Rafer Johnson, Founder and Olympic Gold Medalist
"From the very start in 1969, I wanted to be a part of helping our Special Olympics athletes succeed. I wanted to be on Eunice Shirver's team as another set of eyes, another set of hands and a heart working to be there for them, finding a way to help them be the best they can be." -- Rafer Johnson
- Notable sports figure, commentator, and philanthropist
- World and Olympic record holder in the Decathlon
- 1956 Olympic Silver Medalist, Decathlon
- 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist, Decathlon
- 1984 Olympic Final Torch Bearer
Rafer Johnson, along with a small group of volunteers, founded California Special Olympics in 1969 by conducting a competition at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for 900 individuals with intellectual disabilities. Rafer’s involvement in Special Olympics began the year before, when he attended the first Special Olympics competition, conducted by Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. That event inspired Rafer to become more involved.
After the first California games in 1969, Rafer became one of the original members of the Board of Directors. The Board worked together to raise funds and offer a modest program of swimming and track and field. In 1983, Rafer ran for President of the Board to increase Board participation, reorganize the staff to most effectively use each person’s talents and expand fundraising efforts. He was elected president and served in that capacity until July 1992, when he was named Chairman of the Board of Governors.
Over the years, Rafer has been involved with scores of charities. However, he is most passionate about Special Olympics Southern California. Rafer was the USA Team Captain and Flag bearer at the Rome Games and was selected to light the Olympic Cauldron to open the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. He and his wife Betsy, reside in Southern California. His son, Josh, was a Javelin Thrower for UCLA and his daughter, Jenny, competed at the 2000 Sydney Games in Beach Volleyball.
1955 Pan American Gold Medalist, Decathlon
1956 Olympic Silver Medalist, Decathlon
1960 Olympic Gold Medalist and Record Holder, Decathlon
1960 Sport's Illustrated, Athlete of the Year
1960 Sport Magazine, Sportsman of the Year
1960 Sullivan Award, Outstanding Amateur Athlete
1960 Associated Press, Athlete of the Year
1960 American Flag Carrier on Opening Ceremony Day at the Olympics
1974 Inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame
1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Torch Lighter for Opening Ceremonies
1988 California Special Olympics "Spirit of Friendship" Award
1990 Elected to National High School Hall of Fame
1992 Humanitarian Award, Free Arts for Abused Children
1993 Rafer Johnson Junior High School Dedicated in Kingsburg, CA
1996 Lifetime Achievement Award, Cedars Sinai
1998 Autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, published
2009 Change-Maker Award, Children's Nature Institute
2009 Wooden Lifetime Achievement Award, Paralysis Project of America
2010 Fernando Award for Civic Accomplishment, Fernando Foundation
2011 Bakersfield City High School District Hall of Fame
In 2012, Rafer was honored with a prestigous recognition at the inaugural FCOE Honors gala on September 29. Each of the four individuals honored at this event have left their imprint on education in Fresno County in the areas of Academics, Agriculture, Athletics, or the Arts. In addition, Rafer now acts as the athletic advisor to Dan Guerrero, Director of Athletics at UCLA.
Read more about Rafer: In His Own Words and Living History - An Interview with Rafer Johnson