Top facts about Rafer Johnson, the greatest decathlete

Thu 16 September 2021 | 16:30

Rafer Johnson carried the American flag into Rome's Olympic Stadium in 1960 as the first Black captain of a United States Olympic team and went on to win gold in a memorable decathlon duel, bringing him acclaim as the world's greatest all-around athlete. Read on to find out more facts about Rafer Johnson.

Rafer Lewis Johnson was an American decathlete and movie performer who lived from August 18, 1934 until December 2, 2020. He earned gold in the decathlon in the 1960 Olympics after winning silver in 1956.

Rafer Johnson’s age

was 86 at the time of his death. Here you can find out the most important facts about Rafer Johnson, a great man and athlete.

Rafer Johnson claimed a gold medal in the Pan American Championships in 1955. He was the flag bearer for the United States in the 1960 Olympics and ignited the Olympic flame at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Sirhan Sirhan was caught by Johnson, football player Rosey Grier, and writer George Plimpton seconds after he fatally shot Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

He moved to theater, sports coverage, and public service after retiring from athletics, and he was a driving force behind the establishment of the California Special Olympics.

His acting credits include The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961), Elvis Presley's Wild in the Country (1961), Pirates of Tortuga (1961), None but the Brave (1965), two Tarzan films with Mike Henry, The Last Grenade (1970), Soul Soldier (1970), Roots: The Next Generations (1979), James Bond's Licence to Kill (1989), and Think Big (1989). (1990).

Top facts about Rafer Johnson:

The first

fact about Rafer Johnson

is that when he participated in the 1960 Olympics, he already had the world record, three national AAU championships, and an Olympic silver medal on his resume.

The gold was missing. Johnson's mission would be complete if he could only hang on for one more race, the 1,500 meters. Johnson, on the other hand, despised the situation. "The decathlon as a whole is absurd," Johnson remarked, "but the 1,500 meters is insane."

Despite the fact that Taiwan's C.K. Yang had defeated him in six of the previous nine events, Johnson led his UCLA teammate and buddy by 67 points heading into the last event on Sept. 6, 1960.

Johnson would win the gold if he came within 10 seconds of Yang's mark in the 1,500. But there was no guarantee. Yang's personal best of 4 minutes, 36 seconds beat Johnson's previous record by 18.2 seconds. At 9:15 p.m. at Rome's Olympic Stadium, the two exhausted competitors set off, Yang in front and...

Johnson was a standout all-around athlete at Kingsburg High School, earning varsity honors in football, baseball, basketball, and track. As a halfback, he averaged nine yards per run while leading the club to three league titles, scored 17 points per game in basketball, and batted 400 in baseball. In track and field, though, he was even better.

A notable fact about Rafer Johnson is that he was impressed during his junior year when his track coach brought him to Tulare to see Mathias compete. "On the way back, it occurred to me that I could have defeated the majority of the competitors," Johnson remarked. "That's when I decided to pursue a career as a decathlete."

The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder was talented enough for a football scholarship, but he chose not to pursue it and instead focused on the decathlon at UCLA. His father Lewis said, "He simply became so passionate about track that he was afraid he'd get injured in football."

He won the Pan-American Games in Mexico City in 1955 as a UCLA freshman participating in just his fourth decathlon. When he returned to Kingsburg, he set a new world record of 7,985 points in a welcome-back competition, surpassing Mathias' record by 98 points.

Johnson, Vassily Kuznetsov (two-time bronze Olympic medalist), and Yang rewrote the decathlon record book between the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

After the Soviets established the world record with 8,016 points in May 1958, Johnson reclaimed it later that year with 8,302 points when he beat Kuznetsov, dubbed "Man of Steel" by the Soviets, by 405 points in Moscow during the inaugural U.S.-Soviet Union dual meet.

An important fact about Rafer Johnson is that when he returned to UCLA in 1960, he worked out with Yang on a daily basis. Johnson got in great condition, with a body that was triangulated from a 35-inch waist to a 46-inch chest. Both Johnson and Yang surpassed Kuznetsov's record in Eugene, Oregon, in July, with Johnson, peaking out at 8,683 points.

The first day of the Olympic decathlon competition concluded at 11 p.m. on Sept. 5, with Johnson leading Yang by 55 points despite winning just one of the five events.

Johnson didn't get as many points as he had hoped after a poor first hurdle in the opening event of the following day, the 110-meter hurdles. He made up for it in the pole vault, when he set a lifetime best of 13 foot, 512 inches.

