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Rafer Johnson: An Athlete Whose Faith Came First

This Guideposts story from December 1958 profiles decathlete Rafer Johnson, who went on to become an Olympic champion, social activist and civil rights icon.

Rafter Johnson competing at that 1950 Olumpics; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In his 22 years, Rarer Johnson has done many things and all of them extraordinarily well. His mother says of him: “We tried to teach him to walk straight, talk straight and think straight … He just naturally became good at everything…”

When his parents guided him toward church work, Rafer sang in the choir and wag active in youth groups. In high school at Kingsburg, California, he captained the track, basketball and football teams, and gained stature as a power hitter on the baseball nine.

After entering University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Rafer continued his athletic feats; he is now a senior and Student Body President.

But the biggest triumph of all came last summer at the track and field games between the Soviet Union and the United States held in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium.

Entering the decathlon, which consists of 10 events—100-meter dash, broad jump, shot-put, 400-meter run, high jump, 110-meter high hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, 1500-meter run—and is considered to be the toughest test of human endurance ever devised in sport, Rafer pitted his skill and stamina against Soviet hero Vasily Kuznetsov.

It was an amazing sight: a small town American praying in the Soviet Union, as Rafer always prays before all contests. He prayed that he and his opponent both give maximum performances. Both did. Rafer’s, however, was better. Before 30,000 roaring Russian sports fans, he set a new world decathlon record of 8,302 points.

Overnight he became a hero of the Russians. Calling Rafer the “world’s greatest athlete,” one Russian paper wrote: “His performance will dignify the history of world athletic records for a long time to come.”

Soft spoken and modest, Rarer has only one answer when asked for the principles that guide him. “Jesus Christ is the Leader of my life. No matter how big or small the problem, I depend on Him at all times. Without Him I would be lost, for He is all.”

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