Rafer Johnson

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Rafer Johnson 1934


Trained for Olympics

Classic Olympic Moment

Their Own Dreams

Second Generation of Olympians

Selected writings


When American athlete Rafer Johnson won the gold medal for the decathlon in the 1960 Olympics, he also earned the title of worlds greatest athlete, usually appended to the first-place finisher in this grueling track and field event. Johnson never competed again after his victory, but instead devoted his energies to a career in public service. In 2000 he was a spectator at the Sydney Olympic Games to watch his daughter competean honor he deemed more important to him than his gold- medal victory, he told Sports Illustrated writer Brian Cazeneuve. My greatest joy is seeing how my children turned out, declared Johnson.

The future Olympian was born in 1934 into a Texas family of cotton-field laborers, and spent his first few years in a house without electricity or running water. He was the oldest of five children in the family, which moved to Kingsburg, California, a small farming town in the San Joaquin Valley. Though the community was home to residents mainly of Swedish extraction, Johnson recalled that he enjoyed the advantages of living in a small town, and believed it inspired him later in life. I knew every kid in school and they knew me, Johnson told Los Angeles Times writer Eric Sondheimer. You looked after your neighbor, after your friend. People helped me, people advised me, people corrected me. I always wanted to be this person willing to give something back.

Trained for Olympics

At Kingsburg High School in the early 1950s, Johnson was encouraged by his track coach, Murl Dodson. One day, the student athlete complained to his mentor that he felt he was not fulfilling his potential, so Dodson took Johnson to watch another athlete prepare for a race. The track star was Bob Mathias, also from the San Joaquin Valley, who had won the 1948 Olympic decathlon and was at the time training for the 1952 Games.

It was a turning point for Johnson. I decided I wanted to be the best in the world, too, Betty Barnacle, a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service reporter quoted him as saying. It wasnt ego. I just wanted to accomplish it and it was a giant step. It was one of the key things that happened to me. Once I told someone what I wanted to be, it freed me as an athlete.

Johnson went on to attend the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was captain of both the track

At a Glance

Born on August 18, 1935, in Hillsboro, TX; married Betsy Thorsen (a teacher), 1971; children: Jennifer Johnson-Jordan, Josh. Education: Graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Career: Olympic athlete. Affiliated with People to People International (an American goodwill agency); acted in films including Sergeant Rutledge, 1960; The Sins of Rachel Cade, 1961; Tarzan and the Great River, 1967; Free to Be You & Me, 1974; License to Kill, 1989; also worked as a sports broadcaster, Peace Corps recruiter, and Democratic Party volunteer; published autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, 1998.

Memberships: Co-founder of California Special Olympics (governors board chair since 1992); member of California State Recreation Commission, Fair Housing Congress, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfares Committee on Mental Retardation.

Awards: Gold medal, 1960 Summer Olympic Games (Rome, Italy), for the decathlon.

Addresses: Home Sherman Oaks, CA. Office Santa Barbara Speakers Bureau, P.O. Box 30768, Santa Barbara, CA 93130-0768.

and field teams, and president of the student body as well. He was also the first African American at the school to pledge a national fraternity. In 1956 his athletic talents qualified him for the decathlon event of the Summer Olympic Games, which were held in Melbourne, Australia that year. The decathlon was one of the Olympics most grueling tests: athletes took part in ten events over a two-day period that included a series of jumps and hurdles as well as the discus throw, shot put, javelin, and pole vault; they also ran a 400-meter race and the final 1500-meter. Johnson took second place and a silver medal.

Classic Olympic Moment

Johnson was such a standout athlete during his college career that Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year in 1958. Around this time Johnson began training alongside another standout UCLA track star, C. K. Yang, for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. At those Games, Johnson served as captain of the U.S. team, and carried the American flag in the opening ceremonies. His decathlon performance was a memorable one: in the final event, the 1500-meter race, Johnson crossed the finish line visibly exhausted, just steps ahead of Yang. Both men set world decathlon records in event, and Johnson decided to use the opportunity to exit gracefullyhe never competed again.

