Search

THE COBRA AND C. K. YANG

Dec. 23, 1963
Dec. 23, 1963

Table of Contents
Dec. 23, 1963

NFL Championship
  • The New York Giants, soaring on the marvelous passing of Y. A. Tittle to his equally marvelous receivers, ended the struggle for their third straight Eastern Division championship by beating Pittsburgh. Now the Giants face the Chicago Bears for the league championship—and the tireless Tittle arm should win again

The Bowls
Two Worlds
Half A World Away
Tennis
College Basketball
Acknowledgments
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE COBRA AND C. K. YANG

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.

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 1963 issue Original Layout

"In World War II," said C. K. Yang (see cover), "the American planes came to bomb Formosa, and we had to go up to the mountains to live. My father made me an archery—you know? A bow? One day I was in the woods and there was a snake in the path. It was a cobra. He was up like this, you know? With his neck? My father told me, always stand still when you see a snake. I stand still. Then after a while I move a little this way. The snake move his head the same way. I lean back. The snake lean forward. I was so scared."

"What did you do?"

"I shot him. I got mad. I said to myself, I will kill this snake.' Very slow, I got my archery." Yang's dark eyes stared, and his face grew tense as he reached over his shoulder to the quiver that had been there so many years before. He strung an imaginary arrow on his imaginary bow, drew it back, let it go and smiled. "I got him in the neck."

"Then what happened?"

"I went home."

"Did you get the arrow back?"

"No!" He laughed at the idea. "I ran home! I was so scared." He shook his head in amusement. "The next day I went back, and the snake was still there. He was dead. I got my arrow back then."

"How old were you?"

"Ohhh." The effort of remembering took a long moment. "I was about—11."

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.

"But I try. I always want to be like my father, you know, could run and all. When I saw his spikes—baseball and track—they really fascinated me. I said to myself, gee, if you wear these kind of shoes you have to be very outstanding. I put my feet into my father's shoes. They were not good anymore, those spikes, but I tried to wear them. Once I took some needle and sewed them and I tried to run on a field. I was maybe 10. When I go home my father saw his shoes and he got mad and bawled me out—oh, he didn't bawl me out so much as ask why I sewed his shoes like that. He was pretty interested to know how I will be as an athlete.

"Then World War II came and we hid in the mountains—when I shot the snake—and I got sick with malaria. A terrible thing to have. I was afraid later that I would be a carrier, but I went to a doctor several times here to check my blood, and no more. I am glad to be normal now! But after World War II it came back. I was about 14 or 15 and, you know, at 14 or 15 you grow up. But what I did was be sick in a bed for a year. Sometimes get better, then worse again. Seemed a long time. I thought I was going to die. I lose my confidence, my faith in myself.

"Finally somebody told my father about a doctor who was traveling around. My father talked to him, and he came to my house and looked at me: my eyes, my heart. He said, 'Don't worry. I can fix him.' He gave me medicine. Up to then, every day the fever came on a certain time, suppose 9 o'clock—it was different maybe one hour up or down. But a terrible thing. Get cold, then get hot. And afterward feel nothing. He gave me medicine two days. First day, the fever didn't come out very bad. Second day, it didn't come out at all. I thought it would come out again, but the doctor told me to eat that pill for a month, so I continued it and I got well.

"And then I just grew up, you know? Whoosh. No muscles, just bone. Very tall and thin. People called me Bamboo. I was really embarrassed, people calling me Bamboo because, as you know, Chinese people are short, and being like me, tall, it's unusual, you know, over there. When I'd stand in class, so tall, people only up to my shoulders, I was ashamed. People laugh at me and I hate myself. I was sad. I used to cry, because people give me a bad time. You know how teen-agers are. And I couldn't fight them, because I was too weak. And I really don't like people to fight against people. No matter what they say. I learned to forget it, I learned to avoid this kind of thing. But sometimes I thought about being like this, so tall and thin, what am I going to do? What's going to happen to me? I don't think I would have girl friends, or things like that. I worried about that.

"But then I said to myself, people laugh at me, so what. Keep well, stay alive. I learned to determine something in my mind: if you're ever going to do it you have to do it, complete it. The first thing that came to my mind was, O.K., I'm going to try to run. We had the school track meet and I ran in it. Third place. People laughing. I was so tall. Short people—whoosh!—like that. I felt bad but my father said, 'Oh, don't worry. Still long way to go. You can build your muscles.' But my mother really worried. She doesn't want me to—she doesn't want people to say that I'm tall and thin, like that. She doesn't want people laughing."

