Olympics

UCLA Track to Be Named for Rafer Johnson and Wife Betsy

Johnson won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics

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The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The track at UCLA's Drake Stadium will be formally unveiled Friday as the Betsy and Rafer Johnson Track in honor of the 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medalist and his wife, a fellow alumnus.

Johnson led UCLA to its first NCAA track & field championship in 1956, was its second African American student body president and a starting forward on its basketball team for the 1958-59 season, leading the team in shooting percentage, the first player in school history to shoot better than 50% for a season.

"Many of the things that I've accomplished beyond my years at UCLA, including my relationship with my family and friends and the fact that I'm very much interested in giving back to the community, have a great deal to do with what I learned from coach (John) Wooden," Johnson said in a 2005 interview.

Johnson edged his UCLA classmate Yang Chuan-Kwang, who competed for Taiwan, to win the decathlon gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Johnson set the world record in the decathlon three times, won the silver medal in the 1956 Olympics and gold medal in the 1955 Pan American Games.

Johnson was 53rd on ESPN's list of the 100 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century. His other honors include selection to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame, Pac-12 Hall of Honor, a charter member of the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year for 1958.

Following his athletic career, Johnson was an actor, sportscaster, helped found Special Olympics Southern California and lit the torch for the 1984 Summer Olympics. He is a special assistant to UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero.

Before the Secret Service provided protection for presidential candidates, he was a bodyguard for New York Sen. Robert Kennedy during his 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and was among those tackling Sirhan Sirhan after he assassinated Kennedy.

The 1 p.m. ceremony is free and open to the public.

"As we look back across UCLA's first 100 years and think about the people who helped shape this institution's core values, Betsy and Rafer Johnson are among the first who come to mind," Chancellor Gene Block said. "Their selfless efforts to inspire others and encourage opportunity for all perfectly embody UCLA's mission." 

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