Rafer Johnson Dies: 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist Was 86

Rafer Johnson Carries Olympic Torch (Credit: TeamUSA.Org)

Olympic decathlon gold medalist and humanitarian Rafer Johnson died Wednesday at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He was 86.

Johnson became popularly known as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” after winning the gold medal for the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He won a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and returned to the 1984 Summer Games to light the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Johnson was born in Hillsboro, Texas, during the Great Depression. His family moved to California when he was a child. The young Johnson excelled in sports and graduated from UCLA.

“We are extremely saddened to lose one of the greatest humans one could hope to know. Most people know him to be an all-time UCLA and Olympic great as an athlete, but that only scratches the surface of what he gave the world. Rafer set the standard of what an icon should be – a humanitarian, a leader, a great friend and mentor, and most importantly a great patriarch to the most wonderful family I’ve ever known,” UCLA’s Director of Track & Field/Cross Country Avery Anderson said in a statement.

While attending UCLA on athletic and academic scholarships, Johnson ran track and led the university to its first-ever NCAA Track & Field Championship. He also played basketball for two seasons under John Wooden.

After retiring from his athletic career, Johnson worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and was one of the men who tackled Sirhan Sirhan after he shot Kennedy in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson was eventually chosen as one of Kennedy’s pallbearers at his funeral.

He went on to become a co-founder of the Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC). Johnson also launched an acting career and had roles in Roots: The Next Generations (1979), the James Bond film Licence to Kill (1989), and Think Big (1990).

His prolific career on and off the track field was honored in multiple Hall of Fame inductions throughout the decades. He has been inducted in the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, the National Track & Field Hall of Fame, the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, and the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.

Johnson is survived by Elizabeth “Betsy” Thorsen, his wife of 49 years, and two children, Jennifer Johnson Jordan and Joshua Johnson, and four grandchildren.

The torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was lit Wednesday in his honor.