Instead Johnson went to work for People to People International, an American goodwill agency, and acted in films. He was often cast as an African warrior in combat in Tarzan pictures of the 1960s, but also appeared in the 1979 mini-series Roots: The Next Generation. For a time, he worked as a sports broadcaster, and also devoted his energies to recruiting Peace Corps volunteers. Romantically he was linked to Gloria Steinern, a glamorous and well-known womens rights activist at the time. Johnson also volunteered for Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy in 1968. When Kennedy won the California primary in June, he and his entourage were passing through the Ambassador Hotel. Shots were fired, and Kennedy fell. Johnson pushed Kennedys pregnant wife, Ethel, out of harms way, then lunged toward the gunalong with another unofficial bodyguard, gridiron star Rosey Grierand disarmed the assailant, Sirhan Sirhan.

Johnson was devastated by the moment, but credited Kennedys sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, for helping him regain some perspective. Shriver and her husbandparents of television journalist Maria Shriver had recently founded the Special Olympics, a competition for developmentally and physically disabled children and adults. Johnson became a founding board member of the California Special Olympics, and dedicated himself to helping the organization grow to a size of 25,000 participants in 68 programs across the state. Over the years, Johnson has also served on the California State Recreation Commission, a Fair Housing group, and a federal committee on mental retardation.

Their Own Dreams

Johnson married Betsy Thorsen in 1971, with whom he had two children. He kept his 1956 silver and 1960 gold medals in a bank vault, and on rare occasions took them outfor show and tell at childrens school, or at the school where his wife taught. He felt that to have themor his other trophies and awardson display at home might discourage his children from excelling themselves. I wanted my kids to have their own dreams, Johnson told Sports Illustrateds Cazeneuve. Id already done so much. The daughter and son knew little of their fathers fame until he drove them to the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Only then did Johnson reveal to the youngsters, then nine and 11, that he had been asked to light the torch, a great symbolic honor.

In the opening ceremonies, Johnson sprinted up the steep stairs, torch in hand, and lit the flame that marked the formal kick-off of the Games. The 49-year-old received rousing cheers. Recalling the moment, Johnson said that he felt less like himself than he did an Olympian instead, as he told Sports Illustrated writer Robert Sullivan. When he came out of the stadium tunnel of the Los Angeles Coliseum, he observed something special going on. As I ran I could see tears in the eyes of some of the athletes. I felt a part of all those great Olympians on the field. I was tied to all those in the stands. I think the torch run may be the great legacy of these Olympic Games. I think it tied us together and made it all warma feeling of binding us all together, he told Sullivan.

Still, the athlete recalled in another interview that it was a shaky moment. Johnson said that he nearly fell off, according to Independent Sunday journalist Ronald Atkin. I would have done if they hadnt put a fibreglass pole up there for me to hold on to. We had practised a few times but I had never seen the stadium all dressed up and full of people. It was an incredible sight.

Second Generation of Olympians

In 1995 Johnson revisited the stadium in Rome where he won his gold medal when he took part in a documentary film on Olympic history. He and the silver medallist that day, Yang, have remained friends over the years, and Johnson is also close to his brother, Jimmy, who played for the San Francisco 49ers. Johnsons children recalled that the 1984 torch-lighting honor ignited Olympic fever in both of them: both Jennifer and Josh attended their fathers alma mater, UCLA, where Josh excelled in javelin and almost qualified for the 2000 Olympic team. Jenny, wife of former UCLA gridiron star Kevin Jordan, became a standout professional beach volleyball, and competed in the 2000 Sydney Games. A proud father accompanied her to the Games. Ive never played volleyball, so I cant tell her what to do, although she wouldnt listen to me anyway, Johnson said in an interview with Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service reporter Chris Tomasson. Johnson-Jordan noted that her fathers humble attitude had always been a positive influence in her life. My dad never talked about what he had accomplished, and that took a lot of pressure off me, she told Tomasson.

