Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson
Rafer Johnson at the 1960 Olympics
Personal information
Full name Rafer Lewis Johnson
Born August 18, 1935 (1935-08-18) (age 80)
Hillsboro, Texas, U.S.
Height 1.90 m (6 ft 3 in)
Weight 91 kg (201 lb)
Sport Athletics
Event(s) Decathlon
Club Southern California Striders, Anaheim
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s) 100 m – 10.3 (1957)
220 yd – 21.0 (1956)
400 m – 47.9 (1956)
110 mH – 13.8 (1956)
HJ – 1.89 m (1955)
PV – 4.09 m (1960)
LJ – 7.76 m (1956)
SP – 16.75 m (1958)
DT – 52.50 m (1960)
JT – 76.73 m (1960)
Decathlon – 7982 (1960)[1]

Rafer Lewis Johnson (born August 18, 1935)[2] is an American former decathlete and film actor. He was the 1960 Olympic gold medalist, after getting a silver in 1956 and a gold in the 1955 Pan American Games. He was also the flag bearer at the 1960 Olympics and lit the Olympic Flame when the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984.

He was a real life hero, along with Rosey Grier tackling Sirhan Sirhan moments after he had mortally wounded Robert F. Kennedy.

After the Olympics he turned his celebrity into acting, sportscasting and public service, and was instrumental in creating the California Special Olympics. His acting career included appearances in The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961), the Elvis Presley film Wild in the Country (1961), Pirates of Tortuga (1961), None but the Brave (1965), two Tarzan films with Mike Henry, The Last Grenade (1970), Roots: The Next Generations (1979), and the 1989 James Bond film Licence to Kill, opposite Timothy Dalton.


  • Biography 1
  • Honors 2
  • In the media 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


Johnson was born in Hillsboro, Texas, but the family moved to Kingsburg, California, when he was 5. For a while, they were the only black family in the town.[3] A versatile athlete, he played on Kingsburg High School's football, baseball and basketball teams. He was also elected class president in both junior high and high school.[3] At 16, he became attracted to the decathlon after seeing double Olympic champion Bob Mathias, the local hero from Tulare and 24 miles (40 km) from Kingsburg compete. He told his coach, "I could have beaten most of those guys."[3] He competed in his first meet in 1954 as a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His progress in the event was impressive; he broke the world record in his fourth competition.[3] He pledged Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, America's first nondiscriminatory fraternity, and was class president[3] at UCLA. In 1955, in Mexico City, he won the title at the Pan American Games.

Johnson qualified for both the decathlon and the long jump events for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. However, he was hampered by an injury and forfeited his place in the long jump. Despite this handicap, he managed to take second place in the decathlon behind compatriot Milt Campbell. It would turn out to be his last defeat in the event.

Due to injury, Johnson missed the 1957 and 1959 seasons (the latter due to a car accident), but he broke the world record in 1958 and 1960. The crown to his career came at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. His most serious rival was Yang Chuan-Kwang (C. K. Yang) of Taiwan. Yang also studied at UCLA; the two trained together under UCLA track coach Elvin C. "Ducky" Drake and had become friends. In the decathlon, the lead swung back and forth between them. Finally, after nine events, Johnson led Yang by a small margin, but Yang was known to be better in the final event, the 1500 m. Johnson however managed to stay close enough to Yang to win the gold. With this victory, Johnson ended his athletic career.

At UCLA, Johnson also played basketball under legendary coach John Wooden and was a starter on the 1959–60 men's basketball team.[4] Wooden considered Johnson a great defensive player, but sometimes regretted holding back his teams early in his coaching career, remarking, "imagine Rafer Johnson on the break."[3]

Johnson was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the 28th round (333rd overall) of the 1959 NFL Draft as a running back.

While training for the 1960 Olympics, his friend Kirk Douglas told him about a part in Spartacus that Douglas thought might make him a star: the Ethiopian gladiator Draba, who refuses to kill Spartacus (played by Douglas) after defeating him in a duel. Johnson read for and got the role, but was forced to turn it down because the Amateur Athletic Union told him it would make him a professional and therefore ineligible for the Olympics.[3] The role eventually went to another UCLA great, Woody Strode. In 1960, he began acting in motion pictures and working as a sportscaster. In the 1963–1964 season, he appeared on an episode of ABCs drama about college life, Channing starring Jason Evers and Henry Jones. Johnson made several film appearances including the James Bond film Licence to Kill as a DEA agent. After his acting career, he worked full-time as a sportscaster in the early 1970s. He weekend sports anchored on the local L.A. NBC news, but seemed uncomfortable in that position and eventually moved on to other things.

