SI Vault
Robert Creamer
December 23, 1963
If the snake had been a copperhead or a rattler, or even a bushmaster or a krait, the story would not have seemed so impressive. But it was a cobra, and a cobra has a special quality—like a shark or a tiger.
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December 23, 1963

The Cobra And C. K. Yang

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Next October in Tokyo, barring illness, injury, political disaster or the sudden emergence of an entirely unanticipated new star, C. K. Yang, holder of the unofficial world record for shooting cobras through the neck with an arrow at the age of 11, should win the Olympic Games decathlon, the 10-event, two-day ordeal that is the most demanding test of athletic ability in sport. It seems singularly appropriate that at these first Olympics ever held in Asia, the most highly respected gold medal of the Games (the Olympic decathlon champion is usually called the world's greatest athlete) should be won by an Asian, and not only by an Asian but by a Chinese who will be the first Chinese ever to win an Olympic gold medal. That the Chinese in question is a citizen of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China (11 million people) rather than Mao Tse-tung's People's Republic of China (670 million) is an irony that must delight the one China as much as it galls the other, though it seems certain that on the Communist mainland all but the most thoroughly brainwashed will feel a surge of national pride when the name of C. K. Yang—or Yang Chuan-Kwang, to give it its proper Chinese form—leads all the rest.

Unlike many of the Nationalist Chinese, who fled the mainland after the Communist take-over in 1949, Yang was born on Taiwan, the 225-mile-long island that the early Portuguese explorers described as formosa, or "beautiful," on July 10, 1933. He will be 31 at the Olympics, a very old age for a track and field man and particularly for a decathlon champion. But despite his chronological antiquity, Yang (his name is pronounced as though it rhymed with "tongue") is a youthful man. His small-featured, boyish face and crew-cut hair, and his tall, lean build and springy stride make him seem closer to 20 than to 30. He was late maturing as an athlete. He was almost 21 before he got around to what might be called full-time participation in track and field, and he was 23 when he first saw top-level competition, at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. (Bob Mathias was 21 when he retired in 1952 after winning his second Olympic decathlon, and Rafer Johnson was only 25 when he culminated a long and remarkable athletic career with his decathlon victory in Rome in 1960.)

Although Yang won the Asian Games decathlon twice, in 1954 and 1958, he was unknown to most followers of track and field until he came to the U.S. in the summer of 1958 to compete in the U.S. decathlon championship in Palmyra, N.J. The Formosan track and field federation had asked the Amateur Athletic Union to extend an invitation to Yang, a necessary formality, and then had sent him to the U.S. in the company of an English-speaking coach named Wei Chen-wu. In Palmyra, Yang went into action against a field that included Rafer Johnson. Johnson was then the best decathlon man in the world—he broke the world record later that summer in Moscow in the first U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meet—but Yang was a close second to him after the first day of competition and to everyone's astonishment actually went into the lead after the first event of the second day before Johnson rallied to win.

Yang had expected to remain in the U.S., competing and learning, for only a month or two, but after his fine showing against Johnson it was arranged by the authorities in Taiwan for him to stay in the U.S. and continue his athletic career in college. Yang spoke no English at all, but he studied the language intensively for a year, with Coach Wei tutoring him at night, and in 1959 he entered UCLA, Rafer Johnson's school, as a freshman in physical education. He will receive his degree early in 1964. Because of the language barrier, the time he has devoted to track and field, his age (he was 26 when he enrolled as a freshman) and the fact that he married and became a father during his years at UCLA, his grades have sometimes been poor. But he has never failed a subject, and his achievement in obtaining a degree less than six years after he began to learn English seems in some ways as remarkable as his accomplishments in track and field.

At UCLA, under the direction of Elvin (Ducky) Drake, Rafer Johnson's coach, Yang refined his athletic abilities, and in 1959, when Johnson was sidelined with injuries suffered in an automobile accident, Yang won the U.S. decathlon championship. Rafer took his championship back the next year, setting a new world record as he did so, but again Yang was a strong second. He, too, broke the old world record and in the Olympics in Rome two months later almost upset Johnson in the most stirring competition of the Games (SI, Sept. 19, 1960). Yang lost by 58 points, which is a photo finish by decathlon reckoning (C. K. has a penchant for such hairbreadth finishes: he won his decathlon debut at the 1954 Asian Games by 25 points and his 1959 U.S. championship by 5 points).

When Johnson retired after the 1960 Olympics, Yang took over as the best decathlon man in the world. Because of a muscle pull he did not compete in the U.S. championship in 1961, but he won it in 1962. Then in 1963 he broke Johnson's world record and became the first man ever to score more than 9,000 points in a decathlon (points are earned in each of the 10 events by measuring the individual's performance against a detailed scoring table—so many points for a 6-foot high jump, so many more points for a 6-foot 1-inch high jump, and so on). Yang, who had concurrently developed into one of the best pole vaulters in the world—he set an indoor world record in 1963—earned 1,515 of his 9,121 points in his record decathlon by vaulting nearly 16 feet, which is the maximum amount you can earn in any one event. Because of the vast improvement in pole-vaulting performances brought about by the introduction of the highly elastic fiber-glass pole (Yang uses one), the decathlon scoring tables—which are reviewed and revised every decade or so to keep any event from becoming disproportionately important in relation to the others—are almost certain to be changed before the Tokyo Olympics.

This will reduce the number of points that Yang might expect to gain from the pole vault, but it should not affect his overall total to a damaging degree. He is what is known in track circles as a world-class competitor not only in the pole vault but in the broad jump (25 feet plus), high hurdles (under 14 seconds) and javelin throw (235 feet and up), and he is very close to that level in the high jump (6 feet 7½ inches) and in the 100- and 400-meter runs (10.6 and 47.7 seconds). In competition for the UCLA track team—he was co-captain last season—he frequently scored points in five events. The only decathlon events in which he is run of the mill are the discus throw and the shotput. (He is poor in the 1,500-meter run, but no top decathlon man has ever been very good in it; the final event of the second day, it serves primarily as a test of endurance.)

Yang is slightly more than 6 feet tall and he weighs about 180 pounds—almost exactly Stan Musial's height and weight. Like Musial, he is lithe and seems almost thin until he moves into action; then, as with Musial, muscles pop out all over, like bunches of grapes. But unlike Musial, who as a boy was a superb gymnast and a fine all-round athlete, Yang as a boy was a joke, the object of the raucous humor of his schoolmates, a classic example of the ugly duckling who took a long, long time to grow up. Yang has vivid memories of that painfully slow metamorphosis, and this fall, in his small apartment in West Los Angeles near the UCLA campus, he talked about it in his surprisingly good though occasionally freewheeling English.

"I'm going to tell you exactly how it was," he said. "You see, my father was a baseball player and a track athlete." (The reference to baseball seemed unreal until it was recalled that Taiwan was under Japanese occupation from 1895 until the end of World War II and that the baseball-loving Japanese brought bat and ball with them wherever they conquered.) "My father was not an outstanding athlete, not an Olympic athlete, but in our county he was very outstanding. When I was 4 or 5 years old he was still playing, and he always bring me to watch." Yang, who has four sisters, was an only son. "So when I went to school I became very interested in playing ball and running. Maybe heredity, you know, background.

"But I wasn't very fast. In China, have track meet which is held each year in school. Just the school. We don't have teams, but everybody have to run in the track meet. I never won. I was always behind everybody. I was way behind, and everybody laugh at me. I laugh at me, too, if I were them. Because my father was such a very fast runner in the county and here I was and I couldn't run fast. People laugh.

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