Sportsmen of the Year

Associated Press

Rafer Johnson, 1958 Sportsman of the Year

December 05, 2008
by findingDulcinea Staff
Olympic decathlon winner Rafer Johnson is admired as much for his strength of character as his athletic triumphs. In 1958, Sports Illustrated noted that “Johnson's kind of tolerance is not the diluted brand that sells so cheaply around the world these days, good only among people who already think alike. His is the real thing—by Voltaire's definition, the capacity to be tolerant even of intolerance.” Fifty years later, that assessment still holds true.

Olympic Triumph

Johnson overcame stunning defeat and adversity to triumph on the world’s greatest stage. Johnson was widely expected to win decathlon gold in the 1956 Olympic Games, but he struggled through a swollen knee and a torn stomach muscle and settled for silver. Then in 1958, he faced down Vasiliy Kuznetsov in a historic U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet, breaking a world record. For that victory, Sports Illustrated made Johnson the 1958 Sportsman of the Year.

In 1959, tragedy struck again: an auto accident left him unable to train for a year. Nevertheless, once he recovered from his injuries, Johnson quickly regained his form and won the decathlon in the U.S. Olympic trials.
In its preview issue for the 1960 Summer Olympics, Time magazine put Johnson on its cover and praised his gentlemanly behavior, his graciousness to competitors and his  “monastic dedication to sport." The article quoted a Los Angeles pastor, who called Johnson “a most remarkable human being. He is as gentle as a child, and yet he is tremendously competitive.”
Johnson won Olympic gold in the decathlon in Rome in 1960 in dramatic fashion. Before the final event, the 1,500 meter run, Johnson held a modest lead over his college teammate and good friend, C.K. Yang of Taiwan. Johnson needed to finish within 10 seconds of Yang to hold his lead, but Yang’s personal best in the event was 18 seconds faster than Johnson’s. Nevertheless, their shared coach, Ducky Drake of UCLA, predicted to Time magazine that “If Ray doesn't tie up, he'll dog Yang all the way … He’s got the heart to do it.” Indeed, Johnson shadowed Yang throughout and finished a mere 6 yards behind Yang to seal the victory. After the race, Johnson revealed his plans for a victory celebration: “Tonight I'm going to shower and then just walk for about four hours and look at the moon,” he said. “I don't know where—just walk, walk, walk. I've got to unwind. I'm through, man, I'm through.”
For Johnson, being “through” merely meant that his second act was beginning.  He flirted with acting, appearing in a number of motion pictures and television shows, before becoming active in politics.

People and Politics

Johnson has been involved with the organization People to People, founded by President Eisenhower to promote world peace and understanding, for more than 40 years, and serves on its board of directors. Peter Ueberroth, former chairman of People to People, says that “If you made a list of the ten top role models for young men in America, I don’t know who the other nine would be, but Rafer would be one of them.”
Johnson worked on the 1968 presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. On June 5, Johnson was in the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when R.F.K. was shot.  Together with pro football player Rosie Grier, Johnson tackled Sirhan Sirhan to the ground, grabbed and pocketed the gun, and prevented angry R.F.K. supporters from attacking the assassin.
Shortly after R.F.K.’s death, Rafer Johnson attended the first Special Olympics. Johnson then launched the Special Olympics Southern California the following year, which now offers year-round sports training and competition to more than 11,000 disabled athletes. Johnson remains active in both organizations, using his fame to recruit legions of sponsors and volunteers over the past several decades.

A Sample of His Honors

In 1984, Rafer Johnson was granted the honor of being the final torchbearer, who climbed the stairs at the Los Angeles Coliseum and lit the Olympic flame that symbolized the opening of the Summer Games. He published his autobiography, “The Best That I Can Be,” in 1998.

Johnson was elected, along with Arthur Ashe and Chi Chi Rodriguez, into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. In 1998, ESPN named Johnson one of the 100 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century, and in 2006, the NCAA named Johnson one of the “100 Most Influential Student-Athletes” in the organization’s 100-year existence.
In a wide-ranging interview with Kentucky newspaper Ace Weekly in 2004, Johnson spoke of the aftermath of the Kennedy shooting, race relations in America and why he had to turn down an opportunity to appear in “Spartacus” with his good friend Kirk Douglas.

Family Ties

Johnson’s brother Jimmy played cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers and was elected to Pro Football’s Hall of Fame.  Daughter Jennifer played on the U.S. Olympic Women’s Beach Volleyball team in 2000.  Son Josh was a nationally ranked javelin thrower.  Johnson rarely spoke of his exploits or displayed his medals, and his children were startled to see their father honored at the 1984 Olympics.  "For all he has accomplished," says Jenny, "I think my dad gets more joy out of seeing my brother and me competing than he does talking about himself."

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