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Rafer Johnson, Olympic legend, actor, and tackler of RFK’s assassin, dead at 86

Rafer Johnson in 1984.
Rafer Johnson in 1984.
Photo: Getty Images

Rafer Johnson, one of the best athletes of his time, died Wednesday. He was 86.

Johnson won his first Olympic medal in 1956, when he received a silver in the decathlon. In 1958, he was named SI’s Sportsman Of The Year and broke racial barriers when he was given the AAU James Sullivan Award, which annually went to the best amatuer athlete in the United States. In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Johnson served as flag bearer for Team USA in the opening ceremony and won gold in the decathlon.

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Johnson (c.) after a gold-medal performance at the Rome games in 1960.
Photo: Getty Images

But his Olympic run didn’t end there. In 1968, he served on the organizing committee for the first Special Olympics. A year later, Johnson helped found and organize the California Special Olympics. And in 1984, Johnson famously lit the Olympic flame at the start of the Los Angeles games.

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Johnson (r.) carries the olympic torch alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Photo: Getty Images

After retiring from athletics, he worked as a sportscaster and on Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 Presidential campaign. There, Johnson witnessed Kennedy’s assassination — and, along with a handful of others, tackled RFK’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan.

Johnson is also remembered for the roles he played in feature films and television. As an actor, he was featured in the James Bond film License to Kill, Tarzan and the Great River, Roots: The Next Generations and more.