Johnson lives in Sherman Oaks, California, but returns to Kingsburg occasionally for events at Rafer Johnson Junior High School. He is the author of a 1998 memoir, The Best That I Can Be, in which he credited those who encouraged him or did not allow prejudice to stand in the way of helping him in his athletic career. He also, however, recalled certain hardships. His father was an alcoholic who sometimes came to his track events drunk. I came to dread the weekends, Johnson wrote in his autobiography. It was as if there were two of him: The kind, hard-working family man who showed affection for his wife and children, and the hell-raising drunk who would stay out til all hours and come home with a chip on his shoulder, slamming doors and roaring at the top of his lungs, ready to pull my mother out of bed and beat her at the slightest provocation.

The Best That I Can Be earned positive reviews. A Publishers Weekly review noted that while Johnsons recounting of incidents of racism was inevitable in such a book, his tone is candid, rarely displaying rancor when recalling even recent racism or when discussing the disapproval of his interracial marriage. Booklists Wes Lukowsky noted that many contemporary biographies have an element of the scandalous that is publicized to boost sales, but Johnsons story will stand out as unique because it is the autobiography of an uncommonly decent, ethical, and likable man.

Selected writings

(With Philip Goldberg) The Best That I Can Be (autobiography), Doubleday, 1998.


Booklist, July 1998, p. 1826.

Fresno Bee, June 9, 1996, p. Dl; February 11, 1999, p. El.

Independent Sunday, (London, England), September 17, 2000, p. 6.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 6, 1997; September 13, 2000; September 22, 2000.

Library Journal, July 19998, p. 99.

Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1997, p. 3; May 9, 2000, p. Dl.

People, July 10, 2000, p. 149.

Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1998, p. 44.

Sports Illustrated, August 20, 1984, p. 96; September 11, 2000, p. 20.

Carol Brennan

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Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson (born 1935) won the Olympic decathlon in 1960 with a record-breaking score of 8,392 points. The decathlon winner, according to tradition, is regarded as the best all-around athlete in the world.

Rafer Johnson was an outstanding all-around athlete, as proven by his record-breaking win of the Olympic gold medal for the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. As captain of the American Olympic Team, he bore the U.S. flag proudly in the opening ceremonies of the games that year and was the first African American to assume that special honor. He spent many years before and after his Olympic triumph spreading the message of peace as an international ambassador of goodwill, and in 1984 he received the distinctive honor of lighting the Olympic flame at the games in Los Angeles, California.

From his birth in 1935 until age two, Rafer Lewis Johnson lived in the large home of his paternal grandparents in Hillsboro, Texas, along with his parents and five aunts and uncles. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity. The family moved briefly to Oklahoma to pick sugar cane for one year. Upon their return to Texas when Johnson was three years old, the family settled in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. He spent his summers at the home of a maternal aunt.

During the six years that the family remained in Dallas, Johnson attended N. W. Harlee School near the Trinity River in Dallas. He was an excellent student even in his youth, enthusiastic and dedicated. His social life revolved around the local Baptist church that he attended along with his family.

The Johnson family moved from Texas to California in 1945 when the future decathlete was nine. Their father, Lewis Johnson, secured work in the Oakland shipyards until the end of World War II. The family then moved deep into the San Joaquin Valley where Lewis Johnson sought work as a farm laborer once again. Life on the West Coast took the family from Chowchilla to Madera, and briefly down to Fresno. The family lived in makeshift housing and Rafer Johnson picked cotton along with his mother, Alma Gibson Johnson, two sisters and two brothers, while Lewis Johnson worked as a foreman on the cotton-picking crew. Young Rafer picked hundreds of pounds of cotton per day on weekends and during vacations from school and worked also at odd jobs. By 1946 Johnson's family had settled permanently in the valley town of Kingsburg, where his father worked for the railroad. In Kingsburg the Johnsons lived in a housing tract, called "section houses," built so close to the railroad tracks that the earth shook violently with every passing train.

Johnson was still a young boy in grade school when he suffered a debilitating injury while playing recklessly on the conveyor belt outside a food packing plant. In a terrible accident his left foot became stuck in the rollers, which pulled the sole from Johnson's foot. The foot became infected and healed only after a slow and painful recuperation. It was his left foot that tore, which would become his lead foot in track and field racing. Even as a superior athlete in adulthood, Johnson maintained that the pain of that injury remained a constant presence, even after the injury healed.

