Rafer Johnson Exhibit Explored Impact of Legend’s Life

LOS ANGELES  – Olympic decathlon gold medalist and legend, Rafer Johnson, will be the subject of a new exhibit opening at the LA84 Foundation Library on Monday, April 29. Entitled Rafer Johnson. His Life. His Impact., the exhibit is curated in collaboration with Rafer himself and the entire Johnson family.

On display through December 2019, the exhibit is the first-ever to explore the totality of Rafer Johnson’s life – one of humility, loyalty, service, and achievement – including chronicling the development and success of his athletic endeavors.

Items on display will include Johnson’s 1955 Pan American Games jersey and competitor number, 1958 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year trophy, bronze shoes from 1960 Olympic Games decathlon, the 1960 US Olympic Team travel bag, 1994 Theodore Roosevelt Award, 2016 UCLA Medal, 1984 Fair Play Award from the Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley, the 1987 US Constitution “Spirit of America” Award, letters written to Rafer Johnson by notable figures such as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Eunice Shriver, Coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake, and much more.

“It is an honor for the LA84 Foundation to present this look at the life and impact of Rafer Johnson, as we thank him for his 34 years of service to the communities we support,” said Renata Simril, President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation. “Rafer has lived his life in the service of others, and his humanitarian, civil rights and civic achievements are even more powerful than the status he held as the ‘world’s greatest athlete.”

“The depth of his life and service goes from a small town in Texas to Kingsburg, California… to the glamour of acting, broadcasting, politics to of course an athletic career that took him to not just competing in the Olympics but lighting the cauldron in 1984 which helped to create a legacy that still endures and one for which we will forever be grateful”, said Debra Duncan LA84 Foundation Board Chair.

Born to humble beginnings in segregated Hillsboro, Texas, Rafer Johnson would eventually move west and become the second African American student body president at UCLA. He was a true big man on campus: served as an Air Force ROTC officer; became the first African American member of the Upsilon Chapter of Pi Lambda Phi; played hoops for legendary coach John Wooden; and was a superstar on the track and field team coached by Elvin “Ducky” Drake. Johnson has remained allied with UCLA for decades, and remains a hero to many in the Bruin diaspora.

His bond with the Kennedy family is eternal: Johnson was on Robert F. Kennedy’s last campaign and wound up wrestling the gun from his assassin. Soon after, Johnson was collaborating with Eunice Kennedy Shriver to grow the Special Olympics. For fifty years since, Johnson has been a leading voice and presence in the movement to normalize the lives of and perception of people with intellectual disabilities.

Rafer Johnson’s sporting prowess was so outstanding that he was widely recognized as “The World’s Greatest Athlete.”  He was the first African American man to serve as flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic Team at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. During his Olympic tenure Johnson won two medals, one silver medal in Melbourne in 1956 and a gold medal in Rome in 1960, both in the decathlon.  On July 28, 1984, Johnson carried the Olympic torch up ninety-nine Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum steps. He put the lit torch to a cauldron and ignited not just a flame, but a legacy that has endured for more than three decades and counting.  Under the leadership of Peter V. Ueberroth, chairman of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the ’84 Games ended with a surplus of $232.5 million. The money was divided, with 60% going to the United States Olympic committee in order to support and train elite athletes, and 40%, or approximately $90 million, staying in Southern California to help benefit the youth of the region. The non-profit Amateur Athletic Foundation was created to oversee this work. Rafer Johnson was a founding board member, along with Ueberroth and a who’s who of the region’s leaders. In 2007, the AAF name changed to the LA84 Foundation.

Johnson remained an active board member until 2018, when he transferred to Board Emeritus status. Johnson’s influence at the LA84 Foundation remains strong as ever – his unyielding longtime commitment to the concept of Play Equity and Play For All Movement have helped lead the Foundation to positively impact the lives of more than 3.5 million kids since the 1984 Olympic Games.

Public viewing of the exhibition will be available by appointment and during open house. More information will be posted to la84.org and on the organization’s social media platforms.

To view a digital version of the exhibit, visit la84.org/exhibitions/raferjohnson.

The exhibit will be open based on timed tickets for select days  and by appointment otherwise. 

To see available timed tickets click here

The LA84 Foundation gives special thanks to Betsy Johnson, Jenny Johnson Jordan, Josh Johnson, the Johnson family archives, Special Olympics Southern California archives, and Lawrence Schiller for their assistance.