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'One of the greatest': Sporting world rocked by death of Olympic icon

Australian Associated Press
·5-min read
Rafer Johnson, pictured here during his Olympic career.
Rafer Johnson died at the age of 86. Image: Getty

The sporting world is mourning the death of Olympic icon Rafer Johnson, who died on Wednesday at the age of 86.

Johnson died at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, according to family friend Michael Roth. No cause of death was announced.

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Johnson was among the world’s greatest athletes from 1955 through to his Olympic triumph in 1960, winning a national decathlon championship in 1956 and a silver medal at the Melbourne Olympics that same year.

His Olympic career included carrying the US flag at the 1960 Games and lighting the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Games.

Johnson set world records in the decathlon three times amid a fierce rivalry with his UCLA teammate C.K. Yang, of Taiwan, and Vasily Kuznetsov, of the USSR.

Johnson won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1955 while competing in just his fourth decathlon.

At a welcome home meet afterwards in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world record, breaking the mark of two-time Olympic champion and childhood hero Bob Mathias.

On June 5, 1968, Johnson was working on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel 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 next day.

Johnson later called the assassination “one of the most devastating moments in my life.”

Rafer Johnson, pictured here helping to carry the coffin of Robert Kennedy at his funeral in 1968.
Rafer Johnson helped carry the coffin of Robert Kennedy at his funeral in 1968. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sporting world mourns death of Rafer Johnson

Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on Aug. 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 with his family, including his brother Jim, a future NFL Hall of Fame inductee.

They eventually settled in Kingsburg, near Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. It was less than 25 miles from Tulare, the hometown of Mathias, who would win the decathlon at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and prove an early inspiration to Johnson.

Johnson was a standout student and played football, basketball, baseball and track and field at Kingsburg Joint Union High. At 6ft 3in and 200-plus pounds, he looked more like a linebacker than a track and field athlete.

After winning the national decathlon championship in 1956, Johnson was the favourite for the Olympics in Melbourne, but pulled a stomach muscle and strained a knee while training.

Johnson’s teammate Milt Campbell, a virtual unknown, gave the performance of his life, finishing with 7,937 points to win gold, 350 ahead of Johnson.

Rafer Johnson, pictured here with daughter Jennifer Johnson-Jordan and wife Betsey Johnson.
Rafer Johnson with daughter Jennifer Johnson-Jordan and wife Betsey Johnson. (Photo by Kirby Lee/WireImage)

It was the last time Johnson would ever come second.

A car accident and subsequent back injury kept Johnson out of competition during 1959, but he was healthy again for the Olympics in 1960 which he won in a great battle with Yang.

Johnson retired from competition after the Rome Olympics and began acting in movies, including appearances in “Wild inthe Country” with Elvis Presley, “None But the Brave” with Frank Sinatra and the 1989 James Bond film “License to Kill.”

Throughout his life, Johnson was also widely known for his humanitarian efforts. He worked for the Peace Corps, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Association and American Red Cross.

Peter Ueberroth, who chose Johnson to light the Olympic torch in 1984, called him “just one great person, a marvellous human being.”

His children, Jenny Johnson Jordan and Josh Johnson, were athletes themselves.

Jenny was a beach volleyball player who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is on the coaching staff of UCLA's beach volleyball team. Josh competed in javelin at UCLA, where he was an All-American.

with AAP

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