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Rafer Johnson
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Rafer Johnson

Rafer Lewis Johnson (born August 18, 1935) is a former American decathlete.

Johnson was born in Hillsboro, Texas, but moved to Kingsburg, California at age 9. In high school, he played on the school's football, baseball and basketball teams. As a versatile athlete, he was attracted to the decathlon after seeing double Olympic Champion Bob Mathias compete.

He competed in his first meet in 1954, as a freshman at UCLA. His progress in the event was impressive, and he broke the world record in his fourth competition. That same year, he also 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, he managed to take second place in the decathlon, finishing behind his compatriot Milton 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 in 1958 and 1960, he improved the world record two more times. The crown on his career came in 1960, at the Rome Olympics. His most important opponent was Yang Chuan-Kwang of Taiwan. Yang also studied at UCLA, and the two were training together and had become friends. After 9 events, Johnson lead Yang, but Yang was thought to be capable of overcoming this gap in the final event, the 1500 m. Johnson however managed to cling on to Yang, and won the gold.

After this gold medal, Johnson ended his athletic career. He played as an actor in several movies, and worked as a sportscaster. In 1968, he worked on the presidential election campaign of Robert Kennedy, when the latter was assassinated. Sixteen years later, he was chosen to ignite the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Johnson's brother, 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.

See also