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His strong, cold face impassive, the big man pounded steadily through the dank chill of the Roman night. Two steps in front of him, Formosa's Chuan Kwang Yang moved easily. In the gap between them lay the Olympic decathlon championship.
Four other men were in the race, but none of the 50,000 people huddled against the cold in Rome's Stadio Olimpico saw them. They watched Rafer Johnson and Yang in their lonely, desperate race against time and each other, and as the race spun on and on they began to yell.
Johnson, his eyes fixed on the back of Yang's neck, did not hear them. To win this decathlon championship, he had to push his big, magnificently muscled body through the fastest 1,500 meters of his life. Yang usually is 10 seconds better than Johnson in the 1,500; he had only to maintain this margin to win an Olympic gold medal.
Watching, knowing Johnson's limitations in this race, you kept expecting that two-step gap to widen. But Johnson has a relentless pride that goads him far beyond the limits of normal human endeavor, and now that pride kept him plodding doggedly behind Yang, a bigger, darker shadow of the handsome Chinese.
On the last lap Yang tried desperately to move away. He managed a slow sprint down the backstretch, and Johnson moved easily with him. He kicked again off the turn into the last straight, and Johnson kept pace. The exhausted Yang's head wobbled. Once, despairingly, he looked back, and Johnson was still there; and he was there at the finish, 1.2 seconds behind Yang. Johnson ran this 1,500 meters (in 4:49.7) at the end of two days of extraordinarily taxing competition, six seconds faster than he has ever run before in his life. He finished the tensest five minutes of the entire Games—five minutes in which the tension grew and grew and grew until it seemed like a thin, high sound in the stadium—composed and relaxed and almost fresh.
"Victory makes you forget you're tired," he said. He is a dignified, careful man, and he speaks carefully. "I always knew I would win. I didn't know when, but I knew I would. I knew I could stay with Yang no matter how fast he ran. I had to."
Yang, a UCLA student who has trained for two years with Johnson under UCLA's fine coach Ducky Drake, was resigned. "I knew he would win," Yang said. "He is that way. I have trained with him. I heard him there behind me and I knew he would win."
Johnson's point total, 8,392, was well below the world record he set in the U.S. Olympic trials, principally because of very poor performance in the high hurdles and mediocre ones in the javelin and discus. But in two of the last three events, under strong pressure from Yang, he produced career bests in both the pole vault and the 1,500 meters.
"All I could think of in that 1,500 meters was 'this is the last race I'll ever run in my life,' " he said later. He was preparing to leave the stadium, tired now, let down from the strain. Someone asked him if he were going to catch up on his sleep.
"No," said Johnson quietly. "Not right away. I don't think so. First I'm going to walk and walk and look at the moon and think about it."