He was just six yards and 1.2 seconds behind Yang at the finish line, clocking in in 4:49.7, a career best. Johnson won the gold medal, and in the process established an Olympic record of 8,392 points. Johnson had realized his high school ambitions at the age of 25.

"I'm going to shower tonight and then go for a four-hour stroll and gaze at the moon," he added. "I'm not sure where I'm going — just stroll, walk, walk. I need to unwind. I'm done, man. I'm finished."

Johnson started performing in films and working as a sports commentator in 1960. He appeared in numerous films, mainly in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, Johnson labored full as a sportscaster. He was a weekend sports anchor on KNBC, the local NBC station in Los Angeles, but he appeared uncomfortable in that role and went on to other things.

Johnson served for United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, and on June 5, 1968, he captured Sirhan Sirhan with the assistance of Rosey Grier shortly after Sirhan killed Kennedy at the Ambassadors Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

Kennedy died at Good Samaritan Hospital the next day. In his book, The Best That I Can Be, Johnson spoke about the event (published in 1999 by Galilee Trade Publishing and co-authored with Philip Goldberg).

Rafer Johnson early life

Johnson was born on August 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas. When he was nine years old, his family relocated to Kingsburg, California. Speaking about

Rafer Johnson’s parents

, it should be mentioned that they were the town's sole black family for a time.


Rafer Johnson’s childhood

, it is worth mentioning that he was up in a ghetto-like environment of segregation, prejudice, and poverty. Years later, he'd look back on this time with resentment.

He said, "I don't care if I never see Texas again. Nothing about it appeals to me. Not only would I not have represented the United States in the Olympic Games if my family had remained in Texas, but I would not have even attended college."

In the mid-1940s, the family relocated to Kingsburg, a tiny town in central California approximately 20 miles south of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley, in the hopes of improving their living circumstances. It happened to be fewer than 25 miles from Tulare, the hometown of Bob Mathias, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic decathlon champion.

For a year, the Johnsons lived in a train boxcar outside a cannery, with a tattered curtain as a room divider, until circumstances began to improve with the assistance of a local merchant.

An important fact about Rafer Johnson is that he was a talented sportsman who participated in soccer, baseball, and basketball for Kingsburg High School. In both junior high and high school, he was chosen class president.

Rafer Johnson personal life

In 1971, Johnson married Elizabeth Thorsen. They were the parents of two children and the grandparents of four grandkids.

Johnson's brother Jimmy is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, and his daughter Jennifer represented the United States in beach volleyball in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney after a college career at UCLA.

Joshua Johnson, his father's successor in track and field, finished third in the javelin throw at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Johnson was a member of the Olympians' Art program.

Rafer Johnson died on December 2, 2020, in Sherman Oaks, California, after having a stroke. He was 86 years old when he died.

Rafer Johnson decathlon career

A notable fact about Rafer Johnson is that during the summer between Johnson's sophomore and junior semesters of high school (when he was 16), his instructor Murl Dodson took him 24 miles (40 kilometers) to Tulare to see Bob Mathias participate in the 1952 United States Olympic decathlon trials.

"I could have defeated most of those guys," Johnson informed his trainer. A month later, Dodson and Johnson returned to see Mathias' victory procession. Johnson went on to win a high school invitational decathlon a few weeks later. He also won the California state high school decathlon meets in 1953 and 1954.

His improvement in the event was remarkable as a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1954; he smashed the world record in his fourth competition.

He was course president at UCLA and joined Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, America's first non-sectarian fraternity. He won the Pan American Games championship in Mexico City in 1955.

Johnson competed in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne in both the decathlon and the long jump. He was, however, hindered by an illness and had to withdraw from the long jump. Despite this disadvantage, he finished second in the decathlon behind fellow countryman Milt Campbell. It would be his last loss in the competition.

An important fact about Rafer Johnson is that he skipped the 1957 and 1959 campaigns due to injuries (the latter owing to a vehicle accident), but he set world records in 1958 and 1960.

The 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome were the pinnacle of his career. Yang Chuan-Kwang (C. K. Yang) of Taiwan was his most significant opponent. Yang was also a UCLA student, and the two had become friends while training together under UCLA track coach Elvin C. "Ducky" Drake.

The lead went back and forth between them throughout the decathlon. After nine races, Johnson had a slight lead over Yang, but Yang was believed to be stronger in the last event, the 1500 meters.

