For 1960 decathlon winner the Olympic beat goes on
Attired in a dapper blue suit, Rafer Johnson cuts a decidedly business-like figure. But there's no disguising the former athlete, not even in muted pinstripes.Skip to next paragraph
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The broad shoulders, tapered waist, and generally striking physique are all there, just as they were when he won the Olympic decathlon at Rome in 1960.
Today Johnson is deeply involved in the Olympic movement on several fronts, both as a member of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and as a spokesman for sponsors and licensees of the 1984 games.
It's in this latter capacity that he recently toured the country for the Southland Corporation, which built the Los Angeles velodrome and is sponsoring the US cycling team.
As a born and bred Californian who graduated from UCLA, Johnson is well suited to promote an Olympics situated practically in his Sherman Oaks backyard. And, of course, he possesses the status associated with being a decathlon champion, former Olympic flagbearer, a Sullivan Award winner as the nation's outstanding amateur athlete, and a certified hero of the games.
In 1960 the American team captain won the gold medal in a memorable gentlemen's duel with UCLA teammate C. K. Yang, who was competing for Nationalist China. The two were close friends then, and remain so today, despite Yang's return to Taiwan.
''I see him quite often; he's back and forth on different missions,'' Johnson says of his college training partner. ''He heads up his country's track and field program, and I'm sure he'll lead their delegation at next summer's Olympics.''
The friendly bond that existed between them didn't dampen their competitive fires. C. K. tried valiantly to win in Rome, actually bettering Johnson's efforts in seven of 10 events, only to fall just short in one of the Olympic decathlon's closest finishes.
''What separated us was probably only a tenth of a second in one event and four inches in something else,'' Rafer says. His actual margin of victory came in the strength events - discus, javelin, and shot put.
Johnson had hoped Yang would go on to win in 1964. But physical and personal problems prevented C.K. from graduating to gold the way Rafer did.
Johnson had captured the silver at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, finishing second to fellow American Milt Campbell, then moved up four years later. Rafer's career decathlon record would have been perfect except for that lone runner-up finish in '56, since he had beaten Campbell in the US Olympic trials.
Still, he made his mark with the 1-2 finishes, and joined back-to-back champion Bob Mathias as a charter member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame, which was launched last year. Oddly, Campbell, who won a silver and gold just like Johnson, was left off the ballot. Johnson attributes the oversight to Campbell's low visibility after the Olympics, rather than to racial discrimination. ''People just sort of lost track of him,'' Rafer says in recalling Campbell's entry into Canada's football ranks after a stint with the Cleveland Browns.
If Campbell turned into the Invisible Man, Johnson certainly did not. He spent time in Hollywood, appearing in two movies in 1961, ''The Fiercest Heart'' with Raymond Massey and ''Wild in the Country'' with Elvis Presley. He's popped up in advertisements for various products, and was once a newsman with KNBC in Los Angeles.
He's also worked as the vice-president of community affairs for Continental Telephone and as the West Coast director of People-to-People, a program of classroom and professional exchanges with foreign countries. At one career juncture he left NBC to join Robert Kennedy's 1968 Presidential campaign.
Rafer's long association with the Kennedy clan actually had begun years earlier, when, as student body president at UCLA, he met President John F. Kennedy during a campus visit. Then, after winning his gold medal, he met Bobby at an awards dinner. A comment Rafer made about public service was duly noted by the younger Kennedy, who invited him back to Washington to meet Sargent Shriver, Bobby's brother-in-law and then head of the Peace Corps. Johnson subsequently undertook some work for the Corps.
To this day, he still enjoys a close relationship with the Kennedys, whose Cape Cod compound he visits each summer. Among their mutual interests are the Special Olympics.
Another program Rafer is heavily involved in is the Hershey Track and Field program for 8- to 14-year-olds.
''As I've moved along, I've tried to give something back by helping young people,'' says Johnson. Part of the giving starts at home, where he keeps a watch on a pair of mini-athletes, daughter Jennifer, 10, and son Josh, 8. The children have been in swimming, gymnastics, and T-ball programs, and played soccer on teams coached by their parents. Rafer attributes his coaching involvement to a desire to ''bring a different tone to how my children approach games. I don't like pressure on them. I want them to come home with some real good feelings about what went on.''
Rafer's own athletic story began in Kingsburg, a the small central California town 20 miles north of Tulare, where Mathias grew up.
The son of a railroad section hand, Johnson was a multi-sport high school star accustomed to entering six or seven track and field events. Inspired by seeing Mathias win the 1952 Olympic trials, he became convinced that he too had a future in the decathlon.
He won the state high school championship his junior and senior years, then enrolled at UCLA on an academic scholarship, turning down many football offers. Free to pursue any sport, Johnson played basketball under John Wooden, but gave top priority to training for the Olympics, earning recognition as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1958. His second Olympics fell a year after his graduation as a pre-dental student in 1959.