This week, we begin a new column where we take a look at the impact of highly successful UCLA athletes that may not necessarily be in the forefront of everyone’s minds. These individuals represented the Four Letters with pride and hold a special place in their sports’ legacy.
Today, we’re taking a look at Yang Chuan-kwang, a decathlete in the early 1960’s who is also known as C.K. Yang. He served as team captain in 1963, and was coached by Drake Stadium namesake, Coach Elvin C. “Ducky” Drake. Yang entered UCLA in 1959 speaking no English and would graduate in 1964, all while competing in the Olympics, learning English, getting married, and becoming a father.
If we go back a little further to Yang’s childhood, we would find him living in Taiwan during World War II, moving up into the mountains of Formosa to escape bombings from American planes. There, he took up archery, and would eventually have to kill a cobra to save his own life. He also contracted malaria in his early teens and was sick in bed for a year.
Fast-forward a few years. Yang was 21 before he would be competing full-time in track and field. His father played baseball and was a gifted athlete, a trait he obviously passed on to Yang.
He was known as the “Iron Man of Asia”, and competed in the 1954 and 1958 Asian Games, where he won the decathlon both times, and in 1958 also won the silver medal in the 110m hurdles and long jump, and the bronze in the 400m hurdles.
In 1958, Yang competed in the U.S. decathlon championship in Palmyra, NJ against a field that would include future UCLA teammate Rafer Johnson. He had expected to remain in the United States for just a month or two competing, but it was arranged by Taiwanese authorities for him to remain in the U.S. and compete at the collegiate level. That’s when he arrived at UCLA and became a full-time teammate of Johnson’s.
In 1960, he competed in the Rome Olympics representing the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) and actually went head to head with Johnson. They finished one and two, with Johnson taking the gold and Yang taking the silver. Yang actually outdid Johnson in all but the throwing events, where the margin was wide enough to give Johnson the gold. He was the first Chinese athlete to win a gold medal in Olympic history — and that’s also including the People’s Republic of China, not just the Republic of China.
Yang is currently the only individual in the world not from the United States or Europe to hold a decathlon world record. In 1963, he stole the world record from Johnson, and passed the 9,000 point mark, according to the old evaluation scales. Even on the new scales, his score was the first to pass the 8,000 point mark. Yang still holds the third-highest decathlon total in UCLA history (8,089).
Yang went on to compete in the 1964 Olympic games, where he placed fifth in the decathlon, and in 1970, had a non-speaking role in the western There Was a Crooked Man...
Yang passed away in 2007 from a massive stroke and is buried in Ventura.
This video contains footage of Yang and Johnson competing for the decathlon title in 1960 in Rome, thanks to 805Bruin:
For a more personal look, check out this video of Rafer Johnson, which was filmed at the track stadium in Rome where the 1960 Olympics took place (h/t to David Bordow):
Check back next Friday for a new athlete’s profile.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct the fact that Yang competed for the Republic of China and not the People’s Republic of China.