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Rafer Johnson, 1960 Olympic decathlon champion, dies at 86

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Rafer Johnson was among the many world’s best athletes from 1955 by way of his Olympic triumph in 1960. He lit the torch on the 1984 Los Angeles Video games.

LOS ANGELES — Rafer Johnson, who gained the decathlon on the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s murderer in 1968, died Wednesday. He was 86.

He died at his residence within the Sherman Oaks part of Los Angeles, based on household pal Michael Roth. No reason for demise was introduced.

Johnson was among the many world’s best athletes from 1955 by way of his Olympic triumph in 1960, successful a nationwide decathlon championship in 1956 and a silver medal on the Melbourne Olympics that very same 12 months.

His Olympic profession included carrying the U.S. flag on the 1960 Video games and lighting the torch on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Video games. Johnson set world data within the decathlon three completely different instances amid a fierce rivalry together with his UCLA teammate C.Ok. Yang of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the previous Soviet Union.

Johnson gained a gold medal on the Pan American Video games in 1955 whereas competing in simply his fourth decathlon. At a welcome residence meet afterward in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world document, breaking the mark of two-time Olympic champion and his childhood hero Bob Mathias.

On June 5, 1968, Johnson was engaged on Kennedy’s presidential marketing campaign when the Democratic candidate was shot within the kitchen of the Ambassador Lodge 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 subsequent day.

Johnson later known as the assassination “one of the crucial devastating moments in my life.”

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Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on Aug. 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 together with his household, together with his brother Jim, a future NFL Corridor of Fame inductee. Though some sources cite Johnson’s delivery 12 months as 1935, the household has stated that’s incorrect.

They ultimately settled in Kingsburg, close to Fresno within the San Joaquin Valley. It was lower than 25 miles from Tulare, the hometown of Mathias, who would win the decathlon on the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and show an early inspiration to Johnson.

Johnson was a standout pupil and performed soccer, basketball, baseball and monitor and subject at Kingsburg Joint Union Excessive. At 6-foot-Three and 200-plus kilos, he seemed extra like a linebacker than a monitor and subject athlete.

Throughout his junior 12 months of highschool, Johnson’s coach took him to Tulare to look at Mathias compete in a decathlon, an expertise Johnson later stated spurred him to take up the grueling 10-event sport.

As a freshman at UCLA, the place he acquired tutorial and athletic scholarships, Johnson gained gold on the the 1955 Pan Am Video games, and set a world document of seven,985 factors.

After successful the nationwide decathlon championship in 1956, Johnson was the favourite for the Olympics in Melbourne, however pulled a abdomen muscle and strained a knee whereas coaching. He was compelled to withdraw from the lengthy leap, for which he had additionally certified, however tried to intestine out the decathlon.

Johnson’s teammate Milt Campbell, a digital unknown, gave the efficiency of his life, ending with 7,937 factors to win gold, 350 forward of Johnson.

It was the final time Johnson would ever are available in second.

Johnson, Yang, and Kuznetzov had their approach with the document books between the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

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Kuznetzov, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist who the Soviets known as their “man of metal,” broke Johnson’s world document in Could 1958 with 8,016 factors.

Later that 12 months at a U.S.-Soviet twin meet in Moscow, Johnson beat Kuznetzov by 405 factors and reclaimed the world document with 8,302 factors. Johnson gained over the Soviet viewers together with his gutsy efficiency in entrance of what had been a hostile crowd.

A automotive accident and subsequent again harm stored Johnson out of competitors throughout 1959, however he was wholesome once more for the Olympics in 1960.

Yang was his major competitors in Rome. Yang gained six of the primary 9 occasions, however Johnson led by 66 factors going into the 1,500 meters, the decathlon’s remaining occasion.

Johnson needed to end inside 10 seconds of Yang, which was no small feat as Yang was a lot stronger operating at distance than Johnson.

Johnson completed simply 1.2 seconds and 6 yards behind Yang to win the gold. Yang earned silver and Kuznetsov took bronze.

He was named The Related Press Athlete of the 12 months and gained the Sullivan Award because the nation’s excellent newbie athlete in 1960.

At UCLA, Johnson performed basketball for coach John Picket, turning into a starter on the 1958-59 group. In 1958, he was elected pupil physique president, the third Black to carry the workplace in class historical past.

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Johnson retired from competitors after the Rome Olympics. He started performing in films, together with appearances in “Wild within the Nation” with Elvis Presley, “None However the Courageous” with Frank Sinatra and the 1989 James Bond movie “License to Kill.” He labored briefly as a TV sportscaster earlier than turning into a vice chairman at Continental Phone in 1971.

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In 1984 Johnson lit the Olympic flame for the Los Angeles Video games. He took the torch from Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Olympic nice Jesse Owens, who ran it into the Coliseum.

“Standing there and looking, I keep in mind pondering ‘I want I had a digital camera,’” Johnson stated. “My hair was standing straight up on my arm. Phrases actually appear insufficient.”

All through his life, Johnson was extensively recognized for his humanitarian efforts.

He served on the organizing committee of the primary Particular Olympics in Chicago in 1968, working with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Johnson went on to discovered California Particular Olympics the next 12 months at a time when optimistic function fashions for the intellectually and bodily disabled had been uncommon.

Peter Ueberroth, who selected Johnson to mild the Olympic torch in 1984, known as him “only one nice individual, a wonderful human being.”

Johnson labored for the Peace Corps, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Affiliation and American Pink Cross. He remained lively for a few years at UCLA, serving on numerous committees and boards. In 2016, he acquired the UCLA Medal, the college’s highest award for extraordinary accomplishments. The varsity’s monitor is known as for Johnson and his spouse Betsy.

His youngsters, Jenny Johnson Jordan and Josh Johnson, had been athletes themselves. Jenny was a seashore volleyball participant who competed within the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is on the teaching employees of UCLA’s seashore volleyball group. Josh competed in javelin at UCLA, the place he was an All-American.

In addition to his spouse of 49 years and kids, he’s survived by son-in-law Kevin Jordan and 4 grandchildren.

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