A family representative, Michael Roth, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.
Raised in Texas without plumbing or electricity, and in central California where his was the only Black family in town, Mr. Johnson went on to become one of the most celebrated track and field stars of his era, and a trailblazer for African Americans at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.
In Rome in 1960, he became the first Black athlete to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. He played a key role once again when he lit the Olympic flame to inaugurate the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, later recalling that at age 49, he had prepared by running up and down a parking garage with five-pound weights.
In a wide-ranging life after sports, Mr. Johnson worked as a television broadcaster, became a confidant of the Kennedy family, appeared in movies with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, helped launch a California chapter of the Special Olympics and promoted organizations including the American Red Cross and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
But he was best known for his brilliance in the decathlon, a grueling 10-event, two-day competition that served as a showcase for his talent, stamina and relentless drive. He had turned to the event while in high school in 1952, when his coach took him to watch defending Olympic champion Bob Mathias at a nearby track.
“Sometimes, you have that feeling: ‘This is right,’ ” Mr. Johnson later recalled. “When I saw Mathias at the decathlon, I thought: ‘You can do this. This is it.’ ”
Mr. Johnson broke Mathias’s world record just three years later, after winning the gold medal at the 1955 Pan American Games. By then he had enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he played for basketball coach John Wooden and prepared for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
Shortly before the Games, he suffered a knee injury that quashed his chance at the individual long-jump. But he did well enough in the decathlon to take silver and finish behind Milt Campbell, who became the event’s first African American Olympic champion.
Mr. Johnson faced additional injuries over the next four years, including from a car crash that sidelined him for months. But he recovered to win gold in the 1960 Games, a victory that took on special significance amid confrontations between civil rights demonstrators and segregationists in the South.
“Rafer Johnson, the person and the athlete, was viewed as a powerful antidote to the otherwise irrefutable poison of American racism,” journalist David Maraniss wrote in “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World” (2008). “And while other controversies swirled around the U.S. team … Johnson was a rock of stability. No one could question his sense of purpose or his goodwill.”
Mr. Johnson defeated Vasili Kuznetsov from the Soviet Union and narrowly edged out C.K. Yang from Taiwan, with whom he had trained at UCLA. Both men were coached by Elvin C. “Ducky” Drake and went back and forth over two 14-hour days of competition.
Going into the last event, the 1,500 meters, Yang was heavily favored. He typically beat Mr. Johnson by 10 seconds in the race, according to a Sports Illustrated account, and needed only to maintain that margin to win.
But in a desperate sprint at the Stadio Olimpico, Mr. Johnson ran a personal best 4:49.7, finishing only 1.2 seconds behind Yang to set an Olympic record with 8,392 total points. Mr. Johnson said he lost 15 pounds during the competition and had pushed himself in the final race knowing it would be his last. He was ready to retire.
“I never want to go through that again — never,” he said afterward. “I’m awfully tired. … I don’t even want to think of another decathlon. All I want to do is get back to the Olympic Village, walk around by myself, look at the moon, and think.”
The oldest of five children, Rafer Lewis Johnson was born in Hillsboro, Tex., on Aug. 18, 1934. His father picked sugar cane and worked as a handyman and chauffeur, among other jobs, and the family moved several times before settling in Kingsburg, Calif., near the cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
While playing at a peach cannery as a boy, Mr. Johnson got caught in a conveyor belt that sliced open his left foot, requiring 23 stitches. He went on to star in four sports while in high school, including football, and was selected in the 1959 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He never played in college or the pros, but his younger brother Jimmy became a Hall of Fame cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers.
In interviews, Mr. Johnson said that when he entered UCLA he had planned to become a dentist or perhaps a minister. He was voted student body president before graduating in 1959 — in part, perhaps, for the same qualities that Sports Illustrated highlighted in naming him the 1958 Sportsman of the Year, when it called him “a rare concentrate of some old Sunday school virtues: tolerance, humility and godliness.”
On the heels of his Olympic victory, he received the Amateur Athletic Union’s Sullivan Award as the country’s top amateur athlete and was named the Associated Press’s male athlete of the year. He was called on to deliver speeches across the country and soon met Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of the newly elected president.
They bonded over Mr. Johnson’s interest in the Peace Corps, and when Kennedy ran for president in 1968, Mr. Johnson stopped working as a broadcaster at NBC to back the campaign. He was walking alongside Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, when gunfire rang out at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy was shot just after midnight on June 5, 1968.
Moments later, Mr. Johnson joined several others — including National Football League lineman turned bodyguard Rosey Grier — in trying to hold down Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who was later convicted of the killing. Mr. Johnson said that he pried the gun from Sirhan’s hand and slipped it into his pocket. (Grier offered a competing account, saying he was the one who disarmed Sirhan.)
Mr. Johnson later told the Los Angeles Times that the assassination “was one of the most devastating moments in my life.” Healing came in part through the Special Olympics, which was founded months later by Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She enlisted Mr. Johnson as an adviser and board member, and he helped start a California branch of the Special Olympics in 1969.
Mr. Johnson also had a brief acting career, appearing on TV shows including “Lassie,” “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Roots: The Next Generation,” in addition to movies such as “License to Kill” (1989), in which he played a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who assists James Bond. He would have appeared in “Spartacus” (1960) as well, he said, were it not for amateur-sports rules that would have required him to skip the Olympics.
In 1971, he became an executive at Continental Telephone and married Betsy Thorsen, a teacher. They had two children, Jennifer Johnson Jordan, who competed in beach volleyball at the 2000 Olympics, and Josh Johnson, a former all-American in javelin at UCLA. In addition to his wife, children and brother, survivors include four grandchildren.
Mr. Johnson was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, a year before lighting the torch at the Olympic Games. He had arranged to surprise his children with the torch-lighting, he said, although they initially seemed unimpressed.
“But after they saw it, and they saw people around me and saw me signing autographs, they hung a little closer,” he told the Times. “It was like Dad was special.”
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