted Taiwanese authorities to arrange for him to train in the U.S., accompanied, of course, by a faithful government minder.
Yang immediately set his sights on UCLA, Rafer’s stomping grounds, but found that he was intimidated by the thought of practicing with the American. “I really didn’t like the idea of working with my idol. But Rafer was a very, very warm person,” Yang later said. “From the very beginning, we hit it off,” says Johnson, who, in entering UCLA, had become the first person in his family to attend college. He had chosen UCLA for another reason: to train with legendary track and field coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake, who agreed, with Johnson’s support, to take Yang under his wing as well.
Johnson was serious, intense and idealistic, compared to the shy and mischievous Yang. They made an unlikely pair but were soon hanging out both on and off the track. “We did a lot of stuff together around campus,” says Johnson, “and I tried to introduce him not only to the campus, but to some places outside of L.A.”
Since Yang was a stranger in a new land, Johnson often kept him company on weekends, regularly inviting him to his hometown of Kingsburg, where he scarfed up “soul food” cooked by Rafer’s mother. Soon he was like one of the family, joining them at church, where the preacher led fervent prayers for Rafer to win a gold medal at the 1960 games. Yang couldn’t help wondering where that left him. “My gosh!” he would recall. “All of those people asking God to help him win a gold medal! So I asked them, please send up word to Him for my medal too!”
At a Taiwan National Day reception in October 1959, Yang met Daisy Jue, a Chinese-American coed at USC who had grown up in suburban Ventura (the only Chinese family in a town of 24,000), and asked her to dance. They soon began dating and Yang proposed a few months later — with a condition that reflected the pressure he faced back home. “He always said, ‘If I marry you, we can’t tell anybody because they sent me here to win an Olympic gold medal, not to marry another student,’ ” she explains. They married in secret; even Johnson was left in the dark.
In mid-1959, Johnson was in a car crash and badly injured his back. For months, he awoke from nightmares drenched in sweat after dreaming that doctors told him he would not heal in time for the Rome Olympics. It was Yang who served as his staunchest supporter throughout his recovery and rehabilitation. He pushed Johnson to practice and cheered the loudest when his back healed in time for the Olympic trials. “We tried to help one another,” Yang later said.
Both men made the cut, putting Coach Drake in the difficult position of guiding them to best each other. Johnson recalls, “He simply told us, ‘No matter what the ratings are in the world, no matter what other athletes have done, this decathlon will be decided between the two of you.’ ” The pair exchanged leads over the course of the 10 events. But even in the midst of such intense competition, Yang offered Johnson suggestions about how to improve his performance in the pole vault. When his own turn at the event came, an overly ambitious Yang asked that the bar be raised, and fatefully grazed it, losing precious points.
In the end, it came down to the final event: the 1,500 meters. Both men sought advice from Ducky Drake and, with the crowds cheering wildly, Johnson won the gold while Yang took silver, becoming the first person with a Chinese surname to win an Olympic medal. The two competitors embraced and collapsed — a moment immortalized in an iconic Olympic photo.
Johnson and Yang remained friends the rest of their lives, and Johnson would later muse that the way the decathlon ended had “retold the story of our friendship.” Shortly before his death in 2007, Yang reflected on their rapport, noting that “sports is about opening your heart to others.”
John Krich’s work has appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal, Time, The New York Times, Vogue, and other publications. He’s also the author of eight books, including a Hemingway Award–winning novel, A Totally Free Man. Mike Chinoy is a nonresident senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California and the author of three books, including Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.
- John Krich and Mike Chinoy, OZY Author Contact John Krich and Mike Chinoy