Living History - An Interview with Rafer Johnson

Founder and Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist, Rafer Johnson, tells us about his history with Special Olympics and how the movement has opened the doors of acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.


How did you become involved with Special Olympics?

I was in New York in 1961 to receive an award, where I met U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. When I gave my acceptance speech, I talked about my desire to help others and improve the lives of the less fortunate. After the presentation, Robert Kennedy invited me to Washington, DC to meet President John F. Kennedy and Sergeant Shriver. In subsequent years, I formed a friendship with the Kennedy family. I became more aware about what Eunice Kennedy Shriver was doing to help people with intellectual disabilities by setting up sports camps and giving them opportunities to be the best they could be. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Eunice approached me about becoming more involved in the Special Olympics movement. She persuaded me to participate as a way to continue Bobby’s legacy. So, I joined the first Special Olympics, Inc. Board of Directors and led a delegation of 40 California athletes and coaches to the first International Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968.

Are there other reasons that you continue to be involved with Special Olympics?

I came from a small town of about 2,500 people in Kingsburg, California. I knew back in high school that there was no way that I could succeed unless somebody else helped me and took an interest in me. Most people think they can do it on their own but I had the help of townspeople, coaches, business owners, everybody helping me and encouraging me to compete at higher levels. I thought about our special athletes and that they deserved the same opportunities that I did. They needed people to take an interest in them to help them to be the best that they could be.

What can you tell us about the first office, which opened in Long Beach?

It was a little divided room, no bigger than 20 x 20, which was on Fourth Street above the boardwalk. I'd ride the rollercoaster every time I went down there. In 1969, we were called Western Special Olympics and soon after became California Special Olympics when other states established chapters of their own. Some of the first board members were me; Craig Dixon (track coach at UCLA); Ed Arnold (representing the California Jaycees); Pat Grover of ARC; Tom Fitzsimmons with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks; and Dr. John Perry, who was the Los Angeles Rams team physician. We knew we were charting new territory with no real roadmaps to follow. We just wanted to do it right.

What role do you think Special Olympics has played in changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities?

Special Olympics changed the whole landscape. I remember on the first trip I made to Chicago in 1968 there was a little group from Canfield, Connecticut. They were athletes and were also part of a choral group who sang the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard. I talked with the people in Connecticut who worked with those athletes to see how they were caring for the children. Their approach seemed ahead of its time. Back then, there was a stereotype of people with intellectual disabilities. Most were institutionalized and people had preconceived notions of what they could or couldn't accomplish. Through Special Olympics, whole lives were changed. Athletes moved from institutions and were being considered as people with skills and abilities. Living conditions changed, and group homes were established. Special Olympics athletes started rooming with other athletes and people became real champions of Special Olympics. Employers who had jobs available started hiring our athletes in numbers that had never been seen before. Schools changed, and now Special Olympics athletes are going to regular schools and are mainstreamed. Whole lives have been changed through our movement.

We understand that even the way the media portrayed our athletes has changed?

I remember that in the early days people didn't consider Special Olympics as a sport. Special Olympics athletes were considered as less than at sports, and it wasn't typically reported on a sports page. Early on, they would not even photograph athletes from the front and shot them from behind thinking their images might offend readers. Then things started to change and photographers and reporters covered our athletes just like any other. Now, we're getting national and international coverage, and almost everyone knows about Special Olympics.

Was it difficult to get others to support the Special Olympics movement?

In the early days, yes. Eunice’s idea was to get the individual at whatever level they were and help them become the best they could be. I remember going before Congress with Eunice and a representative telling us that it wasn't fair that you'd only have one or two winners--you'd still have 20 losers and make people feel bad. Mrs. Shriver explained that for the first time they had a chance to be a winner. Everyone had a chance to do the best they could. She said we give participant medals and ribbons to everyone who took part. Everyone went away with something, and we gave them something more to strive for. Her vision and dedication have made a powerful impression on my life and given me the ability to impact our special athletes.

What lies ahead for Special Olympics Southern California and its athletes?

Of course the economy is hurting everyone. Everyone is touched by it. So that is why we have to continue to be focused on doing what we do best--provide sports training and competition for people with intellectual disabilities. Our international, national and local events are getting the right publicity, and people are writing about and understanding the needs of our athletes, which is really helping our cause. When I started, people just wanted to be helpful. Now we have people who are doctors, lawyers, nurses and experts who are studying intellectual disabilities and providing much-needed support so that our athletes can do well. Special Olympics has been so successful because we've had good professional leadership and a strong, dedicated group of volunteers. These are two good reasons why this organization will continue to succeed.

Created by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation. Authorized and Accredited by
Special Olympics, Inc. for the Benefit of Persons with Intellectual Disabilities.

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