In California Johnson attended integrated schools. Unlike his earlier life in Texas there was little talk of racism in California, and Johnson felt akin to his lighter skinned peers. He attended Roosevelt Elementary School where his leadership qualities shone even as a youth. He was elected president of the student body in grade school. In high school he was an all-A student, president of his sophomore class and student body president during senior year. Additionally, he was a member of the California Scholarship Federation and other extracurricular groups.

As an athlete for the Vikings of Kingsburg Joint Union High School, Johnson earned 11 school letters, captained three high school athletic teams, and distinguished himself in four sports altogether, swinging baseball bats so hard that he broke several. He played on three all-league basketball teams and was a member of the all-state football team in twelfth grade. Johnson excelled in track and field, where he derived a feeling of elation from the uncomplicated non-contact sports of running, jumping, and throwing. "There is no pro future in track, that's true. But there is a stimulating present," he said and added, "I loved every sport I played, but I was most passionate about track and field."

With the support and encouragement of a caring high school track coach, Johnson gained stamina and turned his natural ability into athletic skill. His first competition after high school ended in a third place showing for Johnson. The experience whet Johnson's taste for competition, and he set a goal—to qualify for the Olympics scheduled for Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.

Collegiate Athlete and More

Johnson, who aspired to become a dentist, enrolled at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). When the school offered Johnson his choice of a football scholarship or an academic award, he accepted the more lucrative and less restrictive academic scholarship. At UCLA he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and pledged Pi Lambda Phi fraternity; he was, in fact, the first African American to pledge a national fraternity at UCLA. He joined the Campus Crusade for Christ and eventually chaired the UCLA chapter of that organization. He found time also to play basketball for UCLA during the 1958-59 season, and he ran for student body president in 1959.

Johnson's track coach at UCLA, Elvin "Ducky" Drake, supported Johnson in his Olympic quest. Drake coached Johnson to a third-place finish at the 1956 Olympic Trials. Yet Johnson secured a place on the U.S. Olympic track and field team only to revive an old knee injury two weeks later while competing at the decathlon trials at Wabash College in Crawford, Illinois. Regardless, he won the trials and went to Melbourne, Australia, for the games. Johnson, who won the decathlon with ease at the Pan Am Games in Mexico City in 1955, was a popular favorite to win the 1956 Olympic decathlon, but the injury to his take-off leg caused swelling, which aggravated the injury. He left Melbourne with a silver medal, although he spent the subsequent months in rehabilitation and therapy following surgery to his knee.

Johnson was a man of dynamic spirit, and he put recuperation time to good purpose. He refreshed his faltering grade point average at school and spent the summer of 1957 on a goodwill tour arranged through the U.S. Department of State. The 89-day tour took him to Hong Kong, the Holy Land, and other parts of Africa, the Near East, and the Mediterranean countries. He returned to track and field competition mid-year in 1958 and won the Kingsburg Invitational Decathlon. He then went to the AAU decathlon in Palmyra, New Jersey, followed by the first-ever U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual track meet, held in Moscow. There Johnson broke the world decathlon record.

When Johnson returned from Moscow he received the World Trophy for North America from the Helms Athletic Foundation. Pi Lambda Phi established an annual fraternity award in his honor, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) honored him as well. On January 5, 1959 Sports Illustrated proclaimed Johnson as the sportsman of the year.

Hard Road to Olympic Gold

A serious car accident in 1959 resulted in damage to Johnson's spinal cord and lower back and caused him to miss both the AAU decathlon and the Pan Am games that year. After seven months of painful recuperation, Johnson began jogging. Slowly he resumed running and sprinting training. One month prior to the 1960 Olympic trials at the AAU decathlon in Eugene, Oregon, Johnson accelerated his recuperative retraining schedule to include jumps. Again in 1960, as in 1956, Johnson qualified for the Olympic team. He went to the games in Rome, Italy, as captain of the U.S. team and carried the American flag at the opening ceremonies. It was a poignant moment for Johnson, as he was the first African American in the history of the modern Olympics to receive that honor.