I tried to play baseball. I went to the coach, who was the principal of our school, Taitung Agricultural High School. I said, 'Uh, will you take me as, you know, one of the baseball players?' I said, 'I know that I can practice and maybe get used to it.' I thought maybe he would take me as a ball carrier or a bat carrier, something like that. He refused to have me. He couldn't take very many, and the others were better than I was.

"During the summer I practiced playing baseball. Many kids did not, because they did not like to practice hard in the hot summer. But I practice and practice, and when we were back in school one day a fellow came to me and said, 'The principal wants to see you.' I said, 'What for? He doesn't want to see me.' He said, 'He likes to talk to you.' So I went over there. I think, oh, what I do? Think, something happened to my father, a farmer. But he said, 'This is your glove, and this is your uniform. How would you like to change and go over to the practice field and work out?'

"I was so happy, so happy. But in practice when I throw the ball I was—so funny form, you know? I couldn't throw hard. The athletes start laughing at me. I was so happy to join them, and I was so embarrassed when they laugh at me. The coach was mad. He bawled them out who laughed, and he said, 'If you laugh at people someday he will be much better than you are. You better not laugh at people. You never know. He have a long way to go, and maybe he can learn faster than you and someday laugh at you. Put yourself in that position. Suppose people laugh at you. How do you respond to them? How do you feel?' Said, 'Think about it.' And they didn't laugh at me anymore.

"We practice, and in a month I can compete against them in some ways—catch a ball or hit. And then I can hit the ball good. And I can run. I got faster and faster. I built muscles, you know? Even now, from baseball playing, my right arm is bigger than my left.

"They made me pitcher. I learned most balls, except knuckle ball. I could throw fast ball, outdrop, curve, and I could throw from below—underhand, sidehand, overhand. The coach asked me, you know, curve ball, do like this and like this and like this. And I just, you know, discover myself. I was only a fair pitcher, but in that school—most of the time we just played against ourselves—I was good. I struck out 17 men one time. And then we had a big game—the players and the coach and some teachers all mixed together on the same team to represent the school. We won the game and a big, big cup. Afterward we had a banquet, and the coach said again, he review what he said to the athletes who laughed at me. Two of them cried, you know?"

Triumphant, Yang continued to play baseball but, relishing his newly developed speed, he turned also to track and field. He ran in the all-county meet and finished a respectable third in the 100 meters. He began to practice the broad jump and the high jump. In the high jump he did well at first, but then for a long time he plateaued at 5 feet.

"Jump 5 feet and jump and jump and jump again. But one day, all of sudden, I jump 5 feet 8 or 9. And then the all-county track meet again, and I jump 6 feet! And then I compete in the nationals of Formosa. And I won! The following year I competed in both the high jump and the broad jump in the nationals, and I won the broad jump and finished third in the high jump.

"The next year, 1954, was the Asian Games. I really wanted to go. I quit playing baseball and concentrated on track. In the final tryouts I finished second in the broad jump and second in the high jump. I was nervous. In the high jump I had the same height as the winner, but I missed more times and I was placed second. They were taking 21 athletes for track and field, and they said they would announce the team over the radio. I was in the hotel packing—either go home or report to training headquarters. And they call the names over the radio, one by one. The athletes who made it began jumping around the room. I began to get sad. I faced to the wall. I think I was in tears. Here came 17 and 18. Then the man who beat me in the high jump—same height, but I was second—he was No. 19. I got so mad. I was beaten out by so little. Also, I said to myself, I can do the broad jump, too. I was ready to quit and go back to the baseball. Then 20 came. Not me. I was ready to carry my luggage out, get taxi and get train and go home. And then 21, they call my name. The last one. I just couldn't believe it. I was in tears even more.

"But I was still mad—I still want to go home. I got a taxi and went to the station, but in the waiting room I thought and I decided, I'm going to report. So I went to the training camp."

And there, in the training camp, the world's best decathlon man was created—accidentally. The field-event men like Yang, who was to compete in the broad jump and high jump, trained on the same field with the track men, the runners. Yang's curiosity and competitive drive moved him to experiment with other events, hitherto strange to him. He set up a bicycle and used it as an impromptu hurdle. He read a Japanese book on hurdling—Yang speaks and reads Japanese fluently because of his schooling under the Japanese occupation—and studied its illustrations. "I tried to bring the whole thing together in my mind," he said, but his coach became irritated because Yang was not concentrating on his jumping. Yang said, "I told him, 'I just can't jump every day. If I practice hurdling today, maybe tomorrow I can jump more higher.' And I did. I jumped 2 or 3 inches higher."

