"Taiwan has lost someone who may be the greatest athlete of all time, and the rest of us have lost a great friend," said American former Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson of his friend C.K Yang or Yang Chuan-kwang, after he learned that Yang had passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 74 on January 27, 2007, from complications following a massive stroke.
"I had a competitive career with C.K. that lasted over a number of years and he was always the most prepared, the most competitive and one of the smartest athletes on the field of competition."
"Because of all of those things, I personally was forced to be a better athlete than I might ever have become had he not been there," he added.
Taiwan’s greatest woman Olympian Chi Cheng, an old friend of Yang, also eulogized Yang at his memorial service.
"C.K. once told me that the 1960 Rome Olympics, where his UCLA teammate Rafer Johnson took the gold medal in the decathlon and Yang himself grabbed the silver, was the lowest moment of his life," said Chi. Chi added, however, that little did Yang know that this lowest moment of his life was in fact a most important milestone for his country.
"It is because of him that the world sees Taiwan," she noted. Indeed, it is because of Yang’s silver medal finish in the Rome Olympics, the first Olympic medal that Taiwan, competing under the title of Republic of China, had ever won, that the world began to take a closer look at the small island nation in East Asia.
It was Yang’s superhuman performance at that time that won him the name of "World’s Best Athlete” from Sports Illustrated on its front cover of the December 23, 1963, issue.In an earlier SI article released May 6, 1963, Yang was also dubbed "the first truly great Chinese athlete of modern times."
If you think these titles might be a little bit exaggerated and overstated, check out Yang’s amazing records in the world of track and field: gold medal finish in the decathlon at the 1954 Asian Games; gold in the decathlon, silver in the 110m hurdles and the long jump, and a bronze in the 400m hurdles at the 1958 Asian Games.In 1963 Yang set a world record of 9,121 points in the decathlon. In fact, Yang’s pole-vault score was so high that the official decathlon tables did not even have a score for his feat; the International Amateur Athletic Federation was forced to change its scoring tables just to record Yang’s achievements.
The beginning of a legend
Born July 10, 1933, into the indigenous Amis Tribe, Yang, whose aboriginal name was "Misun," showed an early proficiency in athletics. The blood of an athlete runs in his veins as both of his parents were famous sprinters. The first sport in which Yang showed great talent, however, was not the decathlon but rather Taiwan’s national sport, baseball. Yang was once an ace pitcher for his hometown Taitung County team in island-wide competition. His training in running, jumping and pitching in the sport established a solid foundation for his future career as a decathlete.
In 1951 Yang burst onto the national sports scene because of his talent in track and field. The 18-year-old Amis claimed the championship title in a national military sports event that year. His great performance won him a berth to represent his country at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila. In a documentary produced by Taiwan’s cabinet-level Sports Affairs Council, Yang recalled the day he was selected to the roster of Taiwan’s national team.
"The final roster was being announced by a broadcaster on the radio, and I did not hear my name when the list almost ended,” said Yang, "I was ready to give up and go home, but that was when I heard my name!" Yang was selected as the No.21 pick in the national squad roster, which was originally supposed to have only 20 members. No one could have imagined that the final pick of that year would later become a rising star and the most famous Taiwanese athlete of all time.
Yang had shown tremendous potential during practices. He was originally chosen as a high jump athlete, but he was an outstanding all-around performer in many other sports as well. His coach Shih Lin-sheng discovered his talent and introduced him to the decathlon, an athletic event consisting of ten track and field events which is a crucial test of an individual's overall strength, speed, stamina, endurance and perseverance.
Only after two months of training in the event, Yang competed in the 1954 Asian Games. Surprisingly, the talented 21-year-old athlete won international fame overnight with his explosive performance in Malaysia, scoring 5,454 points and winning a gold medal for Taiwan in his debut event, while earning him the well-suited nickname, "Asian Iron Man."
Four years later Yang went to Japan for the 1958 Asian games, where he again completed a clean sweep, claiming gold in the decathlon as well as silver in the 110-meter hurdles and long jump, and a bronze in the 400-meter hurdles. Yang’s great performance also earned him attention from the government. During the contentious time when the ROC government in Taiwan was being largely pushed aside by the resurgent People’s Republic of China, the Taiwan government realized that on the international stage sports could become a powerful propaganda tool to upgrade Taiwan’s international status.
Therefore, seeing Yang’s potential to make it big internationally, the government decided to support him for further studies at UCLA in an age when the average national income was only US$162 annually, making Yang the first Taiwanese athlete to train in the US with government support.
Days in UCLA and the 1960 Rome Olympics
While at UCLA, Yang trained together with Johnson under legendary coach "Ducky" Drake. The rivalry and friendship between the two flourished at UCLA, helping to make the famous duels in the decathlon event at the 1960 Rome Olympics one of the greatest classics in Olympic history.
