Rafer Johnson, athlete who won a thrilling victory in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics – obituary

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Telegraph Obituaries
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Rafer Johnson winning the fourth heat of the decathlon 100 metres at the Rome Olympics in 1960 -  AP/OLYMPIC POOL PHOTO
Rafer Johnson winning the fourth heat of the decathlon 100 metres at the Rome Olympics in 1960 - AP/OLYMPIC POOL PHOTO

Rafer Johnson, the American athlete, who has died aged 86, won the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, defeating his Taiwanese friend and rival Yang Chuan-Kwang by just 58 points in one of the greatest decathlon events in Olympic history.

On the first day, after two events, the 100m and long jump, Yang led by 130 points, only for Johnson to produce a 15.82m shot put to take the lead. Then a thunderstorm broke and the final event on day one, the 400m, had to be held shortly before midnight, after which Yang was again ahead.

Johnson competing in the Olympic decathlon shot put in Rome - AP
Johnson competing in the Olympic decathlon shot put in Rome - AP

The battle continued on the second day, when everything rested on the final event, the 1500 metres. Johnson was ahead by 67 points but his best 1500m time was almost 20 seconds slower than that of Yang, who looked almost certain to win the title, needing to beat his rival by only 11 seconds.

But Johnson made a superhuman effort, beating his own best time by five seconds and ending the race just 1.2 seconds behind Yang. “Every time C K turned round I was there, pretending to look full of running and bouncing on my toes,” he recalled.

As the Italian crowd went wild, demanding that both athletes be given gold medals, the pair fell into each other’s arms. Yang at least had the satisfaction of becoming Taiwan’s first Olympic medallist.

With his wife Betsy at a film premiere in Los Angeles in 1978 - Bei/Shutterstock
With his wife Betsy at a film premiere in Los Angeles in 1978 - Bei/Shutterstock

After his Olympics triumph Johnson became a sports presenter and appeared in films, including the 1989 James Bond caper Licence to Kill, in which he played Mullens, an associate of 007’s American counterpart Felix Leiter.

He also became a friend of Bobby Kennedy, and in 1968 joined his presidential campaign. On June 5 that year he was part of the senator’s team of bodyguards at Los Angeles hotel where Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, opened fire with a .22-calibre revolver and assassinated Kennedy in a crowded passageway. Johnson and two others wrestled the gunman to the ground, Johnson grabbing his gun. It was, he recalled, “one of the most devastating moments in my life.”

Rafer Johnson carrying the Olympic torch through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before lighting the Olympic flame and formally launching the 1984 Games - Peter Leabo/ AP
Rafer Johnson carrying the Olympic torch through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before lighting the Olympic flame and formally launching the 1984 Games - Peter Leabo/ AP

Rafer Lewis Johnson, the son of a violent alcoholic father, was born on August 18 1934 in Hillsboro, Texas. The family moved to California in 1945.

At school he excelled in American football, basketball, baseball and track and field, and started training for the decathlon inspired by the example of the Olympian Bob Mathias, who lived nearby.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, where Johnson won academic and athletic scholarships, he took gold in the event at the 1955 Pan American Games, setting a world record of 7,985 points.

He won again in 1956 and was the favourite for the Olympics in Melbourne that year. But he sustained muscle injuries during training and the gold went to his teammate Milt Campbell, Johnson settling for silver.

As a student Johnson trained with Yang Chuan-Kwang under the coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake, and the two became great friends as well as rivals.

In 1959, when Johnson had to take time off after being involved in a car accident, Yang won the American title in his absence. But the following year Johnson defeated his training partner by 257 points. Then came the Rome Olympics.

While training for the contest, Johnson was offered the role of a gladiator in the film Spartacus, but had to turn it down after being warned by the US athletic authorities that if he accepted he would be a professional and would be barred from the Games.

After his triumph in Rome he worked briefly as a sports commentator and appeared in several films including Wild in the Country (1961) with Elvis Presley and None But the Brave (1965) with Frank Sinatra. In 1971 he was appointed a vice president at Continental Telephone.

Johnson did much work for charity and served on the organising committee of the first International Special Olympics Games for people with intellectual disabilities, held in Chicago in 1968. The following year he founded the California Special Olympics, at which 900 athletes with intellectual disabilities competed in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Lighting the Olympic flame in 1984: Johnson recalled that he nearly fell off the podium - Tony Duffy/Allsport//Getty Images
Lighting the Olympic flame in 1984: Johnson recalled that he nearly fell off the podium - Tony Duffy/Allsport//Getty Images

There in 1984, clad in white singlet and shorts, Johnson held the torch to light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony for the Los Angeles Olympics. He recalled that, as he turned round on the podium to face the stadium, torch held aloft, he had nearly fallen off: “I would have done if they hadn’t put a fibreglass pole up there for me to hold on to... I had never seen the stadium all dressed up and full of people. It was an incredible sight.”

Johnson and his wife Betsy, a teacher, had a son, Josh and a daughter, Jenny, both athletes, Jenny competing in beach volleyball at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Essentially a modest man, Johnson would sometimes take out his medals when his wife’s pupils were doing a sporting or Olympic project: “Jennifer and Josh would see the medals along with the other kids, then I’d put them back in the bank vault.”

Rafer Johnson, born August 18 1934, died December 2 2020