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.
September 18, 1960
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."
The tension that finally left Johnson limp at the end of the decathlon was the keynote of the closing days of the Olympic track and field competition. Otis Davis, who won the 400-meter run for the U.S. in a world-record time of 44.9, said, "I felt weak from it. Bill Bowerman, my coach at Oregon, told me before the finals I could run 45 flat but I didn't believe him. You said in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED I didn't have any sense of pace, and I've been working on it and I was determined, but I felt the pressure."
Davis paced himself beautifully in his final. Carl Kaufmann, the very strong, very fast German quarter miler, took an early lead, but Davis, running with a neat, economical stride, floated down the backstretch, saving himself. In the turn, he kicked suddenly and strongly and passed Kaufmann, coming into the homestretch with a three-yard lead. Kaufmann furiously closed the gap to a yard, then lunged at the tape and hit it with his chin. But Davis' chest was over the line first and he won. It was a photo finish, and the two athletes sat nervously, waiting for the verdict. When Davis was told he had won, he leaped high in the air, danced crazily a moment, then wept copiously. Kaufmann walked over and shook his hand.
The big crowd for this day's program at the lovely Stadio Olimpico had hardly finished buzzing about the world record in the 400 meters when Herb Elliott, the superbly conditioned Australian world-record holder in the mile, gave them another record. Elliott, running against the world's premier middle-distance men in the 1,500 meters, made the rest of the field look like a different breed of human being (see Roger Bannister's story on page 28).
After the race his coach, Percy Cerutty, not a modest chap, explained Elliott's speed. "Here, now," he said to Roger Bannister, the world's first sub-four-minute miler. "Here is how you used to run." Cerutty shambled off, running with all the grace of a spavined plow horse, his slight body ridiculous, the bright eyes watching Bannister as he performed the travesty of Bannister's style. "Now," he said coming back, puffing slightly. "Here is how I have Herb run, with the grace of an animal." He set off again, not quite as awkwardly, lunging with his arms. He came back, puffing harder. "See the difference?" he asked. "Much better style. Pulls with the arms. I'll show you again. This time I'll run like you did until I go round that little bush, then I'll run like Herb." He set off again, changing styles dramatically as he passed the little bush. Said Bannister, dryly, "I must say I find myself hard to recognize in Percy."
Elliott's race was one of the few won easily. Only America's lovely, graceful girl sprinter, Wilma Rudolph, seemed so clearly the best in her field as Elliott in his. She was the only athlete in the track and field competition to win three gold medals—in the 100 and 200 meters and in the sprint relay. She is a quiet girl who became even quieter under the stress of sudden fame. Probably the hardest worker on the women's team, she had little time for social life, confining her dates to a few with Ray Norton. ("Nothing serious," Norton says. "She's a sprinter and I'm a sprinter, so naturally we're friends.")
The choo-choo gazelle
After her victories in the two sprints, Wilma anchored the U.S. women's team to a world record (44.4) in the relay. She took the baton even with the second-place German girl. Then, long bronze legs flashing in the straight-up, graceful stride that reminds you of Dave Sime, she moved away easily. Someone asked a French photographer near the finish line, "Who won?" "La Gazelle, naturellement," he said. "La Chattanooga choo-choo."
Wilma, who has the carriage "a queen should have," as an English writer said, is all the more remarkable because she was crippled by a childhood illness and was in bed from the time she was 4 until she was 8. She is one of 19 children, from very poor parents. Her father is an invalid and her mother takes in laundry and does day work to support the family. Wilma was discovered by Tennessee State Coach Ed Temple. She cannot explain her extraordinary ability. "I just run," she says. "I don't know why I run so fast." A good deal of the credit must go to Temple, who is responsible for the fine program at Tennessee State. The U.S. women's relay team is, in fact, the Tiger Belles—the Tennessee State team. Like Wilma, they all seemed impervious to the extreme pressure of Olympic competition.
Not so Norton, the most unfortunate man in the Games. After finishing sixth in both sprints, Norton took a baton pass from starter Frank Budd out of the passing zone in the finals of the sprint relay, and the U.S. team, winner by a yard over Germany, was disqualified. The bad pass was not Norton's fault; he started as Budd's foot hit the starting mark. But Norton, who was flat, stale and tense from overwork in the sprints, was fresh and strong for this race, and Budd was fading a bit. Norton flashed away too fast for Budd to catch. Budd yelled, "Wait!" desperately, and Norton came to a halt, but he was out of the zone.
