Rafer Johnson, the Olympic legend, died Dec. 2 of natural causes at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. He was 86.
I identify with him because of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, CA.
No, I didn’t cover the games although I was already a sportswriter then for the Manila Bulletin. But I was in Los Angeles after the Olympics to visit the stadium and the Los Angeles Coliseum, where Johnson made his historic lighting of the Olympic flame with a twist of drama.
Johnson was chosen to do the honors, the first Black to do so, edging seven-time Olympic swim champion Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner. Jenner was the football great, auto racer of note and track and field star who shocked the world when he transitioned to a female, renaming himself Caitlyn Marie Jenner in 2015.
The swing vote for Johnson came from Peter Ueberroth, the Games’ chieftain, who made the Los Angeles event as the first commercial Olympic success.
But because of his knees beginning to be creaky, Johnson, 49, found the stairs going up the Coliseum as too steep for him to negotiate. He requested for a handhold installed all the way to the top.
“No,” said the ceremonies producer. “It would ruin the photos of the moment.”
But Johnson was unyielding, saying: “What would be a worse picture, me holding on to something or me falling head first down to the floor of the Coliseum?”
Ueberroth upheld Johnson.
Wrote Scott Wilson of the Los Angeles Times, “...Johnson’s lighting of the Olympic flame proved to be an iconic moment in a widely praised ceremony.”
Johnson’s defining act came 24 years after topping the decathlon in the 1960 Rome Olympics, a feat that earned him the illustrious label the “World’s Greatest Athlete.”
And why not? Decathlon’s first day of competitions is the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-m run. Second day: 110-m hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500-m run. To win the gold, you must be consistently good in virtually all of the 10 events. Whew!
Said Johnson, who played roles in the 1968 “Tarzan” and 1989 James Bond “Licensed to Kill”: “...I always want to win, but when you start out on the field, everyone is equal.”
Goodbye, idol. Enjoy your vacation.