Going into the final event of the decathlon, the 1500-meter run, Yang trailed Johnson by just 67 points. It was widely believed that Yang, whose specialty was the 1500 meters, could make use of the event to take the gold. But Johnson hung on, finishing the long run one second ahead of Yang, and the 1960 Olympic duels, which were, in Johnson’s words, "a two-man United Nations,” ended with the pair collapsing into one another’s arms.
The two equally-competitive rivals and friends won rounds of applause from spectators of the event, many who even shouted, "give both of them gold medals!" In fact, Yang actually beat Johnson in all seven track events, but the losing margin to Johnson in the three field events was big enough to cost Yang the title.
In the end, Yang finished with 8334 points while Johnson had 8392, both breaking the world record. "I was extremely disappointed that I finished second, despite the fact that I also broke the world record,” Yang recalled in the documentary.
Rather than feel self-satisfied, Yang went on to smash many of Johnson’s records, and then in 1963, at a decathlon event held at Mount San Antonio, California, Yang finished No. 1 with a record-breaking 9,121 points, 438 points better than Johnson, and setting a new world record for the decathlon. Witnessing Yang’s performance in the event, Coach Ducky Drake, more in awe than as a point of information, said, "He is the finest athlete in the world."
Sadly, however, the world-record breaking finish was probably the final highlight in Yang’s sporting career. At the age of 32 - relatively old for an athlete - Yang challenged in the decathlon event in the 1964 Summer Olympics at Tokyo. Far surpassing everyone’s expectations, gold medal hopeful Yang surprisingly finished fifth after coming down with a mysterious flu.
Decades later, in 1978, a Taiwan secret agent told Yang that he was poisoned by his teammate working for PRC, with an aim to destroying the ROC’s chance for a gold medal. No matter what the true cause behind Yang’s poor performance in 1964, that year marked Yang’s final appearance in a sports arena.
From Olympic medalist to movie star to shaman
Retiring from the sports field, Yang, making use of his fame, starred in several Hollywood films. He played an Olympic athlete in the Cary Grant film, "Walk, Don’t Run” (1966,) and appeared in two westerns, "There Was a Crooked Man” (1970) and "One More Train to Rob” (1971).
He also took part in a Hong Kong film to return a favor for a friend, playing a Taiwan aboriginal who fought against the Japanese in a movie entitled, "The Tiger in the Jungle." His performances on the big screen, however, were not as nearly good as those in track and field events, as none of Yang’s films became a hit in either the US or Taiwan.
Abandoning his movie star dreams, he served as an alcohol distributor and worked for the family business of his Chinese-American wife, Daisy Chou, in Los Angeles. While working in the business field, Yang also tried his hand in the political world, winning election to the national legislature and serving one term for the ruling Kuomintang in 1983. Yang later changed his party affiliation to the newly-founded opposition Democratic Progressive Party in 1989 and made a failed attempt for Taitung County Magistrate.
Ending his brief political career, Yang later returned to a more familiar field, coaching Taiwan’s national track and field team at Kaohsiung Zuoying, Taiwan’s national training center, where many new-generation athletes were cultivated. Among Yang’s various jobs, the most surprising was none other than serving as a Taoist Shaman at the Yuxi Temple or Temple of the Imperial Seal which Yang founded in Taitung. The transformation of an Olympic medalist to a shaman might seem a bit awkward to some, but Yang said everyone is free to choose his or her own religion.
In the late 70s, Yang consulted a Taoist deity, the "Golden Queen Mother," in a Hualien Temple. The deity gave him advice on an investment which later proved to be correct. Deeply moved by the experience, he decided to found the Temple of the Imperial Seal, where he himself had served as a resident shaman.
The passing of a national hero and icon
In 2001 Yang was reportedly seriously ill and in need of a liver transplant. But the "Asian Iron Man" overcame the disease and later even joined a cross-strait marathon run around China to support its bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Six years later, the all-time greatest Taiwan athlete was again admitted to the hospital, this time due to a massive stroke on January 24, 2007. Three days later, the now largely-forgotten national hero of Taiwan died.
Before his death Yang had expressed a wish to be buried at Taiwan’s national training center at Kaohsiung Zuoying, the place he had helped to create on the island. But the request was denied by the country he served for many years, citing reasons of lack of space. His hometown Taitung also expressed a wish to build a memorial park to commemorate Yang’s contribution to the nation, but to date the project still has not been put into place.
At the memorial service held for Yang in Taipei on February 9, which was joined by many of his friends and government officials such as then-president Chen Shui-bian, Yang’s oldest son Cedric Yang or Yang Sui-yuen made the following remarks.
"47 years ago, my father dressed in a suit with the ROC national flag on it to participate in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and six days ago, my father again dressed in a suit with the same national flag on it, but this time he was buried in his grave." Though many of the younger generations of Taiwan have never heard the name of the Olympic medalist, C.K. Yang is definitely a national icon and deserves to be remembered for his excellent performance on the sports as well as his friendship/rivalry with Rafer Johnson, a duel which perfectly embodies the true spirit of sportsmanship.