Decathlon’s man of gold
Olympic champion also known for charitable efforts
LOS ANGELES— Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin in 1968, died Wednesday. He was 86.
He died at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, according to family friend Michael Roth. No cause of death was announced.
Mr. Johnson was among the world’s greatest athletes from 1955 through 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 U.S. flag at the 1960 Games and lighting the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Games. Mr. 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 former Soviet Union.
Mr. Johnson won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1955 while competing in just his fourth decathlon. At a welcome home meet afterward in Kingsburg, Calif, he set his first world record, breaking the mark of two-time Olympic champion and his childhood hero Bob Mathias.
On June 5, 1968, Mr. Johnson was working on Kennedy’s presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Mr. 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.
“I knew he did everything he could to take care of Uncle Bobby at his most vulnerable moment,” Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, said.
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 Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson was a standout student and played football, basketball, baseball and track and field at Kingsburg
Joint Union High. At 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds, he looked more like a linebacker than a track and field athlete.
During his junior year of high school, Mr. Johnson’s coach took him to Tulare to watch Mathias compete in a decathlon, an experience Mr. Johnson later said spurred him to take up the grueling 10event sport.
As a freshman at UCLA, where he received academic and athletic scholarships, Mr. Johnson won gold at the the 1955 Pan Am Games, and set a world record of 7,985 points.
After winning the national decathlon title in 1956, Mr. Johnson was the favorite for the Olympics in Melbourne, but pulled a stomach muscle and strained a knee while training. He was forced to withdraw from the long jump, for which he had also qualified, but tried to gut out the decathlon.
Mr. Johnson’s teammate Milt Campbell gave the performance of his life, finishing with 7,937 points to win gold, 350 ahead of Mr. Johnson.
It was the last time Mr. Johnson came in second.
At UCLA, Mr. Johnson played basketball for coach John Wooden, becoming a starter on the 1958-59 team.
Throughout his life, Mr. Johnson was known for his humanitarian efforts.
He served on the organizing committee of the first Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968, working with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Mr. Johnson founded California Special Olympics the following year.
Mr. Johnson worked for the Peace Corps, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Association and American Red Cross.