At the end of each week the squad underwent trials. Yang said, "One week I ask the coach, 'Can I run the hurdles?' He said, 'Are you kidding?' I said, 'No, I'm not kidding. I'd like to run.' He said, 'O.K., after you broad-jump and high-jump.' So I jumped and jumped. And then I ran the hurdles. I beat them all! They were all about 16.2 seconds, and I did 16 flat. I was surprised that everybody was so happy, because the three guys I beat were so mad. I felt, oh, my fault. I shouldn't do that. But I practice and finally I run 15.7, equal to the national record. And I practice the javelin. I just threw it wild at first, but in three weeks I beat him, the javelin thrower. So the coach said, 'I like to see you throw again next week.' Then I did the discus and the shotput. And then, three weeks before we leave for Manila for the Asian Games, the coach said, 'How'd you like to try decathlon?'

"I was so surprised. I really didn't feel like it. The two decathlon boys, when we had trials, they had to do two days. I used to laugh at them. And then I said to myself, oh, I shouldn't laugh. I remembered my principal. And then I felt sorry for them. So when they asked me about the decathlon, I said, oh no, I don't like the pole vault and I don't like to run 1,500 meters. I don't mind 100 or 400 meters, but not 1,500 meters.

"They ask me again. Every meal. At breakfast, ask me. Lunch, ask me. Dinner, ask me. Before we go to bed, ask me. For three days. Then I talked to one athlete about what I should do. He said, 'You. You run 1,500 meters, not me.' But another guy said, 'Hey, if you compete in the decathlon you have a chance to do well in the Asian Games. You have a good chance to place in the decathlon, but not in the broad jump or high jump. Think about it.' He was old, about 30—like my age now. He was a teacher. He knows something. So the next day at breakfast, before the coach had a chance to ask me, I say to him, 'Yes, Coach. I'm going to compete in the decathlon.'

"So I practice. Try the pole vault. I never pole-vaulted in my life. They say, 'Now, you hold the pole like this, stick it in the box, hang on to it and jump.' God! I was scared. They put the bar at two meters, about 6 feet 6.1 didn't make it. I tried again, and finally I did about 7½ feet.

"Then that week at our trials I did the decathlon. I scored 5,300 points. Oh, it was hard. I never ran 1,500 meters in my life, and everybody standing around the track pushing me on: go, go, go. My first decathlon. Right after it I was so sick I had to stay in bed two days. They all went out, but I went to bed all weekend. It was so funny. I couldn't eat. I was ready to quit. But they had the application in for me for the Asian Games, so finally we went to Manila."

Yang had never seen a decathlon scoring table up to that time, and he had no real understanding of the scoring system. At Manila he simply tried to beat everyone in every event. In the last, the exhausting 1,500 meters, he was jogging wearily along late in the race when he suddenly decided that he would try to catch a Japanese runner about 100 yards ahead of him. Yang's spurt closed about 60 yards and added a small but significant number of points to his overall total. At first it did not seem to matter. Yang was told that he had finished second. "I was so disappointed," he said. "I didn't expect to win, but I wanted to win." Then it turned out that an old scoring table had been used by mistake; under the revised scoring of the new table Yang was placed first, by 25 points. He had won the first gold medal ever won by a Chinese track and field athlete at the Asian Games, and he became wholly committed to the decathlon.

And so Yang competed in the Olympics in 1956 and at the Asian Games again in 1958, came to the U.S., entered UCLA, became fast friends with Rafer Johnson and improved tremendously year after year. In the process he became more and more Americanized. He learned to drive a car. He wore loafers and chinos and sweaters and porkpie hats. He met and married Daisy Jue, pretty daughter of a Ventura, Calif. merchant and a coed at the University of Southern California, and became the father of a son named Edward Cedric. In the years since his departure from Taiwan in 1958 he has been back to his homeland only twice, once in 1960 after the Rome Olympics and again in 1962 during an abortive trip to the Asian Games in Indonesia—from which Taiwan (and Yang) and Israel were barred by the arbitrary action of Indonesian officials, pressured by Communist China and the Arab countries. He will visit Taiwan again in 1964, on the way to and from Tokyo, but after the Olympics he expects to retire from competitive track and field, and the chances are that he will make his home in the U.S. He is immensely popular in Taiwan—small boys imitate the way he walks, and Chiang Kai-shek has received him—but the success Taiwan is so proud of is losing the island its hero. It is a paradox that gnaws at Yang.

