Iconic figure in sports, civil rights and philanthropy forged a lasting legacy
LOS ANGELES (Dec. 2, 2020) – It is with great sadness that the LA84 Foundation shares the news that Rafer Johnson passed away Wednesday in Sherman Oaks.
Johnson, 86, was surrounded by his family upon his passing. A private memorial service will be held.
Johnson served on the executive committee of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and was chosen to ignite the Olympic flame at the Los Angeles Coliseum during the 1984 Olympic Games opening ceremonies. His contributions to the Olympic movement and the Games in Los Angeles are immeasurable. His involvement ignited not just a flame, but a legacy that has endured for more than three decades.
Among his lifetime of legendary accomplishments, Johnson was a two-time Olympian, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, a founding board member of the LA84 Foundation, co-founder of the Special Olympics in Southern California and civil rights icon.
“Our sense of loss is only eclipsed by the gratitude we will always feel for the opportunity to work so closely with Rafer. He embodied the Olympic Movement,” said Peter Ueberroth, CEO of the 1984 Summer Olympics and longtime board member of the LA84 Foundation. “There are so many lives he touched and improved as a true hero who cared deeply for others. Each day we are focused on honoring his legacy. His DNA will always be embedded in our work. Today, we offer our love and support to his wife Betsy and family.”
Since 2019, the “Rafer Johnson. His Life. His Impact” exhibit has been displayed at the LA84 Foundation Sports Library, featuring memorabilia, rare artifacts and personal photos from Johnson’s remarkable career. His guidance helped shepherd the LA84 Foundation into awarding grants and developing programs that have impacted more than 3.5 million youth.
“Across Southern California and beyond, we are all beneficiaries of Rafer’s philanthropic efforts and his lifetime commitment to people of all ages,” said Renata Simril, President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation. “He is an eternal example of what is possible. I will miss him, but his influence will endure, and we will always celebrate his legacy.”
LA84 Foundation Board Chair Debra Duncan echoed these sentiments: “Rafer’s character and generosity are weaved throughout his lifetime accomplishments. He will always be our guiding light on how to be of service to others. He inspires us to search for ways to make a lasting impact and have a grateful heart for the opportunity to help others. Our prayers are with his wife, Betsy, his family and many friends.”
Johnson was the second Black student body president at UCLA, played basketball for John Wooden for the Bruins and was the first Black man to serve as the flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic Team. Johnson won gold in Rome in 1960 in the decathlon, and silver in the event in Melbourne in 1956.
In 1960, he also won the AAU James E. Sullivan Award as the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States, he broke the decathlon world record, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and the Associated Press voted him Athlete of the Year. In 1968, he was on Robert F. Kennedy’s last campaign and wrestled the gun from his assassin. That year, Johnson began collaborating with Eunice Kennedy Shriver to grow the Special Olympics.
Each of these are amazing achievements individually, but what is most notable is Johnson used his athletic accomplishments as a platform for social justice and social change. Rafer Johnson lived a life of service as impressive as it has been impactful. In his best-selling book, “The Best That I Can Be,” he is quoted as saying he was “doing his very best to use his God-given talents to help those who need help in developing their own abilities to become the best that they can be.”