California Sports Hall of Fame 2007 Inductee
No event in track and field is more difficult than the decathlon. That's because it's not one event, but 10. It's little wonder then that when Rafer Johnson, a high school star in four sports, decided to compete exclusively in track, he chose the decathlon.
Born August 18, 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas, Johnson and his family moved in the mid 1940's to Kingsburg, a small town in the central part of California. Coincidentally, it was less than 25 miles from Tulare, the hometown of Bob Mathias, who would win the decathlon in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.
Johnson was a superb all-around athlete, winning varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball and track. He averaged nine yards a carry as a halfback, scored 17 points a game in basketball and was a 400 hitter for the baseball team. But he was even better in track and field. The 6-foot-3, 200- pounder was good enough to receive a football scholarship, but he decided against it and concentrated exclusively on the decathlon at UCLA.
As a freshman, competing in only his fourth decathlon, he won the Pan-American games in Mexico City in 1955. Returning to Kingsburg, he scored a world-record 7,985 points at a welcome-home meet, breaking Mathias' mark by 98 points. In 1956, he won his first national decathlon championship.
When he competed in the 1960 Olympics, Johnson already had the world record, three national AAU championships and a silver medal in the Olympics on his resume. Missing was the gold. That year, if Johnson could hold on for one more event, the 1,500 meters, he would fulfill his quest. But Johnson disliked this event intensely.
Going into the final event on the night, Johnson led his friend and UCLA teammate, C.K. Yang of Taiwan, by 97 points. If Johnson came within 10 seconds of Yang's time in the 1,500, the gold would be his. He ended up finishing only six yards and 1.2 seconds behind Yang, in a personal best of 4:49.7. At the age of 25, Johnson had the gold medal, setting a then Olympic record of 8,392 points in the process and fulfilling his high school dream.
He received the 1960 Sullivan Award for being the outstanding American amateur athlete of the year and was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year.
In 1969, Johnson, along with a small group of volunteers, founded the California Special Olympics (CSO). He would go on to become one of the original members of the Board of Directors and was elected president where he served in that capacity until July 1992, when he was named Chairman of the Board of Governors. Johnson's personal philosophy is the driving force behind his many contributions to society; that everyone has a responsibility to use individual talents and abilities to be the best that they can be.
In 1984, 24 years after his gold-medal performance, Johnson again participated in the Olympics. As the final torchbearer, he climbed up the stairs at the Los Angeles Coliseum and lit the flame that symbolized the opening of the Games.