Traditionally, the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” has been given to the person who wins an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon.
In 1960, that person was Rafer Johnson.
Born in Texas, Johnson grew up in Kingsburg as the family moved there when he was nine years old. In high school, Johnson was a four-sport athlete for the Vikings: football, basketball, baseball and, of course, track & field.
That was his favorite sport.
Johnson referred to track & field in his autobiography as something that “young men had done since the dawn of civilization.” Murl Dodson was Rafer Johnson’s coach in high school, and the one he credits for his introduction to the decathlon. In 1953 and 1954, Johnson was a two-time high school state champion.
Later in 1954, while a freshman at UCLA, Johnson broke the world record in just his fourth competition. One year later, he won gold at the Pan American Games in Mexico City. A year after that, he won silver at the Olympics, despite dealing with a knee injury. And in 1960, he turned that silver into gold by winning the Olympic decathlon in Rome.
He was also the flag bearer for the United States at the 1960 Olympics.
In addition to being an athlete, Rafer Johnson was also an ambassador. He worked on the presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and he actually helped disarm Kennedy’s assassin in 1968.
In 1969, Johnson co-founded the southern California chapter of the Special Olympics; he later served as its president for ten years.
A member of the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame, Rafer Johnson was 86 years old.