LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) – Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and helped defeat the assassin Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, died Wednesday. He was 86 years old.
Rafer Johnson, the former gold medalist of the decathlon, runs through a crowd of athletes on his way to a torch lit during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)
According to a friend of the family, Michael Roth, he died in his home in Sherman Oaks. The cause of death was not specified.
From 1955 until his Olympic victory in 1960, Johnson was one of the world’s greatest athletes. In 1956 he won the national championship decathlon and the same year he won a silver medal at the Melbourne Olympics.
His Olympic career included carrying the American flag during the 1960 Games and lighting a torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the 1984 Games. Johnson and his UCLA teammates supplied K.K. Yang from Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov from the former Soviet Union, Johnson set three decathlon world records in fierce competition.
The Olympic torch is lit at the Los Angeles Coliseum in honour of Johnson. The torch will burn until sunset and then again from sunrise to sunset tomorrow, according to District Inspector Janis Khan, who is the chairman of the Coliseum Commission.
Johnson won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1955 and competed in only his fourth decathlon. In his long-awaited home game in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world record by beating two-time Olympic champion and youth hero Bob Mathias.
The fifth. June 1968 Johnson worked on Kennedy’s presidential campaign when a Democratic candidate was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson joined former NFL star Rosie Greer and journalist George Plimpton in arresting Sirhan Sirhan just minutes after he shot Kennedy, who died the next day.
Johnson later called the murder one of the most devastating moments of my life.
Rafer Johnson will be here on the 9th June 2012 to participate in the Special Summer Olympics 2012 in Long Beach, California. (Getty Images)
Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on the 18th. In August 1934 in Hillsborough, Texas, he and his family moved to California in 1945, including his brother Jim, who later became the inductor to the NFL Hall of Fame. Although some sources mention Johnson’s year of birth, 1935, the family claims that this is not true.
Eventually they settled in Kingsburg near Fresno, in the San Joaquin valley. Less than 25 miles from Toularé, the birthplace of Mathias, who won the decathlon at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and was one of Johnson’s first inspirations.
Johnson was an excellent student and played soccer, basketball, baseball and track and field at the Kingsburg Allied college. With a length of six feet and a weight of 90 kilos he looked more like a lineman than an athlete.
At university, Johnson’s coach took him to Toular to attend Matthias’ decathlon. Johnson’s experience later said it pushed him into a grueling sport with 10 disciplines.
In his first year at the University of California, where he received a scholarship and a sports scholarship, Johnson won gold at the 1955 Pan American Games and set a world record of 7,985 points.
LOS ANGELES, VS: U.S. Olympic champion decathlon Rafer Johnson leaves the Olympic Torch Relay Ceremony on day 27. April at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Johnson is the man who tied the giant staircase and lit the Olympic flame at the opening of the 1984 Olympics. The fire will cover 15,000 miles and 24,000 kilometres in 84 days across 42 states, ending at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. AFP PHOTO/Mike NELSON (photo rental should read MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images)
After winning the National Decathlon Championship in 1956, Johnson became one of the favourites at the Melbourne Olympics, but during training he sprained an abdominal muscle and suffered a knee spasm. He had to give up the long jump, for which he had qualified, but tried to evacuate the decathlon.
Johnson’s teammate, Milt Campbell, a virtual stranger, gave his life with 7937 points to win the gold, 350 points ahead of Johnson.
That’s the last time Johnson came in second.
Johnson, Yang and Kuznetsov took the lead with the Olympic records of 1956-1960.
Kuznetsov, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, described by the Soviet authorities as the Man of Steel, broke Johnson’s world record in May 1958 with 8,016 points.
Later in the year Johnson Kuznetsov defeated with 405 points in the Soviet-American doubles game in Moscow and set again a world record with 8,302 points. Johnson won the Soviet Republic with his courageous performance in front of a hostile crowd.
A car accident and subsequent back injury prevented Johnson from participating in the 1960 Olympics in 1959, but by that time he was doing well again.
Yang was his main rival in Rome. Yang won six of the first nine tournaments, but Johnson led with 66 points and reached the decathlon 1500m final.
Johnson had to overtake Yang in 10 seconds, which was not an easy task because Yang was much stronger than Johnson who ran the race.
Johnson crossed the finish line in just 1.2 seconds and was six meters behind Yang for the gold. Jan won silver and Smith won bronze.
In 1960 he was named Sportsman of the Year by the Associated Press and won the Sullivan Award for the best amateur athlete in the country.
At the University of California, Johnson played basketball for coach John Wooden and became the starter of the team in 1958-59. In 1958 he was elected president of the student council, the third black person to hold this position in the history of the school.
Johnson left the competition after the Rome Olympics. He started making films including Wild Land with Elvis Presley, Nobody but the brave ones with Frank Sinatra and in 1989 in James Bond’s Murder License. He worked as a sports TV presenter for a while and became Vice President of Continental Telephone in 1971.
In 1984 Johnson lit the Olympic flame for the Los Angeles Games. He took over the torch from Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of the great Olympian Jesse Owens, who pushed him into the Coliseum.
When I stood there and looked at the street, I remembered I was thinking: I wish I had a camera, Johnson said. My hair stood up straight on my arm. Words don’t seem to be enough.
Johnson was known throughout his life for his humanitarian efforts.
Together with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, he was a member of the organizing committee for the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968. The following year, Johnson founded the Special Olympics in California at a time when positive role models for people with mental or physical disabilities were rare.
Peter Uberroth, who chose Johnson in 1984 to light the Olympic flame, called him a great man, a great man.
Johnson has worked for the Peace Corps, Dimes March, the Muscle Dystrophy Association and the American Red Cross. He remained an active member of UCLA for many years and was a member of various committees and boards of directors. In 2016, he received the UCLA medal, the highest award for outstanding university performance. The road to school is named after Johnson and his wife Betsy.
His children, Jenny Johnson Jordan and Josh Johnson, were athletes themselves. Jenny participated in the 2000 Sydney Olympics in beach volleyball and is a member of the University of California beach volleyball coaching staff. Josh took part in the javelin throwing contest at the University of California, where he was All-American.
In addition to his wife and 49-year-old children, he has a son-in-law, Kevin Jordan, and four grandchildren.
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