Johnson Set Record Straight in Decathlon


The Soviet press called it a "sports summit meeting," the first of the USA-USSR track meets.

And the featured Lenin Stadium meeting, everyone agreed, was the matchup of the world's two best decathletes, American Rafer Johnson and the Soviet Union's Vasily Kuznetsov.

Johnson had won the silver medal at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, beating Kuznetsov by 122 points. But Kuznetsov had won every other decathlon he'd entered since 1953. And the previous spring, he had broken Johnson's world record and become the first decathlete to exceed 8,000 points.

This was the Cold War era, and Johnson, in his 1998 book, "The Best That I Can Be," wrote about the U.S. and Soviet media buildup to the meeting with Kuznetsov:

"A product of the Soviet sports machine had taken the record; now an American who had worked his way up from poverty was trying to get it back. It was not just man-on-man for the unofficial title of World's Greatest Athlete, it was Communism vs. the Free World.

"Like Jesse Owens in Berlin or Joe Louis in his rematch with Max Schmeling, I carried the burden of national pride to a sporting event."

It was burdensome until the next-to-last event, the javelin throw, contested 41 years ago today.

Johnson held a narrow lead over Kuznetsov and needed a wide victory margin in the javelin before the last event, the 1,500-meter run. After two throws, Kuznetsov had thrown 214 feet, Johnson 205. On his last throw, Johnson threw 238-2, virtually clinching it.

He had 8,072 points with an event left. Kuznetsov beat Johnson by only a second in the 1,500 and Johnson, with 8,302, had broken the world record by almost 300 points.

Also on this date: In 1959, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell confirmed that a rival pro football league--later named the American Football League--was being planned for 1960. . . . In 1957, St. Louis Cardinal fans wondered if the McDaniel brothers, Von and Lindy, could be a latter-day Dizzy and Paul Dean tandem, after Von followed a brilliant debut with a one-hitter against Pittsburgh. But two games into the next season, Von developed career-ending shoulder trouble. Lindy pitched 21 seasons, winning 141 games. . . . In 1991, Montreal's Dennis Martinez pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers before 45,560 at Dodger Stadium. . . . In 1994, on the night an Aug. 12 strike date was set by the players, Kenny Rogers of the Texas Rangers pitched a perfect game in a 4-0 victory over the Angels.

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