Celebrating Rafer Johnson: The Build to the 1960 Rome Olympics

For the next few weeks, WeAreSOSC.org will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Special Olympics Southern California founder Rafer Johnson’s gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, the historical significance surrounding the event and his legacy in the immediate aftermath. Part of that legacy resulted in his selection as the final torchbearer at the 1984 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies in Los Angeles, which we reflected on the day of the 36th anniversary on July 28.

By Tracy McDannald

To better understand Rafer Johnson’s triumph in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the story has to start prior to the 1956 Games in Melbourne.

As a freshman at UCLA, Johnson won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1955 Pan-American Games in Mexico City, tallying 6,994 points over the 10 events—the discus throw, high jump, long jump, javelin, pole vault and shot put; the 100-, 400- and 1,500-meter races; and the 110-meter hurdles. Three months later, he broke the world record with a score of 7,985 points (the scoring system underwent changes over the years and it’s now listed as an adjusted score of 7,608 points).

That world-record performance was just the fourth decathlon competition of his storied career.

The circumstances surrounding track and field, and particularly the decathlon, was much different in Johnson’s time compared to today, also.

“At that time, in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, track and field was bigger than football or basketball. The greatest athletes were in track and field, and this man was the best athlete in the best sport. So, I wanted to be Rafer Johnson,” said Brian Erickson, a member of Special Olympics Southern California’s board of directors and a coach for the South Bay program.

“Like supermodels have one name, I want to be Rafer. He was all of the top athletes now, rolled into one.”

So, Johnson went into the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne as the presumed favorite to win the decathlon. However, an injury resulted in forfeiting his place in the long jump and he would have to settle for the silver. It would be the last decathlon he did not win.

His dream would have to wait four years, but not without a few more obstacles. Most notably, Johnson did not compete during the 1957 and 1959 track and field seasons at UCLA, the latter due to a car accident that resulted in injuries to his lower back and spinal cord. Yet, he only came back stronger with more world-record performances.

From the pages of the Los Angeles Times:

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What it meant to be an amateur and Olympian in the ’50s and ’60s was much different, too, and brought other circumstances to navigate.

In 2010, former Sports Illustrated senior columnist Joe Posnanski wrote a piece celebrating Johnson’s accomplishment at the 1960 Olympics. In it was a story about Johnson’s training prior to the Games and his growing stature that led to a friendship with actor Kirk Douglas and a possible breakthrough movie role.

This was before Johnson would grow into a mainstream actor following his athletic career. Since he still had his sights set on another Olympics appearance, Johnson had to turn down an opportunity to appear in the 1960 blockbuster Spartacus, which won four Academy Awards. The Amateur Athletic Union made the case that Johnson’s athletic achievements were responsible for his prominence, and thus participating in the movie would make him a professional and make him ineligible for the Olympics. Johnson disagreed and appealed, but the role of Draba ultimately went to former pro football player Woody Strode.

The rules of what it means to be an amateur and eligible for the Olympics are much different in today’s world, most notably since the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team sent NBA players to Barcelona.

Yet, Johnson didn’t let the decision bother him. The grand stage and pageantry of the Olympics, and the chance to win the gold, remained his focus.

“Number one, track was the major sport, especially the Olympic Games, at the time,” said Rafer’s son, Josh Johnson. “Now, there’s so many professional sports and now pros can do the Olympics. It’s just different now. When he was doing it, you had to truly be an amateur.

“You were representing your country and that was it. So, I think the Olympics were that much more of a bigger deal and everybody really followed it. The Olympics were it. They came every four years and everybody watched it.”

In fact, the 1960 Olympics were dubbed the first modern Olympics since it was the first to be televised in the U.S. and the Rome Games cost an estimated $616 million—or $457 million more to produce than the Melbourne Olympics, according to the Associated Press.

The build to the 1960 Games and the decathlon wasn’t just Johnson’s story alone, either.

From 1958 to 1960, and particularly as he was sidelined with injury, the record went back and forth between Johnson and Vasili Kuznetsov of Russia four times prior to the 1960 Olympics in Rome. A month prior to the Rome Games, Johnson reclaimed the world record from Kuznetsov after accumulating 8,683 points (7,981 points adjusted to the modern scale) at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., and he needed just nine of the 10 events to surpass Kuznetsov and the final event helped Johnson shatter the mark by 326 points. A showdown between the two was expected to be one of the more anticipated events.

Meanwhile, future world-record holder Yang Chuan-kwang of Taiwan, or C.K. Yang as he was known internationally, was dubbed the “Iron Man of Asia” after winning the decathlon at the 1954 and 1958 Asian Games. Yang was seeking Taiwan’s first Olympic medal ever.

Johnson and Yang first met in 1956, and following his death at the age of 74, Yang’s oldest son Cedric told the Los Angeles Times that his father’s decision to attend UCLA in 1959 was “because Rafer Johnson was training there.”

“They were lifelong friends,” Cedric told the Times in 2007.

That friendship would elevate the historic three-way duel in Rome and create a long-lasting Olympic memory.

Our next installment will take a look back at Rafer Johnson’s place in history at the 1960 Opening Ceremonies.

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