2010 Joe Shapiro Award Recipient

Rafer Johnson

photo of Rafer JohnsonA two-time Olympian and the 1960 gold medalist in the decathlon, Rafer Johnson has been a champion in athletics and humanitarian efforts. A versatile athlete who played football, baseball and basketball in high school, Johnson was attracted to the decathlon after seeing two-time Olympic Champion Bob Mathias compete. He competed in his first decathlon in 1954 as a freshman at UCLA and he broke the world record in the decathlon in just his fourth competition that year. While at UCLA, Johnson also played basketball under legendary coach John Wooden.

In 1955, Johnson qualified to compete for the United States in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne in both the decathlon and the long jump. Despite an injury, Johnson competed in the 1956 Olympics and earned a silver medal in the decathlon, finishing behind American Milt Campbell.

That would be his last defeat in the event.

After missing the 1957 and 1959 seasons due to injuries, Johnson came back and won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. His most important opponent was Yang Chuan-Kwang of Taiwan. Chuan-Kwang also studied at UCLA and the two were training together and had become friends. After nine events, Johnson led Chuan-Kwang, who was considered capable of overcoming the gap in the final event, the 1,500 meters. Johnson, though, was able to hold off Chuan-Kwang and win the gold.

He was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1958 and earned the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the U.S. in 1960.

After winning the Olympic gold medal in 1960, Johnson ended his athletic career. In 1960, he began acting in motion pictures and worked as a sportscaster. In the 1963-64 television season, he appeared on an episode of ABC’s drama about college life, Channing. He also appeared in several movies, including the James Bond film, License to Kill as a DEA agent.

In 1968, he worked on the presidential election campaign of Robert Kennedy and was one of those present who helped wrestle Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, to the floor.

In a big highlight for Johnson, he was chosen to ignite the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

In 1994, he was elected (along with Arthur Ashe) into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was named one of ESPN’s 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th Century and in 2006 he was named one of the 100 Most Influential Student-Athletes of the past 100 years by the NCAA. He is also a member of both the National Track and Field and the U.S. Olympic Halls of Fame. 

Johnson’s autobiography, “The Best That I Can Be,” was published in 1998.

Johnson has improved the lives of many afflicted with disabilities. He was one of the founding members of the Special Olympics in Southern California and has been active in that organization for more than 40 years. The Rafer Johnson Children’s Center in Bakersfield was named in Rafer’s honor and provides classes for special education students from the ages of Birth-5. That school puts on an annual “Rafer Johnson Day.” Each year, Rafer speaks at the event and cheers on hundreds of students with significant special needs as they participate in a variety of track and field events.