Rafer Johnson

Biographical information

RolesCompeted in Olympic Games • Other
Full nameRafer Lewis•Johnson
Used nameRafer•Johnson
Born18 August 1934 in Hillsboro, Texas (USA)
Died2 December 2020 in Sherman Oaks, California (USA)
Measurements190 cm / 91 kg
AffiliationsSouthern California Striders, Anaheim (USA)
NOC United States
Medals OG
Gold 1
Silver 1
Bronze 0
Total 2


Rafer Johnson made his decathlon début in 1954 and the next year won the Pan American Games title and set the first of his three world decathlon records. Johnson, who competed for UCLA and the Southern California Striders, won the AAU decathlon in 1956, 1958, and 1960 and after placing second to Milt Campbell at the 1956 Olympics, never lost another decathlon. He was injured at the 1956 Games, which forced him to withdraw from the Olympic long jump, for which he had also qualified. His three world decathlon records were set in 1955, 1958, and at the 1960 US Olympic Trials. Johnson’s Olympic gold medal was won dramatically in the final 1,500 over his UCLA college roommate, C. K. Yang of Chinese Taipei, who took the silver medal. Yang was close after nine events and was a better 1,500 metre runner, but Johnson followed closely behind him throughout the race, and would not let Yang pull away, enabling Johnson to win the gold.

After his retirement in 1960 he acted in a few movies, and served for many years as a commercial spokesman for many products. The plaintiff cry moment’s after Robert Kennedy’s assassination was, “Get the gun, Rafer!,” and it was Rafer Johnson to whom the voice beckoned. Johnson and football star Rosey Grier were rabid Kennedy supporters and were standing next to him that fateful night, and they helped disarm the shooter. In 1984 Rafer Johnson was chosen to light the Olympic Flame at the Opening Ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics. He also became a big supporter of Special Olympics, leading the Southern California chapter. His younger brother Jimmy played NFL football for 16 years with the San Francisco 49ers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994. Rafer’s daughter, Jenny Johnson-Jordan, competed in beach volleyball at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Personal Bests: 100 – 10.3 (1957); 220y – 21.0 (1956); 400 – 47.9 (1956); 110H – 13.8 (1956); HJ – 6-2½ (1.89) (1955); PV – 13-5¼ (4.09) (1960); LJ – 25-5½ (7.76) (1956); SP – 54-11½ (16.75) (1958); DT – 172-3 (52.50) (1960); JT – 251-9 (76.73) (1960); Dec – 7982 (1960).


Games Discipline (Sport) / Event NOC / Team Pos Medal As
1956 Summer Olympics Athletics USA Rafer Johnson
Long Jump, Men (Olympic) DNS
Decathlon, Men (Olympic) 2 Silver
1960 Summer Olympics Athletics USA Rafer Johnson
Decathlon, Men (Olympic) 1 Gold

Other participations

Games Role NOC As
1960 Summer Olympics Flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony USA Rafer Johnson

Olympic family relations

Special Notes


Year of birth usually seen as 1935, but Johnson and his wife tracked down his birth certificate in the 2010s and were surprised to see the year of birth was actually 1934.