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Olympic icon, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson dies at 86

Ryan Young
·3 min read
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Decathlon champion and Olympic icon Rafer Johnson died at his home in Los Angeles on Wednesday, his family confirmed to the Los Angeles Times.

He was 86.

An Olympic icon

Johnson attended UCLA in the 1950s, where he served as student body president and even played a season for legendary coach John Wooden in 1958. He won the Pan American Games in 1955 while he was a freshman at UCLA and then snapped the world record in the decathlon, though he finished second in the event the following year at the Melbourne Olympics while battling a knee and stomach injury.

Despite hurting his back in a car accident in 1959, Johnson set a world record at the Olympic trials and then beat his training partner C.K. Yang in an epic battle at the 1960 Olympics in Rome — which marked his final decathlon.

Johnson was the flag bearer for the United States at the 1960 games, which made him the first Black person to do so.

Johnson was actually drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1961 and offered a spot on the Harlem Globetrotters, but turned them both down. He later appeared in roles in movies and TV shows, worked as a TV reporter and sports anchor, and even helped cover the 1964 Olympics for NBC.

Johnson disarmed Robert Kennedy’s assassin

Johnson became friends with Robert Kennedy while he was the U.S. attorney general in 1961, and was a big supporter of the Kennedy’s when he launched a presidential campaign in 1968. Johnson frequently spoke at campaign rallies, interviews and joined him on the campaign trail.

He was also at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night that Kennedy was killed — and played a role in catching the shooter, Sirhan Sirhan.

Johnson, per the Los Angeles Times, rushed Sirhan — who shot and killed Kennedy at the hotel on June 5, 1968 — and actually grabbed the gun out of Sirhan’s hands. Johnson then put it into his pocket and, in all of the confusion, forgot that it was there until hours later when he turned it over to the police.

Johnson helped bring 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles

The Texas native was very active in the Olympics following his time competing for Team USA, and was big in getting the games to Los Angeles in 1984.

Johnson, who helped found and run the California Special Olympics in 1969, was named to the organizing committee that brought the 1984 games to Los Angeles. He was asked to light the torch at the opening ceremony at the Los Angeles Coliseum, too, a moment he never forgot.

“When I got up there, and I turned and saw the crowd, saw that view, and there was nothing behind me, and I’m standing on something about a foot wide, I know I would have fallen,” Johnson said, via the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t even explain the feeling. My heart was pounding in my chest. I felt like I was going to die.”

Rafer Johnson at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles
Rafer Johnson, 1960 gold medalist for the decathlon, lights the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremonies of the 23rd Olympiad in Los Angeles July 28, 1984. (AP)

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