The time of the American team (39.4) would have been a new world record. Said a bitter, sad Norton later, "Finally I did everything right and still everything went wrong. What can you do?"
The American 1,600-meter relay team, on the other hand, in the most intelligently run, esthetically satisfying race of the Olympics, set a world record which will stand. The four Americans—solemn Jack Yerman, 19-year-old, somewhat frightened Earl Young, Glenn Davis, surely the finest competitor in the Olympics, and 400-meter champion Otis Davis—faced a strong challenge from an excellent German team. Each leg of the race had to be run properly and at optimum speed, and the Americans produced exactly what was needed.
Yerman, running solidly and carefully, picked up a yard lead over George Kerr, who opened for the British West Indies team, and two over the German lead-off man. The Germans planned to attack over the next two legs—against the inexperienced Young and against Glenn Davis. They sent Manfred Kinder, who placed fifth in the 400 in 45.9, against Young, who had finished sixth in the same race. Young, running with considerable aplomb, ignored Kinder's challenge on the backstretch, floating along easily with his long stride. Kinder was ahead going into the turn. Then Young spurted, took the lead down the stretch and gave Davis a two-yard edge.
Glenn, running against Johannes Kaiser, took it easy, running with his own air of sprightly confidence. Kaiser pulled up on him quickly, ran a step behind, then made his bid as they reached the back turn.
"I wanted him to do that," Davis explained later. "I took it easy so he would use up his strength catching me on the backstretch. I expected him to come up on my shoulder. They thought I would be open and he would go right by. When he came up, I carried him wide. Then, when he relaxed, I kicked and opened up the lead I wanted."
Glenn built that lead to four yards by the time he handed off to Otis Davis, who was matched with Kaufmann, the man who had finished an eyelash second to him in the 400. Otis became a cagey runner very quickly under the stress of Olympic competition. He played with Kaufmann much as Kuts did with Gordon Pirie in the 10,000-meter run at Melbourne. "I just learned how to run in the last couple of races," Otis said. "I accelerated a little to make Kaufmann use his strength to catch me, then I floated. When he came up, I'd accelerate again, then float again. I figured he'd use up his power trying to catch me each time, then I'd turn on the kick and walk away."
Otis turned on the kick coming out of the turn and did, indeed, walk away. He ran the anchor lap in 44.4 seconds, gaining a yard on Kaufmann, who ran 44.5. The Americans' time, 3:02.2, broke the world record of 3:03.9 set by Jamaica at Helsinki in 1952.
There were, of course, other American victories, but none as satisfying as this. Al Oerter ("I was so tense I could barely throw") won the discus, with Rink Babka second and Dick Cochran a surprising third. Don Bragg ("My legs trembled and I got blisters") set an Olympic record in the pole vault, with Ron Morris second.
And there were two sixth-place finishers who give promise for American medals in Tokyo in 1964. Dyrol Burleson set an American record in the 1,500 behind Elliott, and little Max Truex ran the 10,000 meters 45 seconds faster than he ever had before to place sixth in his race.
Max, who worked out for two weeks here with Mihaly Igloi, the Hungarian expatriate who coaches the Santa Clara Valley Youth team, exuded confidence the next day.
"I'm going to work with Igloi for the next four years," Max said. "Then comes Tokyo."
OTHER OLYMPIC STORIES
THE 1,500 METERS: PAGE 28
AN ITALIAN TRIUMPH: PAGE 30
OUR CHAMPION BOXERS: PAGE 31
THE FINAL SCORE: PAGE 129
U.S. VS. GERMANY-A SPLIT DECISION
It seemed that every Olympic sprint found the U.S. and Germany battling it out at the wire. In the dramatic finish of the 400-meter run (above) Germany's Carl Kaufmann breaks the tape with his chin, but Otis Davis has his chest over the line first, which makes him the winner. At left, a stacked tier of judges sees Dave Sime just beat Germany's lunging Martin Lauer in the anchor leg of the 400-meter relay—a race the Americans subsequently lost by disqualification because luckless Ray Norton had received the baton from Frank Budd outside the proper passing zone. At right, the German relay team of Bernd Cullmann, Armin Hary, Walter Mahlendorf and Lauer celebrates its victory.