Josh Johnson and Jenny Johnson Jordan grew up in a household with no trophies or any sort display room to showcase the numerous accolades their father, Olympic legend and Special Olympics Southern California founder Rafer Johnson, had accumulated over the years. He was on the cover of national publications such as Sports Illustrated and had a host of athlete of the year honors from various outlets, and that was only scratching the surface on the list.
Yet, all his children saw was their father.
“I didn’t understand the magnitude of what he had done,” Jenny said of her childhood.
By 1984, Josh and Jenny experienced how the rest of the world saw their dad.
Thirty-six years ago today, Johnson had the honor of lighting the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—the first Black person in history to do so. Yet, the jokester in him decided to keep that detail to himself and on the ride over he asked his children who they thought would light the flame.
“We said, ‘Michael Jackson.’ That was our world, at that point,” said Josh, who was 9, two years younger than his sister at the time.
“So we didn’t really know what his accomplishments were and how the rest of the world saw him until much later on when he the final torchbearer. He became a celebrity.”
Added Jenny: “When he lit the torch, I think that was such a huge sports moment. So many people saw that and experienced it, many more people than even probably had seen him at the Olympics (as a competitor). That was a moment where the attention he got at the Olympics was crazy. He was a rockstar. People were following us and chasing him.”
That’s also because the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where Johnson won the gold medal in the decathlon, was mere months removed from the winter event (this was prior to the Olympics alternating every two years) becoming the first Olympics to be televised in the U.S.
Johnson was part of the Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics. Part of that committee was 1976 U.S. Olympic swimmer John Naber, who won four gold medals in Montreal at the age of 20. Even with his own astounding achievements, Naber was in awe when the two first met in the 1970s.
“It’s intimidating,” Naber said.
“But the man that I met in the 1970s, after my Olympic success, and the man I worked with at the ’84 Olympics is just a gentleman. A thorough professional, a devoted family man, committed to his highest standards. He’s the most polite, most gentile, most giving man in the Olympic movement. He is the perfect role model for somebody like me to want to emulate.”
Jenny, who followed her father’s footsteps to UCLA and went on to become an Olympian in beach volleyball in 2000, said the experience in 1984 helped shape her dream.
“I go, ‘Oh, this is what this is.’ It was probably then where I thought, ‘OK, I’d love to do this one day,’” Jenny said. “I know there’s a lot of respect from other people for him. So, seeing that over the years, and having that build and grow as I got older, I learned to really appreciate what he had done.”
The other part of the equation is the final torchbearer of the Olympics is always one of the best-kept secrets. Members of the Los Angeles Times sports staff for the ’84 Olympics had no qualms about the selection.
Bill Dwyre, who spent 25 years as the newspaper’s sports editor, said it was “well-known [Rafer] was an influential guy” who was the embodiment of an Olympian—both in athletic prowess and human decency.
“If you were any student of the Olympics, a fan of the Olympics, Rafer was big in your mind,” said Dwyre, who earned the National Press Foundation’s editor of the year honor for the staff’s coverage of the ’84 Olympics.
Over the years, he’s gotten to know the man behind the legendary legacy. Like many, Dwyre sees a soft-spoken, gentle giant with no ego who is “highly respected.” Dwyre would still put Johnson’s achievements up against the other greats, though he admits that track events such as the 100 meters have gained more mainstream appeal than the decathlon.
However, as others on the Times’ staff have noted, there has been a bit of disconnect as the years turned into decades since Johnson last competed.
Columnist Bill Plaschke wrote an article in May 2019 that wondered why Johnson’s name often gets lost in the shuffle when lists and polls of the greatest athletes are compiled, sometimes even when narrowed down to Los Angeles legends.
“Of the 33 sports figures who have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — Johnson is stunningly not one of them. Seriously, how can that be?” Plaschke wrote after securing a rare, granted interview.
That begged the question: Why isn’t he as embedded in the minds of the general population, particularly the generations under the age of 40?
Former Los Angeles Times reporter Elliott Almond, now with the Bay Area News Group, shared Plaschke’s sentiment. Almond, who has covered 11 Olympics, remembers when the title of World’s Greatest Athlete bestowed upon the Olympic decathlon champion carried more weight.
“Now, it’s still used, it’s thrown about, but it doesn’t mean anything in the digital age and it hasn’t for generations,” Almond said. “Younger people, they’re just not going to get it.
“You win the Olympic gold medal in that event and it elevates you to a sphere that’s sort of beyond anything.”
For Almond, a native of Los Angeles, the moment at the ’84 Olympics and Johnson’s stature in his eyes hit differently than the average sports fan. As a child in a house with limited exposure to TV viewing, Almond gravitated toward Olympic and college sports over most professional sports. He was a fan of UCLA men’s basketball, which Johnson was a part of in addition to track and field.
Almond was 7 at the time of Johnson’s gold medal, although his young age hadn’t quite grasped the moment. But Johnson’s athletic feat, and more so the way he carried himself, was something Almond grew to admire.
Fast-forward 24 years, with Almond three years into what would become a 20-year stint at the Los Angeles Times, where he specialized as an investigative sports enterprise and Olympics reporter. His beats at the ’84 Olympics were shooting and archery, which were based in Chino for the start of the Games and were typically among the first events to award medals. So, like the rest of the world, Almond watched the Opening Ceremonies and Johnson’s moment on TV.
“He was the right person to represent L.A.” Almond said.
“He is the epitome of the right person to do this. You think of the rich history of Los Angeles, I mean, how do you pick somebody, you know?
“You think of all the divisiveness in Los Angeles. I watched the Watts riots and, of course, was a reporter during the Rodney King stuff. So, there’s different routes to bridging gaps. Sometimes I just feel like Rafer was brought down from the heavens. I don’t mean to be too Biblical, but it just seems like he’s been able to transcend all of that—whether it’s L.A. racial tensions or prejudices, or anything.”
Twelve years later, Almond found himself in Atlanta covering another historic Opening Ceremony and moment when Muhammad Ali was revealed as the final torchbearer. As he collected himself to write his story that day, Johnson came to mind.
“Who am I to be able to bear witness to Rafer in ’84 and then Muhammad Ali in ’96? Athletically, they were parallels,” Almond said.
How much greater does it get than that?
Inside SOSC is a blog managed by staff member Tracy McDannald. It is a more feature-style approach to looking inside what makes Special Olympics Southern California so unique, so special. It is meant to explore the people and their stories. One word at a time.