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LA's Own Olympic Legend Rafer Johnson, Immortalized In Downtown Mural, Dead At 86

Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson listens to the National Anthem before pushing the ignition switch to light the L.A. Memorial Coliseum's Olympic cauldron on September 17, 2017. (David Mcnew/AFP via Getty Images)
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Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who helped bring the 1984 Summer Games to Los Angeles, has died at age 86.

Johnson was among the world's greatest athletes, winning the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Games in Rome. He was the first Black athlete to be Team USA's flag bearer. And he lit the Olympic Flame at the L.A. Coliseum to open the '84 Games.

But Johnson's legacy goes beyond his involvement in the Olympics. In 1968, Johnson helped apprehend assassin Sirhan Sirhan, who had shot Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel.

And he was a powerhouse figure of the Special Olympics. L.A. muralist Kent Twitchell explained Johnson's involvement in a 2015 piece on KPCC:

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"JFK's sister created the Special Olympics in '68. It was so inspirational to Rafer that he created Special Olympics California '69 and has been the number one spokesman and inspiration and power behind it ever since, and now it's grown into a huge international event. One of the really great, true, authentic legends of American sports that has just continued to do so much good."

You can see Twitchell's mural of Johnson and Special Olympian Loretta Claiborne at 1147 South Hope St. in downtown L.A.


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