Rafer Johnson: A Special Olympics Visionary

Rafer Johnson has endless achievements to his name. He has won an Olympic gold medal and silver medal in the decathlon. Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year in 1958 and ESPN included him among the 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th century. He’s appeared in a James Bond film.

Yet, his greatest accomplishment may be the services, dream and platform he’s provided to countless others – an underserved group of people with intellectual disabilities.

Johnson founded Special Olympics Southern California, an organization that turns 50 years old in 2019 and serves 37,100 athletes with sports, health and leadership programming. The seeds were planted when Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver invited Johnson to attend the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968. His relationship with the Kennedy family started with then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and he expressed “the desire to help others and improve the lives of the less fortunate,” and that’s when he learned of Eunice’s sports camps for people with intellectual disabilities.

By that time, the former UCLA track and field star had already established himself as a world-class athlete. Johnson won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, topping his silver-medal performance in the event four years earlier.

At the 1960 Summer Games, he also became the first African-American to carry the American flag into an Opening Ceremonies. Breaking barriers was nothing new to Johnson, and he took that into his next venture: Special Olympics and a life dedicated to humanitarian work.

“I thought it was a great concept and I wanted to be a part of this program of support for children and adults with [intellectual disabilities],” Johnson wrote in the foreword for the book Special Olympics: The First 25 Years. “I saw how little had been done for citizens with [intellectual disabilities] and knew how much more could be accomplished.”

It was at those first Special Olympics Games where he saw a chorus made up of individuals with intellectual disabilities perform, a moment Johnson noted among his “strongest memories” of the event. The group was from a facility in Canfield, Conn., and Johnson reached out to the facility’s director to learn more about the care provided to the residents.

As for the competition, he made a connection with the athletes and left full of inspiration.

“It really hooked me,” Johnson said. “I know you can’t get where you want without interest from other people. So I just jumped right in. I wanted to help Special Olympics grow.”

That ignited the idea to start California Special Olympics in 1969, and, in July, put on the Western Regional Special Olympics. Johnson and a group of volunteers made it possible for 900 individuals with intellectual disabilities to compete at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – the same site he would later on light the Olympic flame to start the 1984 Summer Games.

He also became one of the original members of the Board of Directors. The growth of the organization led to hosting the 1972 International Special Olympics, which featured 2,500 athletes from eight countries competing at UCLA and Santa Monica College.

By 1983, Johnson was elected president of the organization, and, three years later, he started a partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department for the Law Enforcement Torch Run – currently the largest public awareness vehicle and grassroots fundraiser, with more than 3,500 officers from 200 law enforcement agencies across Southern California championing acceptance and inclusion. Since the Southern California LETR partnership began, officers have raised more than $18 million for Special Olympics.

In 1992, Johnson shifted over as chairman of the Board of Governors and the organization took one more giant step forward. California Special Olympics was divided into Northern and Southern chapters to help meet the needs of its growing athlete population.

Richard Van Kirk, the first president of the revamped Special Olympics Southern California, considered Johnson “the best person I’ve ever met.”

“He’s been vital,” Van Kirk said before passing away in November 2018. “He’s not only a figurehead, but he’s actively involved and committed after all these years. I can’t believe how dedicated he and his family have been over the years. It’s been a tremendous asset to us to have Rafer. We all look up to him.”

Those sentiments mirror the experience of current President/CEO Bill Shumard, who took over in June 2005 after spending five years on the Board of Directors.

It wasn’t until that transition to president/CEO, Shumard said, when he truly connected with Johnson on a personal level. With a background in athletics that includes stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers and California State University, Long Beach, Shumard said he’s had the fortune of meeting various successful people in the sports world.

But few have been as genuine as Johnson.

“Rafer impressed me as having the most integrity and character of anyone I’ve ever met,” Shumard said. “That was 14 years ago, and my opinion hasn’t wavered a bit.

“I look at Rafer as an American icon because of all he has accomplished on so many fronts. His highly visible, supportive endorsement of our movement has given Special Olympics such great credibility because of who Rafer is and all he stands for. Rafer has always been proactive and courageous when advocating for our movement and our athletes.”

Johnson’s connection to the athletes – much like that first experience 50 years ago – resonates to this day.

The Rafer Johnson Inspirational Athlete Award was created in 1996. Johnson takes the time to go around the venue during SOSC’s Summer Games, talks with athletes throughout the weekend and makes his selection. Some years there is more than one recipient.

Over the years, however, long before the award’s existence, several athletes have noted the impact Johnson has personally had on their lives. Among them is Paul Hoffman, who first met Johnson when he was 26.

Hoffman, now 61, would go on to become California’s first Global Messenger, an athlete spokesperson who advocates for Special Olympics and its benefits. Hoffman credits Johnson for his encouragement to step into a role beyond athletics.

“For somebody to give back to people who were not as fortunate, give back to society, it goes a long way in my mind,” he said.

“He said I could be a leader and go far in this program. He was one of my inspirations that got me going.”

That type of personal investment in athletes is something Johnson can relate to his days growing up in central California. Whether it was a teacher, coach, his parents, or friends, Johnson never forgot the support system it took to be successful.

It was that support system that got him to UCLA, then to Olympic glory, and then to the steps of the Coliseum to light the cauldron. He wanted to give that to individuals with intellectual disabilities.

“That’s the way life ought to be,” Johnson wrote. “We all should run our leg of the race with people cheering, helping, everything getting done. It’s only going to be good if we all run our leg of the relay well.

“I think the most successful people are those who have someone helping them. … In teamwork, there’s much more strength, depth and success. There are two sets of eyes, two sets of hands and two hearts working together.

“And that’s what I am for Special Olympics athletes – another set of eyes, another set of hands and a heart working to be there for them, finding a way to help them be the best that they can be. I’m on their team.”

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