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Rafer Johnson

Marched Into Stadium

After qualifying for the 1960 U.S. Olympic track and field team, Johnson was designated captain of the entire American athletic contingent, and carried his country's flag during the opening ceremonies in Rome. He was slated to compete against C. K. Yang, a fellow track star at UCLA and a member of Taiwan's national Olympic team. On the first day of the decathlon, Johnson and Yang remained close in points; on the second day, Johnson lost points when he failed to clear one of the 110-meter hurdles, but did well with a pole vault of 13 feet, 51/2 inches. The final event, the 1,500-meter race, was Johnson's least favorite, and he and Yang remained neck and neck for much of it; Johnson finished 1.2 seconds behind Yang, but his overall score of 8,392 points gave him the gold as well as the Olympic decathlon record. "At that moment, I gave it everything I could," he told Los Angeles Times writer Eric Sondheimer. "I couldn't have expended more energy than I did during those two days." Despite his gold-medal finish, Johnson felt bad for his friend. As elated as I was to win the gold medal," he told Sondheimer, "part of me was disappointed for C.K. because I know how hard he worked." Johnson and Yang have remained friends since the 1960 Olympic Games.

Johnson's dedication and drive helped him land a post-collegiate job as an international goodwill ambassador. He acted in Hollywood films, worked as a sports broadcaster, recruited Peace Corps trainees, and served as a personnel executive at a California telephone company. He also became involved in Democratic Party politics, and was a member of the security detail for 1968 U.S. presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. When Kennedy exited through Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel after his California primary victory speech, shots were fired, Kennedy fell, and Johnson pushed the candidate's pregnant wife Ethel out of the way; he and football player Rosey Grier, another bodyguard, then tackled the assailant, Sirhan Sirhan, and Johnson disarmed him.


1935 Born August 18, in Hillsboro, Texas
1945 Relocates to California with family
1952 Enters University of California at Los Angeles
1958 Travels to Moscow to participate in first-ever United States-Soviet track meet
1960 Carries U.S. flag during opening ceremonies at the Rome Olympics; appears in first feature film, Sergeant Rutledge
1968 Disarms Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan
1969 Serves as founding board member, California Special Olympics
1971 Marries Betsy Thorsen
1984 Lights Olympic flame at opening ceremonies of Los Angeles Summer Games
1998 Publishes autobiography
2000 Travels to Sydney, Australia, to watch daughter compete as Olympic volleyball player

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsTrack and FieldRafer Johnson Biography - Standout Athlete, Marched Into Stadium, Chronology, Opening Ceremony Honoree Again, Contact Information, Awards And Accomplishments - SELECTED WRITINGS BY JOHNSON: