Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Rafer Johnson

Posted on August 02, 2009 by Dean Hybl
Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson

In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the 1984 Summer Olympics, we are honoring as the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Week the person who received the prestigious honor of lighting the Olympic Flame at the opening ceremonies of those games.

Because success in the decathlon requires high-level performances in 10 significantly different events, decathlon champions have traditionally been considered to be the best athletes in the world. Few have ever been better than Rafer Johnson.

Johnson made his decathlon debut in 1954 and the next year the 20-year old won the decathlon at the Pan-American Games and set his first world record.

Competing at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Johnson struggled with injuries, but still earned the silver medal behind fellow American Milt Campbell.

The second place finish would prove to be the last time in his career that Johnson wasn’t at the top of the victory stand.

Injuries hampered his performance in 1957 and 1959, but in 1958 he established himself as the top decathlete in the world. He was honored as the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1958.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Johnson led his friend and fellow UCLA student Yang Chuan-Kwang of Taiwan after nine events. However, Chuan-Kwang was considered stronger in the final event, the 1,500 meters, and still had a chance to defeat Johnson.

Knowing what he had to do to win, Johnson stayed with the fleet Chuan-Kwang throughout the race and claimed the gold medal. He became the first African-American to win the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award, which is given annually to the top amateur athlete in the United States.

An accomplished all-around athlete, Johnson also played basketball at UCLA and was a starter on the 1959-1960 team under head coach John Wooden.

Johnson retired from organized athletics following the 1960 Olympics. He went on to appear in movies and serve as a broadcaster.

In 1968 he was within close proximity of Robert Kennedy when the presidential candidate was shot in a Los Angeles hotel.

Part of an athletically gifted family, his brother, Jimmy Johnson, played defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His daughter, Jennifer, competed in beach volleyball at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

If you had a favorite athlete growing up that you would like to see featured as the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Week, send me a nomination by e-mail.

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