Some of you may have followed the world track and field championships in Moscow recently (about which, more never — there are actually fairly dominant athletes in most of the marquee events (100, 200, 5000, 10000), the dominant 800 runner was out, and the 1500 wasn’t all that interesting. And the marathon is actually fairly interesting, so let’s take that as a footnote*)
*I now can’t find the fairly annoying article I read about this. Most countries did not send top-level athletes, and most top-level athletes didn’t want to go, since there is no money to be made from the race, except Ethiopia made it mandatory for its top runners. Needless to say, they did well, winning the women’s race and coming 2-3-4 in the men’s race. My feeling is: Runners should follow the money, and if that means that the World Championship marathon means less than other races, fine. If you care, pay the runners. The men’s race was actually a great race, and can be found on youtube. It came down to a small group including Lelisa Desisa (Young Ethiopian who won Boston and has this year’s world’s fastest time), Tsegeye Kebede (London marathon champion, small human, gutsy runner, and perpetual top-finisher in a sport where nobody is perpetually anything), and Stephen Kiprotich (Ugandan, from just across the Kenyan Border, who won the 2012 Olympics) (and another ethiopian guy, actually). Now, this is interesting because a victory by any of those first three guys gives them a fairly legitimate claim to being the Best Marathoner in the World. As it happened, Kiprotich just outlasted them all, and kicked home to victory in just sub-2:10, meaning he is now the Olympic and World Champion, but doesn’t have a time close to the world’s bests. My takeaway is that he is the best warm-weather runner in the world, since championship races are usually run in the heat, which doesn’t produce fast times. Anyways, that’s all.
But American Ashton Eaton dominated the decathlon, and laid a claim for being the best athlete in the world, but actually I started reading about other decathletes throughout the years, and boy they are just fascinating people. The “Interesting US decathlete olympic gold medalist” heyday was really the 1950’s and 1960’s, so let’s take a look.
In 1948, the US sent a 17 year old high schooler to compete in the decathlon in London. Bob Mathias’ youth showed when he did things like “Not know the rules of the shot put”, but he still managed to win. (Note: In high school I competed against a bunch of giant Samoans who also didn’t know the rules of the shot put, and who just threw it kind of like a baseball, and while I didn’t like losing to them, I certainly wasn’t going to mention that the giant iron ball the were holding should come directly off their considerable necks and that they should be disqualified). A few years later Matthias went to Stanford, where he played football (and also set the world record in the decathlon) — in 1952 winning the Rose Bowl and the Olympic Decathlon gold. After graduating from Stanford, he followed a fairly generic retired-athlete life — he joined the marines, then starred as Theseus in the film “Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete” (note, that’s the Spanish dubbed version — go to 24:40ish if you want to see him throw the Javelin), then became a congressman from California, then, after being deposed (re-districting, Watergate), became the first head of the US Olympic training center.
The silver medalist in 1952 was a high-schooler from New Jersey named Milt Campbell, who then went on to win the gold in Melbourne. As we’ll see soon, Campbell had the unfortunate position of winning his gold between Mathias and Rafer Johnson, which, he claims, is like “playing a scene with a baby and a dog”. 40-some-odd years after winning the gold, Campbell was still seething that he thinks he didn’t get what he deserved, and after reading about it, I actually kind of agree with him. (note: the Sports Illustrated article about this has an all-time great turn-of-phrase: “Some of Campbell’s once considerable musculature has slipped from his shoulders to his stomach”.)
First, let’s talk about race. He was the first black decathlete champion, and he noticed that while Bob Mathias got a Wheaties box, he got nothing. In case you’re wondering what America was like around this time, Campbell was told as a senior in high school that he probably couldn’t swim “because all the waters in Africa are infested with crocodiles”. (He became an all-American swimmer). In 1957, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, where he roomed with the team’s other draft pick, Jim Brown. After his first season, Campbell got married to his girlfriend, Barbara Mount (who was/is white). Before Campbell’s second season, Browns owner Paul Brown called Campbell into his office, asked him why he got married (Response: “First, the same reason you did, second, I don’t think you want to ask that question”), and cut him from the team. No other team in the league picked him up (he went to play in Canada). So, I mean, Campbell kind of has a point.
Another point working against Campbell’s long-term popularity is that the 1956 games were in Melbourne, during football season (November), on the other side of the world, so received significantly less press than any other Olympics around that time. All told, Campbell was a two-time Olympic medalist, and once held the world-record for the open 110 high hurdles, and you probably hadn’t heard of him, so I think he has a good point. But let’s move on to Rafer Johnson, who is one of the most Forrest Gump-ian of all humans.
Rafer Johnson grew up in the San Joaquin Valley town of Kingsburg, very close to Bob Mathias’ hometown (and apparently the 16-year-old Johnson watched the 21-year old Mathias break his own world record, and remarked that he (Johnson) thought he could have beaten a lot of the competition). After a generally remarkable high school athletic career, Johnson went to UCLA, where he would run track, play basketball (for John Wooden, largely considered the greatest basketball coach of all time), and be the student body president. While competing in the decathlon, he convinced fellow athlete C.K. Yang (from Formosa, or as it’s now known, Taiwan) to try the event(s). Yang was good, and became one of Johnson’s closest competitors.
In 1958, Johnson went to the USSR to compete against his toughest competition, Valery Kuznetsov. Johnson beat the Russian, and earned the respect of the 30,000 fans in the stadium, who applauded him in a moment that Sports Illustrated depicts in a way that makes me thing it was the inspiration for the end of Rocky IV.
For the 1960 Olympics, 24-year-old Johnson was elected team captain (if you’re interested in more about this, I couldn’t recommend David Maraniss’ book “Rome 1960” less highly. Thankfully the stuff about Johnson is at the beginning, so no need to skip to it). The photo of him solitarily carrying the flag in the opening ceremonies is, to me, iconic — just a beautiful photograph. Johnson beat Yang and Kuznetsov for the gold — I highly recommend this video if you ever want to explain to somebody what a rivalry (or actually, all sports) should look like — victory, loneliness, defeat, friendship (also, when you see the high jump, you realize why the fosbury flop wasn’t invented earlier — you’d break your neck).
Johnson then turned down a role in the Kirk Douglas film Spartacus (because it would make him a professional), joined the Peace Corps briefly, decided not to play in the NFL (he was drafted by the LA Rams), and became a confidante of the Kennedy family.
In 1968, he was by Robert Kennedy’s side when the latter was assassinated. Johnson disarmed the shooter (Sirhan Sirhan), and accidentally pocketed the weapon. Supposedly he was taking off his coat later that night and found it. He became an early advocate for the special Olympics, and was later the president of that organization. In 1984, he lit the torch for the start of the LA Olympics. The day of the opening ceremony, he was traveling with his kids, who were hoping that Michael Jackson would do the honors.
A life well-lived. (He also named his memoir: “The Best That I Can Be” which I like because it’s so similar to John Cougar Mellencamp’s greatest hits album “The Best That I Could Do” which is really what all greatest hits albums should be called).
So, that was a lot of not very interesting writing about three very interesting people. The last part I would add, which I think the video of Rome hammers home, is that the decathlon is in many ways the most strategic event in track — knowing one’s strengths, managing the effort over two days, etc. — but is rarely covered in any detail. Basically I think that’s wrong. To me, there’s something beautiful in watching great athletes do things that they aren’t necessarily great at — Ashton Eaton putting the shot, or two world class decathletes gutting out a 4:20 1500 — It seems somehow the closest to the amateur aesthetic that the Olympics were supposed to represent.