Johnson served briefly in the Peace Corps just after its founding in 1961. In 1968, he worked on the presidential election campaign of Robert F. Kennedy and with the help of Rosey Grier, he apprehended Sirhan Sirhan immediately after Sirhan had assassinated Kennedy.[3] He discusses the experience in his autobiography, "The Best That I Can Be" (published in 1999 by Galilee Trade Publishing and co-authored with Philip Goldberg).

Rafer Johnson is the spokesperson for Hershey's Track & Field Games and is very involved in Jimmy is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his daughter Jennifer competed in beach volleyball at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney following her collegiate career at UCLA.[1] His son Joshua Johnson followed his father into track and field and had a podium finish in the javelin throw at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.[5]


Johnson at 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome

Johnson was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1958[6] and won the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States in 1960, breaking that award's color barrier. He was chosen to ignite the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.[3] In 1994, he was elected into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was named one of ESPN's 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th Century. In 2006, the NCAA named him one of the 100 Most Influential Student Athletes of the past 100 years.[7] On August 25, 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced that Johnson would be one of 13 California Hall of Fame inductees in The California Museum's yearlong exhibit. The induction ceremony was on December 1, 2009, in Sacramento, California. Johnson is a member of The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C. National Intercollegiate All-American Football Players Honor Roll. Rafer Johnson Junior High School in Kingsburg, California is named after Johnson, as are Rafer Johnson Community Day School and Rafer Johnson Children's Center, both in Bakersfield, California. This last school, which has classes for special education students from the ages of birth-5, also puts on an annual Rafer Johnson Day. Every year He speaks at the event and cheers on hundreds of students with special needs as they participate in a variety of track and field events. In 2010, Johnson received the Fernando Award for Civic Accomplishment from the Fernando Foundation and in 2011, he was inducted into the Bakersfield City School District Hall of Fame. Additionally, Rafer now acts as the athletic advisor to Dan Guerrero, Director of Athletics at UCLA.

In the media

On January 15, 2015, Johnson sat for a 30-minute interview where he discussed intimate details regarding his tackling of Robert F. Kennedy's assassin Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in June 1968.[8]


  1. ^ a b Rafer Johnson. sports-reference.com
  2. ^ "Today in history".  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i  
  4. ^ "Rafer Johnson — Olympic gold medalist and UCLA dad". Spotlight.ucla.edu. October 1, 2005. Retrieved August 11, 2013. 
  5. ^ Jacobs and Washington on track for repeat in Paris - USA Champs Day Three. IAAF (2003-06-22). Retrieved on 2015-07-02.
  6. ^ "Sportsman of the Year". Sportsillustrated.cnn.com. Retrieved August 11, 2013. 
  7. ^ "100 Most Influentical Student-Athletes". ncaa.org
  8. ^ "Rafer Johnson, Two-Time Olympic Gold and Silver Decathlon Medalist–Guest 1/15/2015". kenboxerlive.com. Retrieved January 19, 2015. 

Further reading


External links

  • Video clip from 1984 Summer Olympics, including Rafer Johnson lighting the Olympic Flame
Olympic Games
Preceded by
Norman Cohn-Armitage
Flagbearer for  United States
Rome 1960
Succeeded by
Parry O'Brien
Preceded by
Sergei Belov
Final Summer Olympic Torchbearer
Los Angeles 1984
Succeeded by
Chung Sun-Man, Sohn Mi-Chung
and Kim Won-Tak
Preceded by
Martin Lauer
Track & Field Athlete of the Year
Succeeded by
Ralph Boston
Preceded by
Bob Mathias
Men's decathlon world record holder
June 11, 1955 – May 18, 1958
Succeeded by
Vasili Kuznetsov
Preceded by
Vasili Kuznetsov
Men's decathlon world record holder
July 28, 1958 – May 17, 1959
Succeeded by
Vasili Kuznetsov
Preceded by
Vasili Kuznetsov
Men's decathlon world record holder
July 9, 1960 – April 28, 1963
Succeeded by
Yang Chuan-Kwang