Rafer Lewis Johnson, a tall, slightly stooped man with a magnificent torso and oddly thin calves, is the finest all-round athlete in the history of mankind. He proved his claim to so resounding a title during two days in Moscow last week when he beat the Russian decathlon champion and unofficial world record holder, Vasiliy Kuznetsov, and established a new world record in the process.
From the day the U.S. athletes arrived at the Moscow airport until a week later, when he stood with an impressive dignity and the strong look of pride on his face and held one hand high in the Moscow night to accept the cheers of the Russian crowd after his victory (left), Johnson was a dedicated man. He went through the week of practice in Moscow with an air of detachment because his concentration was so intense. "He worked harder than any of the other boys," Head Coach George Eastment said. "He told us he was going to win. He is truly the world's greatest athlete."
Johnson's intensity was reflected in his behavior during the competition itself. Between events he lay still on the grass beside the red crushed-brick track, his face immobile and withdrawn, and he answered questions briefly, begrudging the relaxation of concentration necessary for conversation. After the first day's five events, he climbed wearily to the top of the Lenin Stadium to speak on the NBC Radio Monitor program and sat with head hanging and legs asprawl waiting in the steaming-hot small radio booth. He soaked up rest as he sat, and when he had spoken the few trite phrases which expressed his pleasure at competing against the Russians, he walked back down to the waiting bus, moving as carefully and slowly as if he were ill, so that he would not waste any of the energy he spent so prodigally the next day.
Johnson finished the first five events 109 points ahead of Kuznetsov and well ahead of the Russian's pace when he set the unofficial world record of 8,014 points. Rafer came to the final event of the first day 10 points behind, and as he and the other three entrants in the decathlon lined up for the start of the 400-meter run, he looked tired. So did Kuznetsov. But Johnson, whose long legs appear odd because the heavily muscled thighs don't match the slim calves and race-horse ankles, flashed away to a quick lead, running very strongly, with a longer stride than the Russian. He built the lead down the backstretch, then, coming through the final turn as rain began to patter gently on the track, he drove himself mercilessly to the tape, 12 yards ahead of Kuznetsov but not relaxing because he knew he needed all the points he could get in the first day's competition.
He ran 48.2 against Kuznetsov's 49.6 and gained 119 points on the Russian; more important, he won a tremendous psychological edge for the second day's five events.
The five events which comprise the second half of decathlon competition are the 110-meter high hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin and the 1,500-meter run. In three of these—the discus, javelin and pole vault—Kuznetsov is very strong. Johnson won the discus by a little over 6 feet, stayed within 2 inches of Kuznetsov in the pole vault and then threw the javelin 238 feet 1‚Öû inches to Kuznetsov's sub-par 214 feet 6½ inches, breaking the world decathlon record with an event still to go and bringing the spectators roaring to their feet in unaffected admiration of one of the epic single efforts in the history of track.
Success and acclaim are no strangers to Johnson. Born in Dallas, he was raised in the San Joaquin Valley in California, near the home town of decathlon champion Bob Mathias. His father, Lewis Johnson, recalls, "He was awful good at running and throwing. Just his movements made you know he was good at them."
He was president of the student body in elementary school, high school and at UCLA, where he is a pre-dental student. He won the Pan-American Games decathlon championship in 1956, placed second in the Olympics. A knee operation kept him out of competition much of 1957. In June of 1955 Johnson had set the world decathlon record, which Kuznetsov broke recently, but the knee kept him below his best until the two days in Moscow last week.
"It must be getting stronger," Johnson said after his world record. "It bothered me less today than at any time since the operation."
In repose, Johnson's face is somber, nearly sad. He reflects the intelligence which has made him a near straight-A student in the replies he gives, after consideration, to questions. Once, asked why he thought Negroes excelled at track, he said, "I don't think we are any better. I believe—and I've read this, so others must think the same—we perhaps have some things closed to us, like golf and like baseball was. Track has been open for a long time and I think anybody does well where he has an opportunity."
Few people have done so well with opportunity as Johnson. Besides his capacity for almost total concentration and, therefore, total effort, Johnson adds the quick perception and grasp which make him an exceptional student to the techniques which make a great decathlon star. His high school coach, Murl Dodson, says, "You never have to worry about him. Anything you tell him, he'll do. You tell him once and that's all it takes."
Maybe the Russians had the last word in evaluating Johnson's performance at Moscow. In Trud, which, like all Soviet newspapers, reported the meet very objectively throughout, the account of Johnson's victory ended with, "This will dignify the history of world athletic records for a long time to come."
JOHNSON VS. THE EX-CHAMPIONS
In the greatest decathlon performance in history, Rafer Johnson bettered the immortal Thorpe in eight of 10 events, Mathias in six of 10, Kuznetsov in six of 10.