Johnson won the gold medal in the decathlon that year with a record-breaking score of 8,392 points and earned for himself the distinction of being the world's best athlete. Following his Olympic gold medal victory, he received the Associated Press Athlete of the Year award, the California Athlete of the Year Award for the second time, and endless other citations. His life was documented with Mike Wallace who narrated a television special produced by David L. Wolper, and Johnson also appeared on This Is Your Life. Years later, Johnson's childhood home of Kingsburg named a junior high school after him. He was touched by the hoopla and noted in his autobiography that, "If a gold medalist today were to receive as much attention as I had for six straight years, he would already be a wealthy man."

Post-Olympic Years

During the months following the 1960 Olympics, Johnson's earlier inclination toward dentistry ebbed. He received numerous offers to play professional football and basketball, but accepted instead a contract to make films with Twentieth Century Fox. Among his film credits, he appeared with Woody Strode in Sergeant Rutledge and with Frank Sinatra in None But the Brave. He appeared in films with Bob Hope and Elvis Presley and in two Tarzan movies. Johnson accepted television roles on Dragnet, Six Million Dollar Man, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and served as commentator for NBC for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. In the mid-1960s he anchored the sports news for the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles, and he appeared on Mission: Impossible and Daniel Boone. He appeared in a staged documentary about black pioneers for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) called The Black Frontier and a subsequent PBS film called Soul Soldier, about the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. 10th Cavalry.

Later in the 1960s Johnson accepted a position with Continental Telephone as an affirmative action consultant out of Bakersfield, California. He rose through the executive ranks during the 1970s to become vice president of personnel.

Goodwill Ambassador

Also during the 1960s Johnson became affiliated with an international goodwill group called People to People. After spending considerable effort in establishing chapters of the group on college campuses nationwide, he settled into a post in charge of the organization's West Coast office in Los Angeles, California. He worked also with youth programs under the auspices of the California State Recreation Commission.

In light of his celebrity status and because he was an African American, he used the clout of his great popularity to further social causes, including fair housing and equal opportunity in the entertainment industries. He worked with the Urban League, with the NAACP, and with James Meredith's national voters' mobilization of blacks in Mississippi in 1966. Additionally, he was affiliated with San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Counsel, and the Voter Registration Program.

When Johnson received the People to People Award as Athlete of the Year following his gold-medal win in Rome in 1960, he met the late U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy at the awards affair. A friendship ensued that spawned Johnson's involvement in a number of Kennedy-sponsored public projects, among them the Peace Corps and the Special Olympics. In 1968 Johnson served as an official delegate for the Kennedy presidential ticket, although the honor turned tragic on June 5, 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated following the California presidential primary. Johnson, who witnessed the murder firsthand, assisted in arresting the assassin's flight and retrieved the murder weapon. He was a pallbearer at the funeral and testified at the murder trial. In the years that followed, Johnson was a frequent escort to Kennedy's widow for political junkets and other public affairs.

Johnson maintained many organizational affiliations throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including the Close-Up Foundation on which he served as a board member. He was involved with the Hershey Track and Field Youth Program, the National Amateur Sports Development Foundation, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the Athletic Advisory Panel of the U.S. State Department, as well as the American Red Cross and others.

More Glory Days

On December 18, 1971, Johnson married Elizabeth "Betsy" Thorsen, a middle school teacher in Orange County, California. The couple had two children: Jennifer, born in 1973; and Joshua, born in 1975. The family moved to Sherman Oaks, California, in 1973.

Twenty-four years after his gold-medal victory, Johnson relived his Olympic glory days by running the final lap of the opening ceremonies relay and lighting the Olympic torch for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, California. In 1990 he was elected to the National High School Hall of Fame, and in 1992 he received the Humanitarian Award from Free Arts for Abused Children. In 2000 Johnson realized a unique dream, and what he called his greatest moment, when he watched his own daughter compete in the Olympic games in Sydney, Australia.


Johnson, Rafer, The Best That I Can Be: An Autobiography, Doubleday, 1998.

