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Appreciation: Rafer Johnson was more than a great athlete; he was a great man

1960 Olympic Decathon Gold Medalist Rafer Johnson speaks at a brunch.
1960 Olympic decathon gold medalist Rafer Johnson speaks at a brunch on April 30, 1997.
(Los Angeles Times)

Rafer Johnson’s body had grown weak but his spirit was undimmed the last time he attended a Special Olympics breakfast at Long Beach State. That was a year ago — or maybe two years, Tai Babilonia guessed, since she had seen him at a meeting of the organization that gripped his heart since he founded its Southern California chapter in 1969.

The precise date escaped her after she learned of Johnson’s death Wednesday, lost in her grief but comforted by memories of his selflessness and humility. His Olympic decathlon medals — silver in 1956 and gold in 1960 — were testament to his extraordinary athletic talent. His work with Special Olympics and other advocates for the sick and unfortunate testified to his extraordinary generosity.

“He was so frail but he was there,” Babilonia, a two-time Olympic pairs skater who became involved with Special Olympics at Johnson’s urging, said of that gathering. “That just tells you so much about the man and his passion and his strength and everything about Rafer.

“Rafer Johnson inspired me to be the best that I could be. He’s at the top of the mountain for me. What a loss, but what a life. And what a family.”

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Johnson’s children, Jenny and Joshua, knew little of their father’s athletic feats while they grew up. He had saved his memorabilia but didn’t display anything at the family’s Sherman Oaks home. When the kids were studying the ancient Olympics at school and asked him if he had anything they could bring in, he had to dig his souvenirs out of storage.

Johnson didn’t value his life by his dust-catching trophies. He was comfortable with who he was and his achievements as an athlete, and well as an organizer and memorably elegant torch-lighter of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “We preferred to display the kids’ stuff,” he said while striding along Bondi Beach before Jenny’s beach volleyball match at the 2000 Summer Olympics. “To me, it was more important to build their pride.”

A look back at The Times’ coverage of the life of Rafer Johnson, who died Wednesday at 86.

Jenny Johnson Jordan is now associate beach volleyball coach at UCLA. Joshua Johnson, a three-time Bruin all-America javelin thrower, is managing director at a commercial real estate firm. “Whatever I’ve learned from him has been more by example than anything else,” Jenny said in 2000.

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When Johnson retired from the board of LA84, the youth-focused foundation established with profits from the 1984 Olympics, the organization pondered ways to honor him. LA84 President Renata Simril, whose candidacy had been strongly supported by Johnson, deeply admired him and wanted to recognize the remarkable scope of his life. She was surprised when she asked Johnson’s wife Betsy to contribute memorabilia for an exhibit and was told they had nothing at hand.

“When I asked him about that, when he came to see the exhibition before we opened it publicly, he said he wanted to be a father to his kids. He didn’t want to be the Olympian, the humanitarian. He wanted to give them space to be their best self and not to be overburdened, if that’s the right word, by who he was as a person and as an athlete,” said Simril, who worked with Johnson on coverage of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games during her brief stint as an executive at The Times.

“He was just a dad. He always wanted to shine his light on other people and he said in his book [published in 1999] that he always used his God-given talent to be the best that he could, and he was. He just wanted to use his God-given talent to help everybody be the best they could be.”

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The exhibition, titled “Rafer Johnson: His Life. His Impact,” opened at the LA84 Foundation’s headquarters in 2019. The building is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the display of his shoes, photos, and other wonderful memorabilia remains in place.

“We had a big celebratory Sunday brunch to unveil the exhibition and I called him a couple days later just to check in with him,” Simril said. “He got quiet and reflective. He said, ‘You know, Renata, you and the LA84 foundation, at the exhibition, helped me realize that I made a life.’ I like to say we gave him his flowers while he was still with us.”

He didn’t build a brand, as many athletes do. He wasn’t an influencer by the current definition of someone who can sell products or sway public opinion. Good on those who do and on athletes who use social media to encourage voting and social justice. “Rafer wasn’t about him. He wasn’t about the limelight,” Simril said. “He was about quietly making a difference and inspiring people through his actions, not his words, not through press releases or about ‘See me, see me.’”

He had an unexpectedly powerful impact on Babilonia. He pulled her aside at an event they attended in the early 1980s and asked what she was up to; she was then performing in the Ice Capades with partner Randy Gardner. “Rafer said, ‘Tai, with all that you’re doing — and that’s great and it’s wonderful — don’t ever forget to give back and to always pay it forward.’ And I had never heard the term pay it forward before,” she said. “That’s when I got involved in Special Olympics. … It was Rafer Johnson who planted that seed and it changed my life.

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“He’s just this bright light. It’s a little dim right now, but for me it shines so brightly.”

Rich Perelman, vice president of the 1984 LA Olympic organizing committee and editor of thesportsexaminer.com, knew Johnson was ailing but had difficulty accepting Johnson’s death. “It sounds so trite but he’s Rafer Johnson. He’s not supposed to get old. He’s not supposed to pass away. He’s eternal. And in a lot of ways he will be eternal,” Perelman said.

“I hope that people will remember not that he was a gold medalist, which he was, gold and silver medalist. ... This is a guy who achieved much more in his life after his athletic career than he did during his athletic career and how many great, iconic Olympic athletes can we say that about? He was the absolute embodiment of a living legend. There are very few people who you can say are literally legends in their own time.”

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Rafer Johson’s last race was run long ago. May the memory of Johnson the person live on.


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