SI Vault
James Murray
July 18, 1960
That's Mr. Kuznetsov, whose world decathlon record was broken last week by a rejuvenated Rafer Johnson
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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

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24 FEET 1�

48 FEET 2

6 FEET 2 �



163 FEET 10�

13 FEET 9?

213 FEET 5�




24 FEET 9�


5 FEET 10



170 FEET 6�

13 FEET �

233 FEET 3


AT 6:50 p.m. in the green-and-gold setting of an Oregon twilight, the giant Negro in the heavy UCLA sweatshirt raced gracefully across the grass, drew back a shimmering silver javelin and then sent it soaring through the half light of the evening sky.

A hoarse roar rocked the aged structure of the University of Oregon's Hayward Field. As the javelin stabbed quiveringly into the grass, an announcer's voice sputtered hysterically from the public address system: "Ladies and gentlemen," he shouted, "if that javelin has, as it appears, gone over 230 feet, Rafer Johnson has just broken the world decathlon record of the Russian Vasily Kuznetsov!"

A further roar shook the creaky wooden stands. Down on the field, Rafer Johnson first sped excitedly after his victorious javelin, then abruptly knelt in midfield and said a prayer. When he returned to the officials' mark, his normally stoic face was twisted in an unsuccessful fight against tears.

Thus last week in the college town of Eugene, Ore. one of the most remarkable athletic achievements of history was recorded. Rafer Johnson, out of competition for a year because of an auto accident, entered the Olympic tryout (and National AAU) decathlon competition with misgivings and remained to shatter the world's record by an extraordinary 326 points.

The decathlon, which has been described—inadequately—as "grueling" and "exhausting," is a 10-event nightmare that demands of the athlete speed, strength, coordination, endurance and pluck.

It is possible to win a decathlon without finishing first in a single event. The opponent is the clock or the tape measure and oneself, and the best over-all results determine the ultimate winner, the best man. The neat balance of events—sprinting, hurdling, distance running; broad jumping, high jumping, pole vaulting; discus, shotput and javelin—produces in its finest practitioner the indisputable world champion athlete. After his performance last weekend Rafer Johnson is surely that.

He won the hundred meters, won the discus, won the javelin, won the shotput and pressed the winners of every other event, except the 1,500-meter run. If he had finished only third, he would have been assured of a berth on the Olympic team and a trip to Rome, where he would meet his old rival Kuznetsov again. No one would have blamed him for playing it safe and being content just to make the Olympic squad. But Johnson went roaring after the world's record from the start, in reckless disregard of the muscle pulls, cramps and assorted miseries which almost necessarily accompany such a concentrate of competition.

Almost overlooked in the general astonishment at Johnson's achievement was the dogged performance of the Formosan athlete, Yang Chuankwang, whose Chinese name has been Americanized to C.K. Yang. An immensely capable decathlon competitor, Yang needed to run 1,500 meters in 4:34.8 at the end of the two-day contest to beat Johnson. His muscles drawn tight as violin strings after nine events, Yang managed only a 5:09.3, which left him clutching his thighs in a contortion of pain at the finish. He placed second, 257 points behind Johnson, but 69 points ahead of the Kuznetsov world record. It was quite clear that Yang, a student at UCLA who came to the U.S. two years ago knowing only one word of English (beefsteak), is a classic decathloner who may be more of a threat to Rafer at Rome than the Russian. But despite Yang, Rafer Johnson's chief rival at Eugene was Vasily Kuznetsov, or, at any rate, his world record. The shadow of Mr. K was as real at Eugene as the athletes who were there in the flesh.

It was conceded that the winner of the meet would come from the trio of Johnson, Yang or Oregon's Dave Edstrom, runner-up to Yang in last year's nationals. But Memphis' Phil Mulkey, thanks to a superb performance in the pole vault, slipped past Edstrom—who was hampered by a groin injury—to finish third. New York's Mike Herman, who eventually finished sixth, missed out only because of a dismal failure in the javelin and a virtual scratch in the 1,500, which he officially entered but did not run because of a leg cramp. Johnson, Mulkey and Edstrom, the first three American finishers, became the U.S. Olympic entry.

The decathlon is an orgy of interrelated statistics, as complicated in its way as the quantum theory. Every performance in each of the 10 events is measured against a basic standard, and points are awarded in proportion to how closely the athlete approaches (or surpasses) that standard. Ideally, an athlete would average 1,000 points per event for a grand total of 10,000. Perhaps someday someone will actually do that. But Johnson himself, not a boastful man, declared last weekend, "It will be a long time before anyone beats this record."

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