The 1984 Olympics had Rafer Johnson to light the way

Rafer Johnson holds the Olympic torch after lighting the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics
Rafer Johnson holds the Olympic torch after lighting the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies for the 1984 Olympic Games at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.
(Steve Powell / Getty Images)

On that magical night of July 28, 1984, there were few more perfect choices to take that one small step for Los Angeles, that one giant leap for the Olympic movement.

It was exactly 25 years ago and Rafer Johnson was already an American hero.

From a childhood home in Texas with no plumbing or electricity, to the sugar cane fields of Oklahoma and the cotton fields of California’s Central Valley, Johnson grew into an Olympic gold medalist in perhaps the most grueling event of all, the decathlon.


That was 1960 in Rome, and few competitive moments in Olympic history match his duel with UCLA teammate C.K. Yang in the decathlon’s grand finale, the 1,500 meters.

After that, Johnson never stopped running and jumping. He took a leap into the world of Hollywood, appearing in movies alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Elvis Presley, even James Bond. Before the Rome Olympics, he had to choose between a top role in the movie “Spartacus” and a spot in the Olympics. Amateur sports officials would not let him do both.

Soon, he was darting into causes of racial harmony and community activism. He was among a handful of community leaders who started the Special Olympics movement in Southern California. This year was the 40th anniversary of that beginning.

In many ways, he was somebody who could always be counted on.

And so he was, shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in a kitchen area of the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, when Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot in the head. Rafer Johnson arrived seconds later to clamp his huge hand over the shooting hand and gun of Sirhan Sirhan. Sirhan had shot Kennedy three times and wounded five others.

Sixteen years later, on the night that the grand opening celebration, produced by David Wolper, would welcome the world to Los Angeles, the man who would carry the final torch and light the flame would be no stranger to the audience. There would be no need for Jim McKay and ABC to dig deep for biographical material.

Johnson and his wife, Betsy, drove their two young children to the Coliseum. Jennie was 11, Josh 9. They had no idea what they were about to see, or of the role their father would play in it.

“Betsy knew, and she was maybe the only one, at least until rehearsals started, outside of me and Peter Ueberroth and David Wolper,” Johnson says.

“A few weeks before the Games started, Peter called and said he wanted to see me. He sent a car. I sat down in his office and he asked me if I would be willing to be the final torch carrier.

“By the time his words left his breath and hit my ears, I had said yes.”

Johnson was ordered to keep it quiet. The media were chasing it and Ueberroth, who loved the intrigue, wanted it to be a surprise, as most final torchbearers are.

So Johnson said nothing to anybody except his wife, and began his workouts during a family vacation at Betsy’s parents’ home in Newport Beach.

“I got a couple of five-pound weights,” he says, “and I ran up and down inside a parking garage near Promontory Point. Betsy’s folks thought I was just working out.”


The gold medal

Running in parking garages was not unusual. Johnson never failed to prepare, and that work ethic, as well as a wealth of experience and experiences, could not be denied.

By the time he got to the 1,500 meters that night in Rome, he had been the world record-holder in the decathlon, had overcome all sorts of ailments and injuries and even a car accident in 1959, and had spent time on an Olympic podium. In 1956 in Melbourne, he got the silver in the decathlon.

As a child working in the fields, he got his foot caught in a conveyor belt and it tore much of the sole from the frame of his foot. The injury hurt him for years.

As a UCLA student, he played basketball for John Wooden’s teams in 1958 and ’59. As the student body president, he signed Wooden’s paycheck.

At UCLA, he was the first black student to pledge a national fraternity.

At Rome, he was the first black person to carry the U.S. flag in an Olympic opening ceremony.

So, when he stood along the line for the start of the decathlon 1,500, he was both exhausted and ready. He knew that Yang, his close friend, training companion and archrival, would win the gold if he finished 10 seconds in front of him. He also knew that the 1,500 was one of his worst events -- and one of Yang’s best.

He had his instructions from his coach, UCLA’s legendary Ducky Drake, who was also Yang’s coach.

“Ducky took me aside before the race,” Johnson says, “and he told me that C.K. would have a strategy, and that when he moved, I needed to move with him. He told me that if I felt good enough when I moved with him, I might even try and pass him.

“Of course, as I found out later, Ducky also had talked to C.K. He told him to keep watching where I was and to make sure I didn’t pass him.”

An exhausted Johnson stayed close enough to win the gold. At one point, Yang looked back as he was trying to move away.

“I was still there,” Johnson says, “and I smiled at him. C.K. told me later that when he saw me there, it frightened him, because I had never been that close before.”

Johnson says now that he had one crucial edge.

