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Rafer Johnson, Olympic Decathlon Champion, Dies At 86

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An Olympic pioneer died this week. Rafer Johnson won gold in the 1960 decathlon and led the Olympic team as its first Black captain.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's go back to the beginning. Rafer Johnson was born in Texas in 1934. His family later moved to a small farming town in central California. Money was tight. His family even lived in a railroad boxcar for a while. Johnson excelled in school and sports. After high school, he went to UCLA, where he became student body president and played basketball for the legendary coach John Wooden.

KELLY: Yeah, it was the decathlon, though, that made him an Olympic and national hero. He won a silver medal in the event in 1956. That win set the stage for the Rome Games in 1960 and an epic showdown between Johnson and C.K. Yang of Taiwan. The two athletes were actually friends. They had the same coach at UCLA.

SHAPIRO: While in Rome, the quest for gold came down to the final decathlon event, the 1500-meter race. All Rafer Johnson had to do was finish within 10 seconds of C.K. Yang to win the gold medal. David Maraniss is the author of "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World."

DAVID MARANISS: He just kept up, right behind C.K. the entire time, finished within a few seconds of him, won the decathlon, and they collapsed in each other's arms. And it was in the dusk. It was raining. It was thrilling for everybody who was watching that race, knowing that all Rafer had to do was hang with C.K. to win it. And when they were done, they collapsed in each other's arms. And that - the photograph and the video of that moment really encapsulates what the Olympics want to be and can be in their best moments.

KELLY: Johnson retired from competition. After that win, he tried his hand at acting in movies and TV shows like "Dragnet."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DRAGNET")

RAFER JOHNSON: (As character) We need those recruits. Not only that, we need evidence. He completes his fourth year in the department next month.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That means he can take the sergeant's exams.

JOHNSON: (And character) That's right. And he'd make a good sergeant, wouldn't he?

SHAPIRO: Johnson also served as a goodwill ambassador and became a close friend of the Kennedy family, particularly Robert Kennedy. He was there when RFK was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen in 1968 and even helped subdue the gunman, Sirhan Sirhan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I am right here as Rafer Johnson has a hold of a man who apparently has fired the shot. That's it, Rafer. Get it. Get the gun, Rafer.

SHAPIRO: Johnson was a pallbearer at the funeral and, later, a pivotal part of the fledgling Special Olympics, founded by RFK's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

KELLY: Wow. In 1984, 24 years after being the first Black team captain to carry the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony, he became the first African American to light the Olympic cauldron.

SHAPIRO: Author David Maraniss has a theory about why more people don't know about this champion and pioneer. He thinks it might be because Rafer Johnson lived almost too good of a life.

MARANISS: He didn't live a life of confrontation. He didn't live a life of ups and downs. He was pretty much successful and classy throughout his life. And America tends to be drawn more to people who have these - you know, conquering their own demons. And so he was almost like a paragon, and that made him seem a little bit mythical or unreal.

KELLY: Maybe. But the legacy Rafer Johnson leaves behind is very real. He died yesterday at home at the age of 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS' "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.