"Many people ask me about my future plans," he said. "I don't know what they are. I don't want to make anybody feel bad. I love to go home and coach, but the situation is different now. This country is where my wife was born and where she grew up, and it would be a strange life for her over there. I don't think she would be happy. Also I'm getting used to it here. I don't know, when I go home I feel strange sometimes. I don't feel that I belong. I feel more comfortable here. I can talk to people here, you know? Also I can get much better job here. I think I would get a very good job over there, in Formosa, but I don't think I could get a better salary than I could get here. Here I could coach and also go into something like bowling. I would like to try it. I have done 272, and I averaged 214 for four games one time and 225 for three games. All the time I average about 200. And, anyway, I could always go back home in the summertime and coach there for two or three months.

"I really don't know, though, what happens. If I win the gold medal the Chinese people will want me to go around the world and meet Chinese people in different countries, the overseas Chinese people. Like a State Department trip. Sports clinic all over the world. That's what I heard; I don't know for sure. The Chinese people here, they are very good to me, but they have not talked to me about the future. I don't think they mind what I do then or where I live. I think I have one obligation: to win the gold medal for China in the Olympics. That's the only thing, the main thing.

"I want to tell you about a man named S. S. Kwan. He was an architect, and he used to be a millionaire on the mainland before the Communists. After he came to Formosa he was not as rich as he used to be, but he still had money and he spent it all on athletics, on equipment and like that. He was head of the track and field federation in Formosa. He got track athletes jobs, and after work we would practice every day. In 1958 he sponsored me to come over here to the U.S. to compete. We were supposed to go right back in a couple of months, as you know, but my coach, Mr. Wei, asked me if I'd like to stay and go to school. I said, sure, so he wrote to Mr. Kwan and he said, all right, he would support me, living here and going to school, until the Olympic Games. Room and board and pocket money. He was like a father, you know. So I went to UCLA. I almost went to Yale. A man in New Jersey told me he could get me in there. I wanted to go. I had heard of Yale, a very famous college, and I thought, oh, imagine if I could go to Yale! But Mr. Wei, my coach, said, you know, you could not get the competition in the decathlon at Yale as you would in California. And you could not practice as much, because in the winter is so cold. So I went to UCLA.

"And then at Rome when I got second place, Mr. Kwan was so happy. I never saw him so happy as he was at Rome. He said, 'Ahh! Now I have achieved my goal.' He said, 'We broke the egg.' The egg, that was the zero, you know? Up to then we had never won a medal in the Olympic Games. Rome was the first. So I broke two eggs: the gold medal at the Asian Games, the silver medal at the Olympic Games. Mr. Kwan was so happy.

"He was traveling with his wife, and he went to Paris before he went home. There, in Formosa, he start planning for the next step—the future—day and night. Then all of a sudden he had a stroke and died, like that. Oh, gosh. I felt—I was so—I didn't know what to say as I looked back at what he had done for me. I really didn't know what to say. People ask me how I feel that he had died. I remember how at Rome he said he had achieved his goal. I told them that, of course, Mr. Kwan think he had finished his job but that he has not finished it, even though he has passed away. And that I am going to finish it for him. I am going to break the world record for him, and I am going to get the gold medal for him. I like them to know that he was a great man.

"So I must win at Tokyo. And that will be my last competition. I wanted to keep in condition until the next Asian Games in 1966, but I just can't afford the time. I enjoy being an athlete, I like it very much, but I worry about my family—my wife, son—how to support them. Her family has helped us, but now I have got to earn some money. I have done sports for a long, long time. I have sacrificed so many chances to make money. Recently the Chinese people here, they like to help me. They raised money for me. They raised about $3,400, I think. Suppose I accept that money, I become a professional. I told them I cannot accept that money, and that they cannot use my name to collect money. They are so nice, but I just cannot take that money.

"So I am happy now, but I am not yet too happy in everything. Because I have my family to support, but I still have my goal to achieve. Maybe after the Olympic Games in Tokyo things will be different for me. Oh. Who knows?"

ILLUSTRATIONPHOTOTHE WORLD'S BEST ATHLETE TAKES A HURDLE EN ROUTE TO HIS NEW DECATHLON RECORDPHOTOWITH HIS SON CEDRIC AND HIS WIFE DAISY, CHEERFUL YANG STROLLS NEAR UCLA CAMPUSPHOTOAFTER HEROIC TRY IN 1960 OLYMPIC DECATHLON, YANG IS COMFORTED BY WINNER JOHNSON