SI Vault
 
THE ECLIPSE OF MR. K
James Murray
July 18, 1960
That's Mr. Kuznetsov, whose world decathlon record was broken last week by a rejuvenated Rafer Johnson
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 18, 1960

The Eclipse Of Mr. K

That's Mr. Kuznetsov, whose world decathlon record was broken last week by a rejuvenated Rafer Johnson

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

It will be a long time for two reasons. For one, it probably will be a long time before anyone combines the strength and size of Rafer Johnson with his speed. For another, it will be a long time before decathloners find a broad-jump runway and pit to match the one that the University of Oregon's coach, Bill Bower-man, constructed for this decathlon meet.

Designed by Bowerman and built with his own funds ($600), the broad-jump runway is four feet wide and 160 feet long. Both the runway and the pit are raised one foot above the level of the ground. Built of wood, the runway is topped by a composition of rubber and asphalt. The runway and pit are also used for the pole vault.

Before the decathlon, Bowerman had been concerned because no one ever had managed to jump more than 25 feet on the old existing runway, which headed into Eugene's strong and prevailing northwesterly winds. The pit, moreover, was at the north end of the field, extremely poor from a spectator point of view. He decided this would be a depressing target for the national decathlon stars. He built his new one, headed south and parallel to the stands, with the distances (23 feet, 24 feet, 25 feet, etc.) marked on the board sides of the pit.

The decathloners had a field day on it. Mike Herman almost jumped right onto the Olympic team with a tremendous 26 feet, three inches. More important, Rafer Johnson, who had not dared trust his aching back in the jolting broad jump in practice and who had tried the event only three times in the past year and a half, jumped 24 feet, 9� inches to earn 986 points. Dave Edstrom, despite his groin injury, posted his all-time best of 24 feet, 3 inches and, content with that, skipped his last two jumps.

Bowerman plans to lengthen the pit for the broad jumpers who will be on hand when the Olympic team goes into training at Eugene later this month. He is afraid 27 feet may not be long enough and that Jesse Owens' world record of 26 feet, 8� inches, which has stood since 1935, may be broken.

Rafer Johnson grinned mischievously when asked about the Bowerman runway. "There's no doubt you get a take-off," he said on the first day of competition, before even his admirers had begun to reckon on a record. The next day Rafer soft-pedaled his views, allowing that his high jump (which was on the existing pit, not noticeably conducive to exceptional scoring) was what had really put him into his world record orbit.

Johnson was in the enviable position of having broken the world record after only nine events. In the final, lung-searing 1,500 (which he hates, moaning "It's ridiculous") Rafer had only to jog around in anything better than the minimal time of 5:50 to pad his record. He did 5:09.9 to pick up a respectable 202 points.

It is hard to imagine an event that can chew a man up physically as much as the decathlon. Most of the entrants spent equal amounts of time on the training table, under the heat machines or in exhausted sleep. "The second day is the worst because it's the second day," said Rafer. "You are too tired to walk, yet you got to run."

Toward the end of that tiring second day Rafer's elation at his new record was tinged with suspense. His friend, Yang, with whom he works out at UCLA between meets, was only a few hundred points behind Johnson when he took his mark for the 1,500. Yang had run the event previously in better than 4:35—as he would have had to do to defeat Rafer—but never in a decathlon. Indeed, it is questionable whether Herb Elliott could better five minutes after spending two days running dashes and hurdles, jumping, vaulting, throwing weights. Still, Rafer was worried and turned aside the reassurances of his friends. Yet when Yang tied up on the first quarter and almost fell, Rafer, forgetting his record, ran to his side. He virtually trotted the rest of the race, exhorting Yang to keep going.

It will be a long time before track fans—or the fans of any sport—can reasonably expect to see another athlete of the magnificence, in every way, of Rafer Johnson.

1 2