Rafer Johnson, 1960 decathlon champion dies at 86

Rafer Johnson was also famous for his role in subduing Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968.

Rafer Johnson
Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson who won the 1960 Rome Olympics decathlon has passed away at the age of 86. He died at his home in Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles on Wednseday, according to his family friend Michael Roth. No cause of death was announced.

Johnson was amongst the greatest athletes in the world since 1955 through to his Olympic victory in 1960. He won the national decathlon championship in 1956 and won the silver medal at the Melbourne Olympics the same year. His Olympic career included carrying the US flag in the 1960 Olympics and lighting the torch at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Games. He took the torch from Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Olympic great Jesse Owens, who ran it into the Coliseum.

Standing there and looking out, I remember thinking ‘I wish I had a camera,” Johnson said. “My hair was standing straight up on my arm. Words really seem inadequate,” he added.

He had set the world records in decathlon three different times. He shared a fierce rivalry with UCLA teammate C.K. Yang of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union.

Johnson won the Pan American Games while competing in just his fourth decathlon. At a welcome home meet afterwards in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world record. He broke the mark of two-time Olympic champion and his childhood hero, Bob Mathias.

Rafer Johnson and his journey to the Olympic Gold

Rafer Johnson
Rafer Johnson

Johnson was born on 18 August, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 with his family. His brother, Jim is a NFL Hall of Fame inductee. Johnson had always been a standout since school. He played bastketball, baseball, football and track and field at Kingsburg Joint Union High. During his junior year of high school, his coach took him to Tulare to watch Mathias compete in the decathlon. It was an experience that spurred the young Johnson into taking up the grueling 10-event sport.

As a freshman at UCLA, where he received academic and athletic scholarships, Johnson won gold at the the 1955 Pan Am Games, and set a world record of 7,985 points. After winning the national decathlon championship in 1955, Johnson was the favourite going into Melbourne Olympics as he had also qualified for long jump. Unfortunately he pulled a stomach muscle and strained his knee while training. He was forced to withdraw from long jump. However, he tried to gut out the decathlon in which he won a silver there.

Johnson’s teammate Milt Campbell gave the performance of his life, finishing with 7,937 points to win gold. He was 350 ahead of Johnson. It was for the last time in his career that Johnson came second. Johnson, Yang, and Kuznetzov had their way with the record books between the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

Setting the world record against a Soviet in front of a Soviet crowd

Rafer Johnson
Rafer Johnson

‘Man of steel’, Kuznetzov, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist broke Johnson’s world record in May 1958 with 8,016 points. Later that year, at US-Soviet dual meet, Johnson beat Kuznetzov with 405 points. He also reclaimed his world record with 8,302 points. In what would have felt like a film climax, Johnson won over the Soviet audience with gutsy performance in front of what had been a hostile crowd.

A car accident and a subsequent back injury kept Johnson out of competition in 1959. But he was healthy again in time for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Yang was his primary competition there. Yang won six of the first nine events. But Johnson led by 66 points going into the 1,500 meters, the decathlon’s final event.

Johnson had to finish within 10 seconds of Yang which was no easy feat as the latter was stronger at distance. But achieving this mean feat he finished just 1.2 seconds and six yards behind Yang to win the gold. Yang earned silver and Kuznetsov took bronze. He was named The Associated Press Athlete of the Year and won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete in 1960.

Robert Kennedy assasination and life after retirement

Rafer Johnson
Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson had helped subdue American politician Robert Kennedy’s assassination. On June 5, 1968, Johnson was working on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson joined former NFL star Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton in apprehending Sirhan Sirhan moments after he shot Kennedy, who died the next day.

He later called the assasination, “one of the most devastating moments in my life“.

Johnson retired from sports after Rome Olympics and began acting in movies. His appearances include ‘Wild in the Country’ with Elvis Presley, ‘None But the Brave’ with Frank Sinatra and the 1989 James Bond film ‘License to Kill’. He worked briefly as a TV sportscaster before becoming a vice president at Continental Telephone in 1971.

Throughout his life, Rafer Johnson was know for his humanitarian efforts. He served in the organizing committee of the first Special Olympics in Chicago, 1968. He worked with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Johnson went on to found California Special Olympics the following year. The establishment came at a time when positive role models for the disabled were rare.

Peter Ueberroth, who chose Johnson to light the Olympic torch in 1984, called him “just one great person, a marvelous human being“. Johnson worked for the Peace Corps, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Association and American Red Cross. He remained active for many years at UCLA, serving on various committees and boards. In 2016, he received the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest award for extraordinary accomplishments. The school’s track is named for Johnson and his wife Betsy.

His children, Jenny Johnson Jordan and Josh Johnson, were athletes themselves. Besides his wife and children, he is survived by his son-in law and four grand children.

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