Rafer Johnson, winner of a memorable decathlon, is dead

Rafer Johnson, who carried the American flag at the Olympic Stadium in Rome in August 1960 as the first black captain of a United States Olympic team and won gold in a memorable decathlon duel, which earned him to be recognized as the world’s greatest all-rounder, died Wednesday at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles. He was 86 years old.

Michael Roth, a family friend and spokesperson, confirmed the death.

Johnson never competed after this decathlon triumph. He became a United States Goodwill Ambassador and close associate of the Kennedy family, assuming a leadership role in the Special Olympics, which was championed by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and joining the entourage of Robert F. Kennedy during Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He is best remembered for helping to fight the senator’s assassin in Los Angeles in 1968.

Johnson’s national profile was largely modeled at the 1960 Olympics, one of the most celebrated in Games history, a time when a host of African-American athletes triumphantly burst onto the world stage. Muhammad Ali, known at the time as Cassius Clay, won boxing gold in the lightweight division. Wilma Rudolph took victory in the women’s 100 and 200 meters and combined with her teammates from Tennessee State for the gold in the 4×100 relay. Oscar Robertson assisted the United States basketball team to win a gold medal.

Johnson’s narrow decathlon victory over CK Yang of Taiwan and good friend UCLA was an exciting moment in its own right.

Johnson, a 25-year-old UCLA graduate and a 6-foot-3, 200-pound chisel, was the favorite for the two-day decathlon, a 10-event test of versatility, strength, speed and endurance which included sprints, high hurdles, pole vault, high jump and width jump, javelin and discus throw, and 1,500 meter run.

He had won the silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, finishing behind Milt Campbell of the United States, who then turned to professional football. He had beaten Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union in a meeting at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow in 1958, inspiring spectators to put Cold War issues aside and applaud his achievement. And he scored a world record of 8,683 points in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympic track trials in Oregon.

But he faced a tall order in Rome from Yang, 27, who represented Formosa, the Olympic designation at the time for Taiwanese athletes. Both were trained by Elvin Drake, known as Ducky, the UCLA track coach.

The decathlon duel was decided in his last event, the 1500 meters, in which Yang was particularly strong. Johnson, leading in points, didn’t have to win the event to win the gold, but had to finish within 10 seconds of Yang.

“I had planned to stay with him as a buddy in combat,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I had another advantage, and I don’t think CK knew it at the time. It was my last decathlon. I was ready to run as fast as needed in this last race of my life.

Yang, who died in 2007, recalls: “I knew he would never let go if he didn’t collapse. Johnson finished 1.2 seconds behind Yang, good enough to win gold, Yang taking silver and Kuznetsov taking bronze.

Johnson went on to receive the 1960 Sullivan Prize as America’s leading amateur athlete. After that, he embarked on new chapters in his life.

He met Robert Kennedy at an awards ceremony shortly after the Rome Games and was part of the senator’s campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.

He was escorting a pregnant Ethel Kennedy through a crowd of supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 – moments after her husband won the California Democratic Primary – when Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan , a Palestinian immigrant. who had been angry with Kennedy for his support of Israel.

Johnson and compatriot Roosevelt Grier, the former Los Angeles Giants and Rams star defensive tackle, helped subdue Sirhan.

“My hand gripped the gun,” Johnson recalled in his memoir, “The Best That I Can Be” (1998, with Philip Goldberg). “Rosey’s hand fell on mine. With a dozen more pushing and pushing, we forced Sirhan onto a steam table, then down to the ground. I twisted Sirhan’s fingers to release the weapon.

Rafer Lewis Johnson was born August 18, 1934 in Hillsboro, Texas, south of Dallas, to Lewis and Alma Johnson. His family briefly lived in Dallas, then escaped segregation by moving to the town of Kingsburg in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley of California, where his father worked in food processing.

Johnson excelled in football, basketball and baseball as well as track and field in high school, but he focused on the decathlon, inspired by seeing Olympic gold medalist Bob Mathias in action in Tulare, Calif. .

He entered UCLA in 1954 and played for renowned coach John Wooden’s basketball team there while training for the decathlons. He also became president of the student body.

With his Olympic triumph behind him, Johnson visited many countries in the early 1960s as the State Department’s Goodwill Ambassador. He has appeared in television shows and in Hollywood films, including “Wild in the Country” (1961) with Elvis Presley and Tuesday Weld. He was also a sports host in Los Angeles.

In 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a driving force in creating the Special Olympics for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, drew Johnson into the organization. He became one of the founders of its Southern California chapter and was later named president. He also did promotional work for Hershey, Reebok and other companies.

Johnson married Elizabeth Thorsen in 1971. She survives him, along with her brother Jimmy Johnson, former San Francisco 49ers cornerback and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame; two children, Jennifer Johnson-Jordan, who was a member of the US women’s beach volleyball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is now a volleyball coach at UCLA, and Josh Johnson; and four grandchildren.

Johnson’s last moment in the Olympic spotlight came when he climbed the precarious 99 steps of the Los Angeles Coliseum to light the 1984 Games cauldron.

“I was, in a sense, an Olympian again, preparing myself to want to do something exceptional,” he wrote in his memoir. “Was I afraid of getting to the top of the stairs?” Yes. Was I wondering if I might trip or fall? Yes. Did I have the slightest doubt that I would pass? No.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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