According to The Telegraph (UK), "legend has it" that Drake offered both men advice, telling Johnson to remain close to Yang and prepare for a "hellish sprint" at the finish, and Yang to create as much space between himself and Johnson as possible before the final sprint.

A notable

fact about Rafer Johnson

is that he set a lifetime best of 4:49.7 and finished only 1.2 seconds behind Yang, earning gold by 58 points and setting an Olympic record of 8,392 points. Both runners were tired and depleted, and they came to a halt a few steps beyond the finish line, resting on each other for support. Johnson's sports career came to an end with this win.

Johnson also played basketball at UCLA under renowned coach John Wooden, starting for the Bruins in 1958–59. Johnson was drafted as a running back in the 28th round (333rd overall) in the 1959 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams.

While preparing for the 1960 Olympics, his buddy Kirk Douglas informed him about a role in Spartacus that he believed would make him a celebrity: the African warrior Draba, who declines to kill Spartacus (represented by Douglas) after a duel.

Johnson auditioned for the part and was offered it, but he had to decline since the Amateur Athletic Union informed him that doing so would make him a pro and thus disqualified for the Olympics. Woody Strode, another UCLA star, was ultimately cast in the role.

Johnson was a member of the organizing committee for the inaugural Special Olympics tournament, which was held in Chicago in 1968 and was hosted by Special Olympics creator Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and he spearheaded the formation of the California Special Olympics the following year.

California Special Olympics was established in 1969 by Johnson and a small group of volunteers, who held a tournament for 900 people with intellectual impairments in the Los Angeles National Coliseum. Johnson was one of the first board members of Managers after the inaugural California Games in 1969.

The board collaborated to generate money and provide a limited swimming and track & field program. Rafer campaigned for President of the Board in 1983 with the goal of increasing Board involvement, reorganizing the staff to make the most use of each person's skills, and increasing fundraising efforts. He was elected president and served until 1992, when he was promoted to Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Rafer Johnson achievements

An important fact about Rafer Johnson is that in 1958, he was awarded Sporting Illustrated's Athlete of the Year, and in 1960, he received the James E. Sullivan Honor as the best amateur sportsman in the U.s, breaking the racial barriers for that award. He was honored by the American Academy of Excellence with the Golden Plate Award in 1962.

During the opening show of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he was selected to light the Olympic Flame. He was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 1994.

A notable

fact about Rafer Johnson

is that he was included to ESPN's list of the 100 Best American Athletes of the 20th Century in 1998. He was designated one of the 100 Most Outstanding College Athletes of the Past 100 Years by the NCAA in 2006.

Governor Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver revealed on August 25, 2009 that Johnson would be one of 13 California Hall of Fame honorees featured in a yearlong display at The California Museum.

The inauguration ceremony was place in Sacramento, California on December 1, 2009. Johnson was named to the National Intercollegiate All-American Football Players Honor Roll by The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.

Rafer Johnson Junior High School in Kingsburg, California, as well as Rafer Johnson Community Day School and Rafer Johnson Children's Center in Bakersfield, California, are all named after Johnson. Rafer Johnson Day is held annually at the latter institution, which offers courses for special education children from newborn to five.

Every year, Johnson spoke at the event and cheered on hundreds of special-needs kids competing in a variety of track and field sports.

Johnson was honored by the Fernando Foundation in 2010 with the Fernando Award for Civic Achievement, and in 2011, he was inducted into the Bakersfield City School District Hall of Fame.

Rafer also served as an athletic adviser to UCLA Director of Athletics Dan Guerrero. The Texas Track & Field Coaches Hall of Fame, Class of 2016, inducted him.

A notable fact about Rafer Johnson is that he won The Foundation for Global Sports Development's Athletes in Excellence Award in November 2014 in honor of his community service activities and engagement with children. Whittier College honored Johnson with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D.) degree in 2005.

Rafer Johnson legacy

Awards, plaques on the wall, trophies in the case, and the placement of the obituary in the local newspaper are often used to summarize a person's life. Most of them had his on the top page, where it should have been. But none of those summaries really conveyed the most important message: Rafer Johnson was the best, honest, and compassionate guy any of us has ever met.

One of the goals of one of his interviews was to get him to speak about having the decisive vote on the selection committee that placed Peter Ueberroth, a relatively unknown travel industry entrepreneur, in charge of the 1984 Olympics.

Rafer's decisive vote had been known for a long time, and it even created a little stir in the media when he was chosen to ignite the torch. Conspiracy theorists scented retaliation, ignoring the apparent fact that Rafer was the greatest option regardless of the circumstances.

Rafer stated that day, and many times thereafter, when questioned about it, "I'd prefer not tell." Although there are some who know, Ueberroth claims he is not one of them.

Ueberroth said Friday, "I always heard that, but I was never sure." “I recall him being one of the first to congratulate me — and also to warn me about what was to come.”

Rafer would be inserting himself into Ueberroth's narrative if he addressed the voting problem. He never interjected himself into other people's stories.

Ann Meyers Drysdale, whose UCLA basketball career put her in close proximity to another Bruin great, stated it perfectly the other day. “With Rafer, it was always about everyone else and never about him.” Rafer's altruism has been praised in a variety of ways.

Betsy had to hunt for mementos packed away on garage shelves when the LA84 Foundation put up its recent exhibit, "Rafer Johnson: His Life. His Impact." The accomplishments of his children, Jenny and Josh, were exhibited on the walls and trophy cases within his house. Gold medals and halls of fame were on display to collect dust and cardboard.

Bill Plaschke of The New York Times recently wrote on how incredible it was that Rafer was never given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You'll probably agree if you look at the list of hundreds of people who have — and the dozens of athletes who have.

While Plaschke is right, it isn't very impressive. Rafer Johnson was one of the least self-promoters in history. He enjoyed being in the limelight as long as it was on someone else.

Rafer was reserved even when dealing with events of enormous historical significance, such as the murder of Robert F. Kennedy.

He was grilled about the events of that night in another interview. But anything that hinted at heroism made Rafer uneasy, even if his acts were that night. Kennedy had passed away. That was the only thing that mattered. It was one of the "most terrible moments" of his life, he said.

The little-known tale regarding the assassin's pistol surfaced as an afterthought, again after much digging.

Rafer said, "Rosy was grappling him down and I had my hand on Sirhan's gun hand." “I had my hand on the pistol, and I had my hand on his hand, and I was holding on as hard as I could.”

Grier eventually weighed so heavily on Sirhan that he couldn't move, he said. Rafer was able to gently remove the pistol from Sirhan's grip. He stuffed it into his coat pocket, walked out to his vehicle, drove home, pulled his coat off next to the bed, and fell into a stupor.

For many others, the tale would have triggered enormous and sudden fame — weeks of talk show appearances, perhaps even a book. Rafer isn't one of them. Several additional individuals were likely rescued from being shot in the chaos by him.

Rafer's radar never permitted that blip to emerge, despite the fact that he had been a hero. When pushed, he only recounted the tale briefly and only when forced.

When Rafer raced the arduous 1960 decathlon final race, the 1,500 meters that he despised the most, he did it by keeping close enough to his UCLA colleague and buddy C.K. Yang to get enough points to win the gold medal. He didn't take an American flag and circle the arena after that. In weariness, camaraderie, and commiseration, he walked to Yang, placed his arm around him, and leaned on him.

Rafer made sure that Kennedy's wife, Ethel, who was approximately 20 feet behind him, was secure before jumped on Sirhan. He took her to the ground and shielded her before charging the gunman. Ethel Kennedy is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rafer signed the paychecks of coaches, including John Wooden, while he was the student body president at UCLA. “I always feel ashamed when someone questions me about that,” Rafer remarked years later.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom has been awarded to John Wooden. He remarked, "We've lost a wonderful human being, and I've lost a genuine friend." “We take death in stride these days, especially for those of us over the age of 80. I'm having difficulty doing it with Rafer.” Posthumous Presidential Medals of Freedom are given out on rare occasions.

Rafer Johnson social media


Rafer Johnson social media

, it should be mentioned that he didn’t have any pages on any of the social media platforms, maybe because he didn’t like to share his personal life with other people online.

Rafer Johnson body measurements

Speaking about

Rafer Johnson body measurements

, it should be mentioned that the decathlon legend was 6 ft 3 in (190 cm) and 201 lb (91 kg) at the time of his death.

Rafer Johnson net worth and salary


Rafer Johnson net worth

, it is worth mentioning that he must have amassed a substantial fortune throughout his career. He was believed to have a net worth of $2 million at the time of his death. As a result, Rafer must have had an opulent lifestyle.

He amassed money through acting in a variety of films and participating in a variety of sports. In addition, Johnson's film "License to Kill" grossed $156.1 million at the box office.

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