Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin in 1968, died on Wednesday. He was aged 86.
Johnson died at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, family friend Michael Roth said. No cause of death was announced.
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 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 different times amid a fierce rivalry with his University of California, Los Angeles teammate and training partner Yang Chuan-kwang, also known as C.K. Yang, of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union.
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, California, he set his first world record, breaking the mark of two-time Olympic champion and his childhood hero Bob Mathias.
On June 5, 1968, Johnson was working on 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.
“I knew he did everything he could to take care of Uncle Bobby at his most vulnerable moment,” Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, said. “His devotion to Uncle Bobby was pure and real. He had protected his friend. Even after Uncle Bobby’s death he stayed close.”
Johnson later called the assassination “one of the most devastating moments in my life.”
Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on Aug. 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 with his family.
“He stood for what he believed in and he did it in a very classy way with grace and dignity,” Olympic champion swimmer Janet Evans said.
Johnson retired after the Rome Olympics, and began acting in movies, with appearances in Wild in the Country with Elvis Presley, None But the Brave with Frank Sinatra and the 1989 James Bond film License to Kill.
Johnson founded California Special Olympics in 1969 at a time when positive role models for people with intellectual and physical disabilities were rare.
“Rafer really paved the path for many of us to understand the responsibilities that come with being a successful athlete and the number of lives you can impact and change,” Evans said.
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