Rafer Johnson, who carried the American flag into Rome’s Olympic Stadium in August 1960 as the primary Black captain of a United States Olympic group and went on to win gold in a memorable decathlon duel, bringing him acclaim because the world’s biggest all-around athlete, died on Wednesday at his house within the Sherman Oaks part of Los Angeles. He was 86.
Michael Roth, a household good friend and spokesman, confirmed the loss of life.
Johnson by no means competed after that decathlon triumph. He turned a good-will ambassador for america and a detailed affiliate of the Kennedy household, taking a management position within the Particular Olympics, which had been championed by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and becoming a member of Robert F. Kennedy’s entourage throughout Kennedy’s presidential marketing campaign in 1968. He was remembered particularly for serving to to wrestle the senator’s murderer to the bottom in Los Angeles in 1968.
Johnson’s nationwide profile was largely molded on the 1960 Olympics, probably the most celebrated within the historical past of the Video games, a second when a bunch of African-American athletes burst triumphantly onto the world stage. Muhammad Ali, recognized then as Cassius Clay, captured boxing gold within the light-heavyweight division. Wilma Rudolph swept to victory within the ladies’s 100- and 200-meter dashes and mixed along with her Tennessee State teammates for gold within the 4-x-100 relay. Oscar Robertson helped take america basketball group to a gold medal.
Johnson’s slender decathlon victory over C.Ok. Yang of Taiwan and U.C.L.A., a superb good friend, offered an exhilarating second in its personal proper.
Johnson, a 25-year-old graduate of U.C.L.A. and a chiseled 6 ft 3 inches and 200 kilos, was the favourite going into the two-day decathlon, a 10-event check of versatility, power, velocity and endurance that included sprints, excessive hurdles, pole-vaulting, the excessive soar and broad soar, the javelin and discus throws, and the 1,500-meter run.
He had received silver within the decathlon on the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, ending behind Milt Campbell of the U.S., who turned to professional soccer afterward. He had bested Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union at a meet at Lenin Stadium in Moscow in 1958, inspiring spectators to place apart Chilly Conflict points and cheer his achievement. And he scored a world-record 8,683 factors within the decathlon on the 1960 Olympic monitor and area trials in Oregon.
However he confronted a stiff problem in Rome from the 27-year-old Yang, who was representing Formosa, the Olympic designation on the time for Taiwanese athletes. Each had been educated by Elvin Drake, often called Ducky, the U.C.L.A. monitor and area coach.
The decathlon duel was determined in its last occasion, the 1,500 meters, wherein Yang was particularly sturdy. Johnson, main on factors, didn’t should win the occasion to seize the gold medal, however he did want to complete inside 10 seconds of Yang.
“I deliberate to stay with him like a buddy in fight,” Johnson informed The Los Angeles Instances in 1990. “I had one different benefit, and I don’t assume C.Ok. knew this on the time. This was my final decathlon. I used to be ready to run as quick as I needed to on this final race of my life.”
Yang, who died in 2007, recalled, “I knew he would by no means let go of me until he collapsed.” Johnson completed 1.2 seconds behind Yang, ok to seize gold, with Yang getting silver and Kuznetsov capturing bronze.
Johnson later obtained the 1960 Sullivan Award as America’s main newbie athlete. After that, he launched into new chapters in his life.
He met Robert Kennedy at an awards ceremony quickly after the Rome Video games and have become a part of the senator’s marketing campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.
He was escorting a pregnant Ethel Kennedy by means of a crowd of supporters on the Ambassador Lodge in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 — moments after her husband had claimed victory within the California Democratic major — when Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who had been indignant at Kennedy for his help of Israel.
Johnson and his fellow Kennedy supporter Roosevelt Grier, the previous star defensive sort out for the Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, helped subdue Sirhan.
“My hand clamped down on the weapon,” Johnson recalled in his memoir, “The Finest That I Can Be” (1998, with Philip Goldberg). “Rosey’s hand got here down on mine. With a dozen others pushing and shoving, we pressured Sirhan onto a steam desk, then to the ground. I twisted Sirhan’s fingers to liberate the weapon.”
Rafer Lewis Johnson was born on Aug. 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, south of Dallas, to Lewis and Alma Johnson. His household briefly lived in Dallas after which escaped segregation by transferring to the city of Kingsburg in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, the place his father held jobs in meals processing.
Johnson excelled in soccer, basketball and baseball in addition to monitor and area in highschool, however he targeted on the decathlon, impressed by seeing the Olympic gold-medalist Bob Mathias in motion in close by Tulare, Calif.
He entered U.C.L.A. in 1954 and performed for the famend coach John Wood’s basketball group there whereas coaching for decathlons. He additionally turned president of the coed physique.
His Olympic triumph behind him, Johnson visited many international locations within the early Nineteen Sixties as a good-will ambassador for the State Division. He acted on tv exhibits and in Hollywood films, together with “Wild within the Nation” (1961) with Elvis Presley and Tuesday Weld. He was additionally a sports activities broadcaster in Los Angeles.
In 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a driving drive within the creation of the Particular Olympics for individuals with mental and bodily disabilities, drew Johnson into the group. He turned a founding father of its Southern California chapter and was later named its chairman. He additionally did promotional work for Hershey, Reebok and different firms.
Johnson married Elizabeth Thorsen in 1971. She survives him, alongside along with his brother Jimmy Johnson, a former cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers and a member of the Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame; two kids, Jennifer Johnson-Jordan, who was a member of the U.S. ladies’s seashore volleyball group on the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is now a volleyball coach at U.C.L.A., and Josh Johnson; and 4 grandchildren.
Johnson’s last second within the Olympic highlight got here when he climbed a precarious 99 steps on the Los Angeles Coliseum to mild the caldron for the 1984 Video games.
“I used to be, in a way, an Olympian once more, getting ready to will my physique to do one thing distinctive,” he wrote in his memoir. “Was I involved about making it to the highest of the steps? Sure. Was I fascinated about whether or not I would journey or fall? Sure. Did I’ve any doubt that I’d come by means of? No.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.