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.”
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.
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.
Devastated by this news. One of my early heroes, an athlete from my father’s generation, when being Black and playing any kind high level sport was not easy. Rest Easy, Rafer Johnson. What a life.
— Kurt Streeter (@kurtstreeter) December 2, 2020
RIP Rafer Johnson, one of the greatest athletes to walk/run this planet. https://t.co/1gyydj16y7
— Monte Poole (@MontePooleNBCS) December 2, 2020
Farewell to Rafer Johnson. What a glorious moment this was for him and Los Angeles. I thought of it every time I looked at the Coliseum peristyle pic.twitter.com/BzZG4Kkent
— J.A. Adande (@jadande) December 2, 2020
I have Rafer Johnson to thank for my sports writing career. In 2011 I launched Ruling Sports. The Manhattan Beach Open credentialed me. I was there to interview NBA players playing during the lockout. A man pulled me aside and said, “That’s who you need to talk to.” 1/ pic.twitter.com/1BExbsWTQ5
— Alicia Jessop (@RulingSports) December 2, 2020
Condolences to the Rafer Johnson family. We used to jokingly refer to ourselves as cousins, though not related. He was one of the most genuine, decent, and nicest men I have ever known. One of the greatest athletes in the history of the world...RIP
— Elder Marques Johnson (@olskool888) December 2, 2020
Sad news about one of Southern California's greatest: Rafer Johnson, the Olympic gold medalist who helped bring the games to L.A., has died https://t.co/lqG9Z4ltu6
— David Wharton (@LATimesWharton) December 2, 2020
America lost a sports icon last night with the passing of Rafer Johnson. At one point, he was viewed as the best athlete in the world after winning the silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics followed by the gold in 1960. That same year, (1/4) pic.twitter.com/3ovwDRFq9N
— Michael Eaves (@michaeleaves) December 2, 2020
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