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BILL DWYRE

The 1984 Olympics had Rafer Johnson to light the way

Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion and a star in the L.A. firmament since his days at UCLA, was the logical choice to light the flame at the '84 L.A. Games. It was a memorable night.

July 28, 2009|BILL DWYRE

On that magical night of July 28, 1984, there were few more perfect choices to take that one small step for Los Angeles, that one giant leap for the Olympic movement.

It was exactly 25 years ago and Rafer Johnson was already an American hero.

From a childhood home in Texas with no plumbing or electricity, to the sugar cane fields of Oklahoma and the cotton fields of California's Central Valley, Johnson grew into an Olympic gold medalist in perhaps the most grueling event of all, the decathlon.

That was 1960 in Rome, and few competitive moments in Olympic history match his duel with UCLA teammate C.K. Yang in the decathlon's grand finale, the 1,500 meters.

After that, Johnson never stopped running and jumping. He took a leap into the world of Hollywood, appearing in movies alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Elvis Presley, even James Bond. Before the Rome Olympics, he had to choose between a top role in the movie "Spartacus" and a spot in the Olympics. Amateur sports officials would not let him do both.

Soon, he was darting into causes of racial harmony and community activism. He was among a handful of community leaders who started the Special Olympics movement in Southern California. This year was the 40th anniversary of that beginning.

In many ways, he was somebody who could always be counted on.

And so he was, shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in a kitchen area of the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, when Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot in the head. Rafer Johnson arrived seconds later to clamp his huge hand over the shooting hand and gun of Sirhan Sirhan. Sirhan had shot Kennedy three times and wounded five others.

Sixteen years later, on the night that the grand opening celebration, produced by David Wolper, would welcome the world to Los Angeles, the man who would carry the final torch and light the flame would be no stranger to the audience. There would be no need for Jim McKay and ABC to dig deep for biographical material.

Johnson and his wife, Betsy, drove their two young children to the Coliseum. Jennie was 11, Josh 9. They had no idea what they were about to see, or of the role their father would play in it.

"Betsy knew, and she was maybe the only one, at least until rehearsals started, outside of me and Peter Ueberroth and David Wolper," Johnson says.

"A few weeks before the Games started, Peter called and said he wanted to see me. He sent a car. I sat down in his office and he asked me if I would be willing to be the final torch carrier.

"By the time his words left his breath and hit my ears, I had said yes."

Johnson was ordered to keep it quiet. The media were chasing it and Ueberroth, who loved the intrigue, wanted it to be a surprise, as most final torchbearers are.

So Johnson said nothing to anybody except his wife, and began his workouts during a family vacation at Betsy's parents' home in Newport Beach.

"I got a couple of five-pound weights," he says, "and I ran up and down inside a parking garage near Promontory Point. Betsy's folks thought I was just working out."

--

The gold medal

Running in parking garages was not unusual. Johnson never failed to prepare, and that work ethic, as well as a wealth of experience and experiences, could not be denied.

By the time he got to the 1,500 meters that night in Rome, he had been the world record-holder in the decathlon, had overcome all sorts of ailments and injuries and even a car accident in 1959, and had spent time on an Olympic podium. In 1956 in Melbourne, he got the silver in the decathlon.

As a child working in the fields, he got his foot caught in a conveyor belt and it tore much of the sole from the frame of his foot. The injury hurt him for years.

As a UCLA student, he played basketball for John Wooden's teams in 1958 and '59. As the student body president, he signed Wooden's paycheck.

At UCLA, he was the first black student to pledge a national fraternity.

At Rome, he was the first black person to carry the U.S. flag in an Olympic opening ceremony.

So, when he stood along the line for the start of the decathlon 1,500, he was both exhausted and ready. He knew that Yang, his close friend, training companion and archrival, would win the gold if he finished 10 seconds in front of him. He also knew that the 1,500 was one of his worst events -- and one of Yang's best.

He had his instructions from his coach, UCLA's legendary Ducky Drake, who was also Yang's coach.

"Ducky took me aside before the race," Johnson says, "and he told me that C.K. would have a strategy, and that when he moved, I needed to move with him. He told me that if I felt good enough when I moved with him, I might even try and pass him.

"Of course, as I found out later, Ducky also had talked to C.K. He told him to keep watching where I was and to make sure I didn't pass him."

An exhausted Johnson stayed close enough to win the gold. At one point, Yang looked back as he was trying to move away.

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