Celebrating Rafer Johnson: History at the 1960 Opening Ceremonies

WeAreSOSC.org is celebrating the 60th anniversary of Rafer Johnson’s gold medal decathlon performance. Yesterday, we took a look at his journey to get to the Games. Today, we celebrate the anniversary of his place in history at the Opening Ceremonies.

By Tracy McDannald

The 1960 Rome Olympics featured a slew of breakout American stars whose achievements are still celebrated to this day.

Sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who overcame her bout with polio as a child, became the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals in a single Olympics. Before inspiring the world as Muhammad Ali, boxer Cassius Clay won gold as a light heavyweight. The U.S. men’s basketball team, then made up of amateurs, featured four future Hall of Famers including Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West and 10 of the 12 players had NBA careers. Of the 292 men and women, nine Americans were appearing in their fourth Olympics.

But it was decathlon star Rafer Johnson who was bestowed the honor of carrying the American flag and leading the delegation into the Opening Ceremonies at Stadio Olimpico on Aug. 25, 1960. The Special Olympics Southern California founder became the first Black American to do so.

From the pages of the Los Angeles Times:

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According to an article in the Los Angeles Times recapping the moment, the distinction typically went to either the oldest or most successful Olympian. The 25-year-old Johnson, who had yet to win a gold medal and was appearing in his second Olympics, was neither.

“We thought Rafer represented the best in Americanism,” said Louis J. Wilke, a member of the U.S. Olympic executive board that made the decision three days prior to the start of the Games. “We not only felt he was probably the greatest all-around athlete in the country, but also an example of our finest traditions.”

Added fellow American and hurdler Lee Calhoun: “To most of the guys on the team he represents perfection.”

He also represented change, and Johnson had paved a barrier-breaking path long before he set foot in Rome.

Longtime friend, sports broadcaster and SOSC supporter Ed Arnold sees a man who was elected student body president in junior high, high school and at UCLA, where he also became the first Black pledge in a predominantly Jewish fraternity—all while balancing his athletic dreams—and can’t help but gush about the “wonderful” person inside the star athlete.

“He was huge,” Arnold said last November at an event honoring Johnson at his LA84 Foundation Library exhibit. “The man is one of the classiest individuals I’ve ever known. He’s a brilliant individual, he’s an achiever.”

So, when Johnson led the Americans through the tunnel and into a stadium filled with 100,000 spectators, only host Italy surpassed the raucous ovation, according to reports.

Spectators back home in the U.S. were proud of Johnson’s selection, and some wrote the Times to express their thoughts.

“In my opinion, such events help the fight against Communism in proving that regardless of race, creed or color the United States is still striving toward the goal of constitutional democracy for which our founding fathers fought,” wrote El Monte resident Hjalmar Graff.

The next story will look back on Rafer Johnson’s triumph in the decathlon, including the ups and downs throughout the gold medal-winning performance and his bond with C.K. Yang.

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