Rafer Johnson, 1960 Olympic decathlon champion, dies at age 86

The American lit the Olympic cauldron at the Los Angeles 1984 Summer Games while also succeeding as an actor in Hollywood post-Olympics

By Nick McCarvel ·

American Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic champion in Rome in the decathlon, died on Wednesday (2 December). He was 86.

The Los Angeles Times reported his family had confirmed the death.

Johnson was seen as a symbol of strength and athletic greatness in the U.S., winning a silver medal at Melbourne 1956 in the decathlon before following that up with gold in the event at Rome 1960, where he was the Team USA flag-bearer during the Opening Ceremony.

He was the first Black American to be named flag-bearer for a Games.

In 1984, with the U.S. hosting the Summer Games for the first time since 1932, Johnson was chosen to light the cauldron for the Opening Ceremony for Los Angeles 1984.

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He held many titles beyond Olympic champion, including Hollywood actor, football and basketball player, champion of the Olympic and Special Olympic movements and political aide, having worked for Robert F. Kennedy in his bid to be president in 1968.

The LA Times writes: “In an eventful life, Johnson broke racial barriers, played an unexpected role in the international relations of the Cold War and immersed himself in the turbulent politics of the 1960s. To help disabled children, Johnson co-founded the California Special Olympics in 1969 and served as its president for 10 years.”

1960 Olympic decathlete gold medallist Rafer Johnson of the United States after climbing the stairs of the Memorial Coliseum prepares to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony for the XXIII Olympic Games on 28 July 1984 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Allsport//Getty Images)

Born in Hillsboro, Texas, in 1935, Johnson’s family moved to California when he was 9, and he attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he set a decathlon world record in just his fourth go at the event.

He also played basketball at UCLA, and after winning decathlon gold with an Olympic record 8,392 points, he turned to acting, working on a variety of films between 1960 and 1990.

In 1968, he and two others tackled Sirhan Sirhan after he had shot Sen. Kennedy at a campaign stop, having been working as an aide to the presidential candidate.

In the late 1960s, he helped form the California Special Olympics, going on to be a champion of the movement, working in various roles – including as president of the board of directors – until 1992.

His daughter, Jennifer Johnson-Jordan, competed in beach volleyball, finishing in fifth at Sydney 2000.

Johnson had been showered with many accolades in his life, including Sport Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1958 and ESPN’s 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th Century in 1998.