“I had decided I was done after this Olympics,” he says. “There would be no more decathlon. I could give it all in this one. And I did. I lost 15 pounds in the two days of the decathlon.”


The assassination

Johnson had met Robert F. Kennedy in 1960, when he was honored by the People to People program as athlete of the year at a ceremony in New York. Kennedy was the presenter, and Johnson mentioned to him that he would like to help out in the Peace Corps. Kennedy, determining that Johnson was serious, flew him back to the White House with him, and a friendship had begun.

Johnson campaigned for RFK in his 1968 presidential bid, and was just another tired worker that night at the Ambassador, as the group made its way through a downstairs kitchen area.

He was walking alongside Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, maybe 20 feet away from RFK, when he heard a sound like a popping balloon. Immediately, he knew it was more serious than that.

“I wasn’t quite close enough to be as panicked as everybody else,” Johnson says. “They had just heard the sound and had ducked. I had a clear view of the smoke coming from the gun and of Bobby falling.”

Johnson says he pushed Ethel to the floor and ran forward. He arrived about the same time as another Kennedy campaigner and nationally known athlete, Roosevelt Grier.

“Rosey was wrestling him down and I got my hand on Sirhan’s gun hand. It was clenched tight on the gun and then I had my hand covering his hand and I held on as tight as I could.”

Johnson recalls the chaos around him, recalls Grier on top of Sirhan so forcefully that there was no chance he would move, and recalls slowly prying Sirhan’s fingers off the gun and putting it in his coat pocket.

“I went to the hospital for a while,” Johnson says.

Then, he says, in shocked disbelief, he got in his car, drove home, took off his coat and set it next to the bed, where he fell asleep, still in his clothes, and woke a few hours later.

“I knew I needed to get back to the hospital,” Johnson says, “so I just grabbed my coat and was ready to head out when I realized my coat felt kind of heavy. I reached in and there was the gun.”

Johnson called the police. As Ueberroth would years later, they sent a car.


The torch

By 1984, Rafer Johnson was 48 years old. He is 73 now, and still doesn’t look much older than 48.

But in rehearsals for the opening ceremony, Wolper was making Johnson feel like an old man.

“He was used to doing movies, having things look like perfection,” Johnson says. “I was going to run a lap, then go up the steps and light the torch. He had it so I was supposed to be at Point A on the track as the music reached a certain place. And so on, all the way around.

“I couldn’t do it. I finally told him that if I got around that track the way he wanted me to, I wouldn’t be lighting the torch for the Olympics, I’d be running in the Olympics.”

That’s when a change was made to have Gina Hemphill, Jesse Owens’ granddaughter, run a lap and hand the torch to Johnson near the historic peristyle end of the Coliseum, where the steps led to the torch-lighting.

But there were other problems.

Long and gradual steps led to shorter and less gradual steps, which delivered Johnson at the bottom of a tall, less-than-stable ladder that headed on a steep angle to the top of the arch. Immediately above the arch were the Olympic rings, and a pipe that Johnson was to light that would send the flame swirling through the rings and up into the torch.

“Those steps were killers,” Johnson says. “I never got all the way up in rehearsals.”

Each step was white, each was narrow. The ladder tended to rock if Johnson didn’t stay in the center. So he had them paint black dots in the center of each step, and two dots in the center of the top step.

Still, he wasn’t comfortable with his stability at the top of the makeshift ladder, and he requested some sort of handrail at the top. Johnson says Wolper and some of his staff protested that that would spoil the artistic value of photos taken at the very moment he stood at the top and ignited the flame.

“I asked them what would be a worse picture,” Johnson says. “Me holding on to something or me falling headfirst down to the floor of the Coliseum?”

Workers drilled a 36-inch fiberglass pole that stood to his left as he faced the crowd and gave him a handhold.

“If they hadn’t done that,” Johnson says, “I would have fallen off the top.

“When I got up there, and I turned and saw the crowd, saw that view, and there was nothing behind me, and I’m standing on something about a foot wide, I know I would have fallen. I can’t even explain the feeling. My heart was pounding in my cheeks. I felt like I was going to die.”

Interestingly, the descent presented nowhere near the anguish of the trip up. They pushed a button, the stairs slowly folded, and Johnson rode them down.

Just before they had arrived at the Coliseum, Rafer and Betsy had told Jennie and Josh that dad would be involved in something special that day, that he would light the torch at the end, so they needed to watch closely.

“They were pretty young, and I don’t think they understood that much about it,” Johnson says. “I think they kind of thought, big deal, running around with a torch.

“But after they saw it, and they saw people around me and saw me signing autographs, they hung a little closer. It was like Dad was special.”

He was, indeed.