Notable Black American Men, Gale Research, 1999.


"From Rags to Sport Riches," ESPN.com,http://espn.go.com/sportscentury (December 14, 2000).

"Olympic Champion Rafer Johnson," September 14, 2000, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/olympics/news/2000/09/14/head-games-rafer-johnson/ (December 14, 2000).

"Rafer Johnson," http://www.webpak.net/~hallfame(March 23, 2001). □

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Rafer Johnson


American decathlete

Rafer Johnson's victory in the decathlon at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, earned him the title of "world's greatest athlete," but the track star never competed in another Olympiad again. Johnson was one of the outstanding college athletes of his day, breaking several track and field records and winning Sports Illustrated 's "Sportsman of the Year" award while a student at the University of California at Los Angeles. At the opening ceremonies of the 1960 Rome Games, he carried the American flag at the front of the Olympic delegation, the first African American athlete ever chosen for the honor.

Standout Athlete

Johnson was born in 1935 in Texas's cotton country, and grew up in a house there that had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. The family eventually resettled in small town in California's San Joaquin Valley, where they were one of the few black families in the area. Johnson's talents were apparent by his late teen years, and he was Kingsburg High School's star athlete in baseball, basketball, and track and field. One day, his track coach took him to watch another San Joaquin athlete, Bob Mathias, train for the 1952 Olympics, and Johnson decided that day to make the grueling decathlon his sport of choice.

Offered a football scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Johnson declined it in order to concentrate on track and field, and eventually captained the UCLA team. He was also elected student-body president, and became the first black at the school to pledge a national fraternity. After qualifying for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Johnson was hampered by injury and placed second in the decathlon. Its punishing series of ten events over two days caused its victors to earn the superlative "world's best athlete" designation, for they challenged both speed and strength in jumps, foot races, the discus throw and pole vault, among others. Between 1956 and 1960, Johnson won three U.S. national decathlon titles. In 1958, he competed against one of the decathlon's greatest names of the day, two-time Olympic bronze medallist Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union. They met in a showcase U.S.-Soviet track competition held at Moscow's Lenin Stadium, and Johnson bested his idol and set a world record that day.

Marched into Stadium

After qualifying for the 1960 U.S. Olympic track and field team, Johnson was designated captain of the entire American athletic contingent, and carried his country's flag during the opening ceremonies in Rome. He was slated to compete against C. K. Yang, a fellow track star at UCLA and a member of Taiwan's national Olympic team. On the first day of the decathlon, Johnson and Yang remained close in points; on the second day, Johnson lost points when he failed to clear one of the 110-meter hurdles, but did well with a pole vault of 13 feet, 51/2 inches. The final event, the 1,500-meter race, was Johnson's least favorite, and he and Yang remained neck and neck for much of it; Johnson finished 1.2 seconds behind Yang, but his overall score of 8,392 points gave him the gold as well as the Olympic decathlon record. "At that moment, I gave it everything I could," he told Los Angeles Times writer Eric Sondheimer. "I couldn't have expended more energy than I did during those two days." Despite his gold-medal finish, Johnson felt bad for his friend. As elated as I was to win the gold medal," he told Sondheimer, "part of me was disappointed for C.K. because I know how hard he worked." Johnson and Yang have remained friends since the 1960 Olympic Games.

Johnson's dedication and drive helped him land a post-collegiate job as an international goodwill ambassador. He acted in Hollywood films, worked as a sports broadcaster, recruited Peace Corps trainees, and served as a personnel executive at a California telephone company. He also became involved in Democratic Party politics, and was a member of the security detail for 1968 U.S. presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. When Kennedy exited through Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel after his California primary victory speech, shots were fired, Kennedy fell, and Johnson pushed the candidate's pregnant wife Ethel out of the way; he and football player Rosey Grier, another bodyguard, then tackled the assailant, Sirhan Sirhan, and Johnson disarmed him.


