Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who lit the torch at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Summer Games, died Wednesday at his home in Sherman Oaks. He was 86.
Beyond his decorated athletic career, Johnson gained fame for helping to capture assassin Sirhan Sirhan after the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968. The UCLA graduate also was renowned for his sportsmanship and civic generosity, co-founding Special Olympics Southern California in 1969 and serving as its president for 10 years.
Johnson was hailed as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” after he won the grueling 10-event decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he also broke social barriers as the first Black flag bearer for the United States. He eventually set three decathlon world records three different times in his career.
Born during the Great Depression, the deeply religious athlete was the second of six children of Texas farmworkers Alma Gibson Johnson and Lewis Johnson. They moved to California when he was still a boy, relocating to the town of Kingsburg in the San Joaquin Valley, where they were the only Black family.
He and his siblings picked cotton when they weren’t in school, and Johnson said in his 1998 biography that he believed the hard work made him strong and gave him and his brother the discipline to be successful athletes. His sibling, Jimmy, played for the San Francisco 49ers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In high school, Johnson lettered in football, baseball, basketball and, of course, track and field. Later at UCLA, he played basketball under Coach John Wooden, became the first Black man at the university to join a national fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi, and was elected student body president.
At UCLA, he became friends and rivals with teammate Chuan-Kwang “C.K.” Yang of Taiwan, and the pair’s finish after their two-day battle in the Rome Olympics — ending with Johnson taking gold by a slim margin — is widely considered one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history.
UCLA’s Athletic Department mourned the loss of the legendary Bruin, who received the UCLA Medal — the university’s highest award — in 2016.
“We are devastated by the news of the passing of Rafer Johnson,” a UCLA Athletics tweet reads. “Words cannot sufficiently express what Rafer means to this athletic department, to this university and to our grater community. A true humanitarian, Rafer’s profound impact transcends sport. He will be forever remembered not only for his historic athletic achievements, but also for his heart and for the tremendous example he has set for all Bruins.”
Johnson also notably won the Pan American Games in 1955, earning himself an appearance on the “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, where he was the favorite, an injury set him back, but he still pulled through with a silver medal.
And in 1958, during the Cold War, Johnson faced off against world record holder Vasili Kuznetsoz in a U.S.-USSR track meet in Moscow, where he famously beat Kuznetsov and set another record. And, despite the tensions of the time, the Soviet crowd rushed the field and raised him on their shoulders as they shouted his name.
Sports Illustrated named him the 1958 Athlete of the Year after that match. He also was named the Associate Press Athlete of the Year and won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete in 1960.
Johnson drew headlines of an entirely different sort for tackling Sirhan — along with football player Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton — after he shot Kennedy on June 5, 1968, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. Johnson, who had been working on Kennedy’s presidential campaign, served as a pallbearer at his funeral.
That year, Johnson began collaborating with Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to grow the Special Olympics, which she founded.
“Over the past 50 years, Rafer was involved in guiding Special Olympics and spreading acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities throughout Southern California and the world,” the organization said in a written statement. “Today we lost one of the biggest champions for people with intellectual disabilities.”
The two-time Olympian also served on the executive committee of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and was a founding member of the LA84 Foundation for youth sports, formed after the 1984 games. The foundation supports Southern California youth sports organizations through grants and funding facilities and fields of play, while also training coaches, commissioning research and speaking out about the role of sports in positive youth development
“He embodied the Olympic movement,” said Peter Ueberroth, CEO of the 1984 Summer Olympics and board member of the LA84 Foundation. “There are so many lives he touched and improved as a true hero who cared deeply for others. Each day we are focused on honoring his legacy. His DNA will always be embedded in our work. Today, we offer our love and support to his wife Betsy and family.”
Johnson is survived by Elizabeth “Betsy” Thorsen, his wife of 49 years, and two children, Jennifer Johnson Jordan and Joshua Johnson, along with four grandchildren. His daughter, a beach volleyball player, competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is a coach for UCLA’s beach volleyball team. His son competed in javelin at UCLA, where he was an All-American.
In his memory, the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was lit Tuesday, and will be lit again on Thursday through sundown, according to county Supervisor Janice Hahn, who serves as president of the Coliseum Commission.
A private memorial service was being planned.
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