Rafer Lewis Johnson was born on August 18, 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas. He lived in texas for the first nine years of his life and then his family moved to Kingsburg, California. In high school, Rafer was an all-around athlete, playing on the school's football, basketball, and baseball teams. Upon seeing double Olympic champion Bob Mathias compete, Rafer became interested in the decathlon.
Rafer attended UCLA where he was a starter on the men's basketball team under Coach John Wooden. In 1954, as a freshman, he competed in his first decathlon. He broke the world record in only his fourth competition. In Mexico City in 1955 Rafer won the title at the Pan American Games. He qualified for the decathlon and the long jump events 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He suffered an injury and had to pull out of the long jump event, but he was still able to win silver in the decathlon, just behind Milt Campbell.
Rafer missed the 1957 season as a result of injury and he had to skip the 1959 season due to injuries acquired from a car accident. In 1958 and 1960, however, he broke his own world record improving the time twice.
The peak of his career was at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. His main challenger, Yang Chuang-Kwang from Taiwan, was actually a crony of his. Yang also attended UCLA and trained with Rafer under UCLA track coach Elvin C. Drake. The two were neck in neck throughout the entire event. When one would win one of the events, the other would return the favor with a victory in the next event. With only one event to go, Rafer lead Yang, but if Yang beat Rafer by ten seconds in the final event, the 1500 meter run, Yang would win the gold. Rafer Johnson was able to hang with Yang Chuang-Kwang, however, running his fastest 1500-meters ever. He won the gold.
Sports Illustrated named Rafer "Sportsman of the Year" in 1958. He also received the James E. Sullivan award as the top amateur athlete in the U.S., in 1960. He was elected into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in 1994. ESPN named Rafer one of the 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th Century, in 1998. The NCAA named him one of the 100 Most Influential Student Athletes of the past 100 years, in 2006.
After winning gold in the 1960 Olympics, Johnson began working as a sportscaster and actor. In 1968, he worked on the presidential election campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Johnson lit the Olympic Flame at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.