Special Olympics Southern California Mourns the Passing of Founder Rafer Johnson

Special Olympics Southern California was saddened to hear of the passing of Rafer Johnson, founder of SOSC, humanitarian, and Olympic Gold Medalist. The entire SOSC community, including athletes, volunteers, partners, and staff, mourns this loss.  

Today we lost one of our family members and one of the biggest champions for people with intellectual disabilities. With the ultimate goal of spreading acceptance and inclusion, Rafer Johnson  propelled our community to new heights through the power of sports. 

Rafer Johnson had been active with Special Olympics since the very beginning. After experiencing the positivity and energy at the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968, he knew he wanted to help the movement grow. 

In 1969, Johnson helped bring Special Olympics to the west coast by forming the Southern California chapter of Special Olympics. What started as a track & field and swimming competition for 900 athletes with intellectual disabilities from western states has now grown into an organization that serves 38,200 athletes in Southern California through year-round sports, wellness, and leadership programming. 

Over the past 50 years, Rafer was involved in guiding Special Olympics and spreading acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities throughout Southern California and the world. He had been a member of the SOSC Board of Directors for years and became President of Special Olympics Southern California in 1983. Johnson would use this time to grow Special Olympics, increasing fundraising and adjusting the team to appropriately serve the community. He was President until 1992, when he was elected Chairman of the Board of Governors. 

His compassion, drive, and generosity has changed the lives of millions of people with and without intellectual disabilities. We are forever grateful to him and will continue to spread his vision of acceptance and inclusion for all. 

We extend our love and support to Rafer’s wife, Elisabeth “Betsy” Thorsen; two children Jenny and Joshua; and family during this most challenging of times. 

Make a donation to SOSC in honor of Rafer Johnson

Share your memories of Rafer Johnson


Rafer Lewis Johnson was born on August 18, 1934 in Hillsboro, Texas. Johnson graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1959. He won the gold medal in the 1955 Pan American Games for the decathlon in Mexico City while a student at UCLA. Five years later, Johnson won a gold medal in the decathlon in Rome at the 1960 Olympic Games in a legendary duel against fellow UCLA alumni, Yang Chuan-Kwang. Johnson was Team USA’s flag bearer at the 1960 Olympics, becoming the first Black American to do so. He also lit the Olympic Flame and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s Cauldron to highlight the Opening Ceremonies of the XXIII Olympiad in 1984.   

Throughout his life, Johnson was widely recognized for his humanitarian efforts. Along with Special Olympics, Johnson also worked for the Peace Corps, traveling on behalf of the volunteer program run by the United States Government, providing international social and economic development assistance to millions around the world and for the People to People International Foundation. He was a Fellow with the Coro Foundation, a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and he served on the Board of Directors of the LA 84 Foundation, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the Close-up Foundation, the March of Dimes, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, American Red Cross, the National Amateur Sports Development Foundation, the National Recreation and Park Association, the United States Athletic Foundation, the Athletic Advisory Panel of the U.S. State Department, San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council, and the Voter Registration Program. Johnson was also active for many years as a spokesperson for Hershey’s Track & Field Games. 

After taking home the gold in Rome, Johnson embarked on an acting career. His credits include The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and the James Bond thriller License to Kill (1989) and various television shows, notably Lassie, Dragnet 1967, Mission: Impossible, and The Six Million Dollar Man. 

Rafer Johnson participated in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and was present when Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson helped subdue the gunman, Sirhan Sirhan. 


Special Olympics Southern California 

Special Olympics Southern California enriches the lives of 38,200 athletes and their communities through sports, leadership programs, and athlete health. Our free, year-round programs lead to improved health, self-confidence, and independence among athletes with intellectual disabilities and acceptance and inclusion in the community. Special Olympics Southern California has earned a four-star ranking from Charity Navigator for exceeding industry standards. This ranking is the highest Charity Navigator offers to an organization and is given because Special Olympics has demonstrated strong financial health and a commitment to accountability and transparency. Learn more at http://www.sosc.org.  

  1. I’m gonna miss this guy SO much when he attended the special olympics fundraiser in Anaheim where I was named athlete of the year for all of Orange County.


  2. What a wonderful legacy!


  3. TONI VERNELL COLEMAN December 2, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    He truly did a lot of good for people with disabilities and the Special Olympics. A true humanitarian! Such an inspiration! May he rest in peace!


  4. Oh I am so sad to hear of his passing. I had the honor of volunteering along side Rafer and his wife Betsy at Special Olympic Swimming and Track and Field events. He was so kind and humble. His humanitarian efforts inspired me to strive to enrich lives of athletes all around. I am thankful for the opportunities I had to be in his presences.


Leave a Reply

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: