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1960 Decathlon Gold Medalist And World Record Setter Rafer Johnson Passes Away

By Todd Kortemeier | Dec. 02, 2020, 4:53 p.m. (ET)

Rafer Johnson competes at the Olympic Games Rome 1960.


Rafer Johnson, U.S. flagbearer and decathlon gold medalist at the Olympic Games Rome 1960, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles.

Johnson made history that summer in Rome, first as the first Black captain of a U.S. Olympic Team, and later becoming the greatest decathlete to that point in Olympic history. His score of 8,683 points was a new world record, one that he had broken twice before. But his gold medal triumph was just one part of Johnson’s remarkable life.

Rafer Johnson (center) at the Olympic Games Rome 1960.


Johnson was a multi-sport athlete at Kingsburg High School outside of Fresno, but started to focus on decathlon after watching 1948 and 1952 Olympic gold medalist Bob Mathias competing in a nearby meet. Johnson then went on to UCLA where he also played basketball for the legendary John Wooden while training for the decathlon. In 1955 Johnson set a world record for the first time, winning the gold medal at the Pan American Games. He qualified for the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, and won the silver medal behind teammate Milt Campbell.

The gold medal in 1960 was the final competition of Johnson’s career. He then became an actor, and later a sportscaster. A chance meeting with Robert Kennedy shortly after the Rome Games led to a longtime friendship with the Kennedy family. Johnson was present at Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination, and along with Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Rosey Grier, tackled assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the ground until police arrived.

Through Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Johnson became active in the Special Olympics and was founder of the Southern California chapter. In 1984, he was given the honor of lighting the cauldron to open the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Johnson and his wife Elizabeth had two children, Joshua, a javelin thrower, and Jennifer, a 2000 Olympian in beach volleyball.

Rafer Johnson (center) at the Olympic Games Rome 1960.

Todd Kortemeier

Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.