One of the most spectacular decathlons ever seen was staged in Crawfordsville, Indiana last week. The national championship was at stake, but (more vitally) so were three U.S. Olympic berths which would go to the trio amassing the most points in the 10 events spread over two days. By the time 38 competitors had run, jumped and thrown their way through the program, three men had each scored over 7,000 points, the first time in track history that so many had scored so high in a single decathlon; Rafer Johnson buttressed his position as the world's No. 1 decathlon man; and Bob Richards had gotten himself into an embarrassing dilemma.
Contestants started arriving a week beforehand. Housed in two dormitories on the campus of Wabash College, they ranged in age from 16 (Bob Giombetti of West Bend, Wis.) to 30 (the Reverend Richards of La Verne, Calif.) and came complete with coaches, families and friends.
The pre-event dope was firm: two of the three Olympic berths were as good as filled. Johnson, the towering but graceful UCLA sophomore from California's San Joaquin Valley, was a prohibitive favorite for first place, and Milt Campbell, the muscled hurdler formerly of the University of Indiana but now in the Navy, was just as strong a favorite for second place. The real battle was for third, and though Richards, who had already made the Olympic team as our No. 1 pole vaulter, had to be considered the favorite contender, there was a comfortable rumor in circulation that the Vaulting Vicar was going to pass up the decathlon team, provided he qualified, in favor of the fourth-place finisher.
Johnson's heat in the last event of the first day, the 400-meter run, was certainly the most spectacular race of the entire meet. Pitted against Campbell and Aubrey Lewis, the Notre Dame footballer who doubles as a very swift 400-meter hurdler, Johnson, apparently dropping out of contention on the backstretch but actually running according to plan, charged out of the half darkness on the last turn, passed the laboring Campbell in the stretch and nipped Lewis at the tape as both were clocked in 47.9, a new decathlon record. Rafer thus wound up the first evening's five events with 4,639 points, a new first-day standard that bettered his own previous world mark by 98 points, posted when he was on his way to the current world record of 7,985 in June 1955. Campbell was a solid second with 4,387 points. Bob Lawson, the boyish-looking USC soph who finished second to Richards in the 1955 championship, was in third with 3,998 points.
July 22, 1956
Next evening came Richards' announcement that he intended to withdraw from the team if he qualified. He then clinched the third spot with a 15-foot ‚⅛-inch pole vault, and soon after ended the 15th decathlon of his career with 7,054 points. Johnson, hampered by a left lame knee injured in the high jump the night before, finished well below his world's best with a still-magnificent 7,754. Campbell, growing more relaxed as time wore on, closed a strong second with 7,555.
The battle for fourth place provided a thrill at the end. Lawson needed 302 decathlon points to win that ranking, and to get those points he had to run the 1,500 meters in 4:54.2 or better. Lawson hit 4:54.2 on the nose ("I couldn't have run a tenth of a second faster") and seemed practically on the plane to Australia.
But then Bob Richards had a change of heart. Regretting his earlier generosity, Richards, after a quiet talk with Ducky Drake, the UCLA track coach who had come east with Johnson, agreed to postpone his final decision. "It's an awful hard choice to make," Richards said late that night, "I'm 30, he's only 21 and it's my last chance. I'll train hard for a month, and if I show real improvement I'll go in the decathlon, too." If he does, young Lawson will just have to wait another four years.
Rafer Johnson, who qualified for the Olympic team in the broad jump as well as the decathlon, has resisted all pressure to drop out of the jump. He will compete, as he should, in both events at Melbourne. The feeling is very strong that extrovert Richards, one of the most charming and colorful of athletes, will not, at 30, pass up his last chance to compete in what is rapidly becoming one of track's most colorful and rewarding events.