1935 Born August 18, in Hillsboro, Texas
1945 Relocates to California with family
1952 Enters University of California at Los Angeles
1958 Travels to Moscow to participate in first-ever United States-Soviet track meet
1960 Carries U.S. flag during opening ceremonies at the Rome Olympics; appears in first feature film, Sergeant Rutledge
1968 Disarms Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan
1969 Serves as founding board member, California Special Olympics
1971 Marries Betsy Thorsen
1984 Lights Olympic flame at opening ceremonies of Los Angeles Summer Games
1998 Publishes autobiography
2000 Travels to Sydney, Australia, to watch daughter compete as Olympic volleyball player

Opening Ceremony Honoree Again

Devastated by the incident, Johnson recovered with the help of Kennedy's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver , who encouraged him to become involved in a project she had started, the Special Olympics, a competition for developmentally and physically disabled children and adults. Johnson married in 1971, and kept both his silver and gold Olympic medals in a bank vault, rarely mentioning them to his children. "The house was for everybody, not just me and my things," Johnson told Independent Sunday journalist Ronald Atkin. "We put up the medals or citations the kids got but almost none of my stuff was up. We never talked much about that." Both youngsters were stunned one day in 1984 when they drove with their father to Los Angeles Coliseum, where he disappeared and then emerged to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies. "I felt a part of all those great Olympians on the field. I think the torch run may be the great legacy of these Olympic Games," Sports Illustrated writer Robert Sullivan quoted him as saying. "I think it tied us together and made it all warma feeling of binding us all together."

In 1998 Johnson wrote an autobiography, The Best That I Can Be. He has long been active in the California Special Olympics (CSO) organization, serving on the board of directors as president and, since 1992, chair of the CSO Board of Governors. He is credited with bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support to CSO coffers through his fundraising efforts. Both of Johnson's children, Jennifer and Josh, followed their father to UCLA and were standout athletes there; Josh nearly made it onto the 2000 Olympic team in javelin, and Jennifer went to Sydney as a member of the U.S. beach volleyball team. "I am a very proud father," Johnson said in the interview with Atkin for the Independent Sunday. "In terms of motivation and preparation and desire to be the best they can be, I'd put my children right up there with the best I've ever known. They give their all."


Address: c/o Santa Barbara Speakers Bureau, P.O. Box 30768, Santa Barbara, CA 93130-0768.

Awards and Accomplishments

1955 Won gold medal in decathlon at the Pan American Games
1956 Won silver medal in decathlon at the Melbourne Summer Olympic Games
1956, 1958, 1960 Named U.S. national decathlon champion
1958 Set world record in the decathlon at United States-Soviet track meet in Moscow
1958 Named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated
1960 Won gold medal in decathlon at the Rome Summer Olympic Games; named Sportsman of the Year by Sport magazine
1960 Named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press
1960 Received James E. Sullivan Memorial Award from the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States
1974 Inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Athletics Congress of the United States of America
1983 Inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame
1990 Inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame


Johnson, Rafer, and Philip Goldberg. The Best That I Can Be. Garden City: Doubleday, 1998.



Atkin, Ronald. "Olympic Games: Beach Volleyball." (London, England) Independent Sunday (September 17, 2000): 6.

Barnacle, Betty. "Rafer Johnson Recalls His Olympic Win." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (November 6, 1997).

Cazeneuve, Brian. "Rafer Johnson, Olympic Hero: August 6, 1984." Sports Illustrated (September 11, 2000): 20.

Danzig, Allison. "Rafer Johnson Picked to Carry U.S. Flag in Olympic Ceremony." New York Times (August 23, 1960): 33.

Gustkey, Earl. "Johnson Set Record Straight in Decathlon." Los Angeles Times (July 28, 1999): 1.

Sondheimer, Eric. "Ex-Olympian Johnson Leads by Example." Los Angeles Times (November 5, 1997): 3.

Sullivan, Robert. "The Legacy of These Games." Sports Illustrated (August 20, 1984) 96.

"Torch Bearers." People (July 10, 2000): 149.


"Rafer Johnson." Santa Barbara Speakers Bureau. http://www.sbweb.com/prospeakers/rjohnson.htm (January 21, 2003).

Sketch by Carol Brennan