Rafer Lewis Johnson was born on August 18, 1934 in Hillsboro, Texas, to Lewis and Alma Johnson. The Johnsons and their five children would relocate to Kingsburg, California, in 1944. During his time at Kingsburg High School, Johnson received overwhelming encouragement from his family, friends, and coaches, but he specifically credits his coach, Murl Dodson, for the drive to try out different programs that he would not have done on his own, like the long jump or hurdles. Dodson went with Johnson to the 1952 U.S. Decathlon Olympic Trials, where Johnson’s passion and focus for Olympic competition grew and pushed him to be the very best. After his victories in the 1953 and 1954 decathlon meet, he began his college career at University of California, Los Angeles, where he would go on to become class president, and even win the gold in the 1955 Pan American Games for the decathlon in Mexico City. Johnson attended the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, and despite having an injury, he still took home the silver medal. Rafer Johnson would then go on to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where he and fellow UCLA alumni, Yang Chuan-Kwang, would have one of the fiercest competitions in Olympic history. The two athletes battled for the top spot, both giving all they had to defeat the other. By the tenth event, both men were drained but knew they had to finish the decathlon with everything they had. Rafer had the lead by a small number of points, but Yang was ready to fight for the gold. It was in this final sprint that Johnson ran a personal best of 4:49.7 and earned the gold. Although both men were pitted against each other, they both held overwhelming respect and support for each other. After taking home the gold in Rome, Rafer Johnson concluded his days of competing as an athlete.

Rafer Johnson

Although his time in the world of athletics was far from over, Rafer took interest in acting. Prior to the 1960 Summer Olympics, Johnson was offered a role in Spartacus, but had to turn it down in order for him to be able to compete in Rome. However, he would go on to appear on the silver screen alongside Hollywood’s greats such as Elvis Presley in Wild in the Country and Timothy Dalton as James Bond in License to Kill. Johnson worked in television as well, appearing on shows, and eventually sports casting.

Rafer took a brief pause in his acting career to focus on other aspirations, including public and social service with Special Olympics, and even participating in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, who was subdued by Rafer Johnson, George Plimpton, Pete Hamill, and Rosey Grier.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Rafer Johnson has been involved deeply with Special Olympics, where he got his start with the program in Southern California. He is still active in sports communities, and his daughter, Jennifer, and his son, Joshua, are both involved with athletics and Olympic events.

Special Olympics

Rafer Johnson received a call from Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 as an invitation to the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago. He said that the event was such a positive environment and he wanted to help the movement grow. Johnson knew more needed to be done for people with intellectual disabilities so in 1969, he helped form the Southern California chapter of Special Olympics after the success of the First Annual Western Regional Special Olympics in July.

As time pressed on, so did Special Olympics. The organization reached out to various states and countries, blossoming Special Olympics’ outreach to individuals with intellectual disabilities who would benefit from taking part in the program.

In 1972, the International Special Olympics was held in Southern California at UCLA and Santa Monica College, welcoming over 2,500 athletes from eight countries across the globe. Then, in 1986, LAPD joined the organization for the Law Enforcement Torch Run to raise awareness and funds for the group.

Johnson had been a member of the Board of Directors for years, until he ran for President of Special Olympics Southern California, which he won in 1983. He would use this time to improve Special Olympics, increasing fundraisers and adjusted the team to appropriately serve the community. Rafer Johnson was President until 1992, when he was elected Chairman of the Board of Governors.

It was then that California Special Olympics was divided into the Northern and Southern chapters to better meet the needs of their ever-expanding communities.

Rafer Johnson has incessantly and tirelessly worked his whole life, and it was the same motivation he saw in Special Olympic athletes that continues to push him to this day, as seen in his quote from Special Olympics: The First 25 Years: “There are lots of ways to find success. Hard work is one of them. I worked hard. If I knew I was going to win, it’s because I knew I had worked harder. I think the most successful people are those who have someone helping them . . . In team work, there’s much more strength, depth, and success. There are two sets of eyes, two sets of hands, and two sets of hearts working together. And that’s why I am for special 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 they can be. I’m on their team” (Bueno 1994). This exemplifies Johnson’s commitment to help others and ensure that everyone performs to the best of their ability, and to give all the tools to succeed.

Today, Special Olympics reaches 170 countries, with over 4.4 million individuals with intellectual disabilities, 34,500 of which are from Southern California. With the ultimate goal of promoting an environment and movement of acceptance and equality, Rafer Johnson and Special Olympics have propelled this community to new lengths through the power of sports, team work, and hard work. Johnson took inspiration from the 1968 Special Olympics to go out and create something beautiful, which will continue to benefit the world for generations to come, and in turn, inspire others to do the same.

Rafer Johnson passed way in his home in Sherman Oaks on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Read more

"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