Rafer Johnson, who in August 1960 became the first black captain of a US Olympic team to carry the American flag to the Olympic Stadium in Rome and then won gold in a memorable decathlon duel, which made him the greatest all-round athlete in the world. died Wednesday at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.
A family friend, Michael Roth, confirmed the death to The Associated Press. No reason was given. The sources differ in whether Johnson was 85 or 86 years old.
Johnson never competed again after this decathlon triumph. He became an ambassador of goodwill to the United States and a close associate of the Kennedy family who served in the United States Special Olympic Gamesthat were championed by Eunice Kennedy Shriverand joined Robert F. Kennedy’s entourage during Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He was particularly remembered for helping bring the Senator’s assassin to the ground in Los Angeles in 1968.
Johnson’s national profile was largely shaped at the 1960 Olympics, one of the most famous in the history of the Games. At that moment, many African American athletes stormed the world stage triumphantly. Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won light heavyweight box gold. Wilma Rudolph Won the women’s 100- and 200-meter jumps and, along with her teammates from Tennessee State, won gold in the 4 x 100 relay. Oscar Robertson helped the US basketball team win a gold medal.
Johnson’s narrow decathlon win over C.K. Yang from Taiwan and U.C.L.A., a good friend, made for an exciting moment.
Johnson, a 25-year-old graduate from U.C.L.A. and a chiseled 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds, was the favorite in the two-day decathlon, a 10-event test of versatility, strength, speed and endurance that includes sprints, high hurdles, pole vault, high jump and long jump, javelin and discus throw and 1,500 meter run.
He had won silver in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne and ended up behind Milt Campbell from the United States, who then turned to professional football. He had defeated Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union at a meeting at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow in 1958 and inspired viewers to put Cold War issues aside and cheer for his performance. At the Olympic athletics trials in Oregon in 1960, he achieved a world record of 8,683 points in the decathlon.
In Rome, however, he faced a major challenge from the 27-year-old Yang, who represented Formosa, the Olympic name for Taiwanese athletes at the time. Both were trained by Elvin Drake, known as Ducky, the U.C.L.A. Athletics coach.
The decathlon duel was decided in its last event, the 1,500 meters, in which Yang was particularly strong. Johnson, who was leading on points, didn’t have to win the event to win the gold medal, but he had to finish within 10 seconds of Yang.
“I planned to stay with him like a buddy in battle,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I had another advantage, and I don’t think C.K. knew that then. This was my last decathlon. I was ready to run as fast as I had to in this last race of my life.”
Yang, who died in 2007remembered, “I knew that if he didn’t break down he would never let go of me.” Johnson finished 1.2 seconds behind Yang, good enough to take gold, with Yang taking silver and Kuznetsov taking bronze.
Johnson received the Sullivan Award for America’s Top Amateur Athlete in 1960. Then he opened new chapters in his life.
He met Robert Kennedy at an awards ceremony shortly after the Rome Games and became part of the Senator’s campaign for the 1968 Democratic President nomination.
He escorted a pregnant Ethel Kennedy through a crowd of followers at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 – moments after her husband won victory in California’s Democratic Elementary School – when Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who was angry with Kennedy for his support for Israel.
Johnson and his Kennedy supporter Roosevelt Grier, the former Star Defensive Tackle for the Giants and Los Angeles Rams, helped defeat Sirhan.
“My hand was clinging to the gun,” Johnson recalled in his treatise “The Best That I Can Be” (1998, with Philip Goldberg). “Rosey’s hand fell on mine. With a dozen others pushing and shoving, we forced Sirhan onto a steam table and then onto the floor. I twisted Sirhan’s fingers to release the gun.”
Rafer Lewis Johnson was born on August 18, 1934 or 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas, south of Dallas. His family lived briefly in Dallas and then escaped segregation by moving to the town of Kingsburg in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley of California, where his father Lewis had jobs in food processing.
Johnson excelled at soccer, basketball, and baseball, and track and field in high school, but focused on the decathlon, inspired by the Olympic gold medalist Bob Mathias in action in nearby Tulare, California.
He entered the U.C.L.A. 1954 and played there for the basketball team of the renowned coach John Wooden while he was training for decathlons. He also became president of the student body.
After his Olympic triumph, Johnson visited many countries as ambassador for the State Department in the early 1960s. He has starred in television shows and Hollywood films, including “Wild in the Country” (1961) with Elvis Presley and Tuesday Weld. He was also a sports broadcaster in Los Angeles.
In 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a driving force in creating the Special Olympics for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, hired Johnson into the organization. He became the founder of the Southern California Chapter and was later named chairman. He has also done promotions for Hershey, Reebok, and other companies.
Johnson and his wife, Elizabeth, had two children, Josh and Jennifer-Johnson-Jordan, who were members of the US women’s beach volleyball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. His brother Jim was a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Johnson’s last moment in the Olympic spotlight came when he climbed 99 precarious steps at Los Angeles Coliseum to light the cauldron for the 1984 Games.
“I was sort of an Olympian again, preparing to get my body to do something extraordinary,” he wrote in his memoir. “Was I worried about making it to the top of the stairs? Yes. Was I thinking about stumbling or falling? Yes. Did I have any doubts that I would get through? No.”