Rafer Johnson, along with a small group of volunteers, founded Special Olympics California in 1969 by conducting a competition at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for 900 individuals with intellectual disabilities. Rafer’s involvement in Special Olympics began the year before when he attended the first Special Olympics competition, conducted by Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. That event inspired Rafer to become more involved.

After the first California games in 1969, Rafer became one of the original members of the Board of Directors. The Board worked together to raise funds and offer a modest program of swimming and track and field.

Rafer Johnson

In 1983, Rafer ran for President of the Board to increase Board participation, reorganize the staff to most effectively use each person’s talents, and expand fundraising efforts. He was elected president and served in that capacity until July 1992 when he was named Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Over the years, Rafer has been involved with scores of charities. However, he is most passionate about Special Olympics Southern California.

Rafer was the USA team captain, flag bearer and Decathlon Gold Medalist at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. He also was selected to light the Olympic Cauldron to open the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

He and his wife Betsy reside in Southern California. His son, Josh, was a javelin thrower for UCLA, and his daughter, Jenny, competed at the 2000 Sydney Games in beach volleyball.

Career Highlights

  • 1955 - Pan American Gold Medalist, Decathlon
  • 1956 - Olympic Silver Medalist, Decathlon
  • 1960 - Olympic Gold Medalist and Record Holder, Decathlon
  • 1960 - Sport's Illustrated, Athlete of the Year
  • 1960  - Sport Magazine, Sportsman of the Year
  • 1960 - Sullivan Award, Outstanding Amateur Athlete
  • 1960  - Associated Press, Athlete of the Year
  • 1960 - American Flag Carrier on Opening Ceremony Day at the Olympics
  • 1974 - Inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame
  • 1984 - Los Angeles Olympic Games, Torch Lighter for Opening Ceremonies
  • 1988 - California Special Olympics "Spirit of Friendship" Award
  • 1990 - Elected to National High School Hall of Fame
  • 1992 - Humanitarian Award, Free Arts for Abused Children
  • 1993 - Rafer Johnson Junior High School Dedicated in Kingsburg, CA
  • 1996 - Lifetime Achievement Award, Cedars Sinai
  • 1998 - Autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, published
  • 2009 - Change-Maker Award, Children's Nature Institute
  • 2009 - Wooden Lifetime Achievement Award, Paralysis Project of America
  • 2010 - Fernando Award for Civic Accomplishment, Fernando Foundation
  • 2011 - Bakersfield City High School District Hall of Fame
  • 2012 - Honored at the inaugural FCOE Honors Gala for his imprint on education in Fresno County
  • 2012 - Athletic advisor to Dan Guerrero, Director of Athletics at UCLA

"From the very start in 1969, I wanted to be a part of helping our Special Olympics athletes succeed. I wanted to be on Eunice Kennedy Shirver's team as 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 they can be."

~Rafer Johnson,
Special Olympics Southern California's Founder & Olympic Gold Medalist