Rafer Johnson, winner of the 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medal and one of the most acclaimed athletes of his time, has passed away.  He was 86.

The Los Angeles Times has a wonderful piece about Johnson, noting that his life was intertwined with that of the City of Angels – he was a storied athlete at UCLA before going to the Olympics, and he was present the night in 1968 that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the city’s Ambassador Hotel after the California primary.  (Johnson, a Kennedy friend and fervent supporter, disarmed the assassin and later accompanied the Kennedy family to the hospital.)

A passage from the Times obit:

“The son of Texas farmworkers who moved to California when he was young, Johnson rose to become the World’s Greatest Athlete, the unofficial title bestowed on the winner of the Olympic decathlon at a time when track and field stars received the adulation that today is bestowed on the best of the NFL and NBA.

“At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Johnson was the U.S. team’s flag bearer, the first Black American so honored. His decathlon battle that year with C.K. Yang — his training partner at UCLA — ranks among the classic moments of Olympics history.

“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.

“In contrast to the anything-to-win attitudes often found in sports today, the deeply religious Johnson was always a vocal advocate for fair play and good sportsmanship. He eschewed drugs and alcohol and, in track races, refused even to try to anticipate the starter’s gun, believing that it was a form of cheating.

“‘It seems funny to say winning is not all-important — I always want to win, and no one likes to lose,’ he once said. ‘But when you start out on the field, everyone is equal. That is the important idea’.”

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