Monday, September 27

Rafer Johnson, the sad hero of the Ambassador hotel

The 1960 Olympic decathlon champion cut down the assassin of Robert Kennedy when he was working on the presidential campaign of the former United States attorney general.

Rafer johnson he had a gift. His body allowed him to successfully practice whatever sport he wanted. Just as it used to be done in American schools, kids like him combined different modalities until they settled on one. Track and field, basketball, baseball, and football were part of his life. Until one day he had a revelation. His coach took him with a group of students to Tulare, forty kilometers from his place of residence, to see live an athletics competition in which he participated Bob mathias, a celebrity from the area who had already won gold in the decathlon from the London Olympics in 1948 and was preparing to do the same at the Helsinki Games in 1952. Johnson was impressed by seeing Mathias’s physical ability, but at the same time he was struck by the level of many of his rivals: ” I could beat almost all those guys, “he told his coach. And on the way home he decided that the decathlon would be his.

From that moment on, Rafer Johnson was clear about the way forward. In the UCLA University, where he received a scholarship, his evolution was immediate. He had everything to succeed in this modality that seeks the perfect athlete. He only suffered in the 1,500-meter test, which most of the time was an ordeal, but he more than made up for it thanks to his speed and strength. The progress was meteoric, much faster than his coaches suspected. In his fourth decathlon, held in Kingsburg, the city where his parents settled when he was five years old and where for a long time they were the only black family, he beat the world record.

Melbourne-56 to Rome-60

He had just started his career and was already the undisputed favorite to win gold in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and inherit the gold medal that Mathias had hung for the previous two appointments. But in Australia he suffered an injury to the abdominal area that completely weakened him. Still he competed and was not far from victory. Only his compatriot Milt campbell, in the best performance of his career, he was able to overcome it. Far from his marks, Johnson won the silver medal ahead of the Russian Vassily Kuznetzov and he returned home disenchanted but with a rampant eagerness to retaliate in Rome in 1960.

The decathlon then entered a crazy stage in which Johnson, the Taiwanese That (fellow at UCLA under Elvin Drake) and Kuznetzov raised the bar on the test. The American and the Russian each exchanged the world record twice. They would surely have been more times if they had not crossed Johnson’s path an injury and a car accident which led him to miss the 1957 and 1959 seasons. He arrived at the Olympic year in good condition but seriously threatened by Yang, whom he saw training daily and whose evolution was spectacular.

Draba’s role in ‘Spartacus’

Before arriving in Rome there was a circumstance that could complicate his presence in the Olympic Games. Kirk Douglas, a good friend of his, offered Rafer Johnson a role in ‘Spartacus’, the movie I was about to start shooting with Stanley Kubrick. They were looking for a black jock who played the part of Draba, the Ethiopian who refuses to kill Spartacus in the gladiator camp. Johnson was determined to accept, but was alerted that this could violate Olympic regulations that only allow ‘amateur’ athletes to participate. He considered presenting some kind of documentation that would show that he was not going to receive a dollar for the film, but finally he discarded it and assumed that his arrival at the cinema, if it occurred, would be later. The role of Draba eventually went to Woody strode, another former UCLA athlete.

In Italy it was confirmed that the gold was to be a duel between the two disciples of Drake. Kuznetzov got off the hook fast and Johnson and Yang fought a magnificent heads up during the two days of the competition. They always moved in very narrow margins between one and the other. Johnson, mostly in tow, took the lead after the discus throwing, reaching the dreaded 1,500 with a margin of nearly 70 points over Yang. But he didn’t feel comfortable. He had to finish less than ten seconds behind the Taiwanese, but he had no doubt that it was perfectly possible that he would lose that gold medal because he knew what his training partner and friend was capable of and was also aware of his own limitations at that distance.

Psychological fight

They both had a private chat with their coach. Drake told Johnson, “You have to stick like limpet to him, right from the start.” To Yang later, he explained, “He has never been able to be with you in this test, you have to let him go early and discourage him.” But that afternoon in the heat of Rome, Rafer Johnson welded himself to Yang, who was somewhat far from what could be expected of him.

At one point during the race, he looked back and the American, despite the pain in his legs, smiled. He wanted to beat Yang that psychological fight that they were also fighting on the track. Finally Johnson arrived just over a second behind his rival and secured the gold medal. The two melted into one of the most beautiful and strenuous hugs athletics has ever known.

The Kennedy assassination

Convinced that he had already completed a stage of his life, Rafer Johnson withdrew from the athletic tracks although he served as a commentator at different times. At only 26 years old, great achievements still awaited him, but he felt that his work had to go another way. He got involved in tasks of a social nature and in 1964 he accepted the proposal of his friend Robert Kennedy to join his campaign for the presidency of the United States. He had promised her long before, when he was attorney general, and the two of them had long conversations about the changes the country needed. Rafer Johnson was in the Hotel Ambassador from Los Angeles on the day Kennedy celebrated victory in the California primaries and practically had the Democratic nomination in his pocket.

That September 3, a 24-year-old man of Palestinian origin named Sirhan sirhan He shot him point blank as he made his way out of the hotel through the kitchens. Robert Kennedy was mortally wounded, although his death was not confirmed until a few hours later. Rafer Johnson, who followed the scene a few meters, was the one who disarmed Sirhan in the company of Robert Grier, a former American football player and who was part of the former attorney general’s security. With the passage of time, the ex-athlete received recognition for his heroic behavior in the bowels of the Ambassador Hotel, but he always stayed away from that kind of praise. His obsession, recognized in different interviews, was not having the opportunity to prevent Sirhan from getting close to his friend.

Working with Special Olympics

Kennedy’s death left Johnson with a feeling of devastation, of utter loss of confidence in the future. It took months to get out of that hole and it was precisely the work with the movement special Olympics, the competition for children and young people with intellectual disabilities that a sister of Robert Kennedy had recently launched, which made him regain his faith in the future.

From that moment on, Rafer Johnson made his life an exercise in generosity towards others and modesty. His friends said that if you went to visit him, you would find on the shelves of his house numerous trophies and medals that belonged to his children. Nowhere were his, infinitely more relevant. If you insisted on seeing the Olympic medals, the American championships had to go down to the basement and look for them between cardboard boxes.

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A ‘Bond boy’

At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles it was Rafer Johnson the one in charge of lighting the Olympic cauldron and a few years later he finally had the opportunity to participate even in a small role in a great Hollywood production, that illusion that was denied him in 1960. It was in ‘License to kill’, one of the worst films in the series of James bond, where he played a DEA agent and Timothy dalton He embodied 007. A week ago, after a life dedicated to others, Rafer Johnson died at his home in Los Angeles, a city to which he always remained inseparably attached. On happy days and sad mornings at the Ambassador Hotel.

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