Rafer Johnson speaks at Special Olympics torch relay in Westwood on July 23, 2015.
After 47 years with the Special Olympics, UCLA alumnus and Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson is in many ways the voice of the movement.
He helped found Special Olympics with Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, and knows first-hand all the ways that it’s changed. If you ask him about the differences between the first international event in Chicago and the 2015 Special Olympics World Games this summer in Los Angeles, he doesn’t focus on how it’s grown from two countries to 165, or 1,000 athletes to 6,500. Instead, he’ll tell you how he believes Special Olympics has transformed attitudes about those with intellectual disabilities.
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President and CEO of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games
“There was very little done for people with intellectual disabilities,” Johnson says. He recalls visiting group homes where patients sat listlessly in corners with nothing to do, because no one believed they were capable of more. “Now, doctors are validating their experiences. Parents aren’t hiding kids in shame. There are programs to help them get jobs — that was almost unimaginable when we started. We’ve got a ways to go, but perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities have changed.”
The games will be the largest international event in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympics, and a triumphant return to UCLA, which hosted the third Special Olympics in 1972, countless practices before that, and more than 20 statewide competitions. An estimated 3,500 of this summer’s Special Olympics athletes will stay in the Olympic Village at UCLA, one of the main venues for the summer games.
Despite the magnitude of the event, Johnson’s focus has always been on the athletes. When Shriver asked for Johnson’s help in an era when families often hid relatives with disabilities, the plan to give that population a chance spoke to him.
“Being a person of color, it was very clear to me that sometimes decisions and opinions are falsely made about people based upon their color or position in life,” says Johnson, who is a board member for this summer’s games.
“Imagine the number of lives that Rafer Johnson has touched,” said Patrick McClenahan, president and CEO of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. “The perceptions he has changed towards people with intellectual disabilities has been remarkable. Rafer Johnson is a national treasure.”
Rafer on the Special Olympics movement
Through his work with Special Olympics, Johnson has witnessed “minor miracles,” he said, and shared a stirring example. At a championship meet in Arizona, he placed a medal on a young woman who had just won the 50-yard dash. She waved across the track, saying “Look, Mom! Look, Dad! I won!” Johnson saw her family in tears, and asked the young woman to introduce him. She introduced him to her parents, siblings, aunts and uncles — each of whom broke down in sobs upon being introduced.
“I thought, ‘There’s something really special going on here,’ and I asked the mother, ‘Would you mind telling me what’s happening?’” Johnson said. “She said, ‘Mr. Johnson, when our daughter waved from the podium and said Look, Mom! Look, Dad! I won! those were the very first words we’d ever heard her utter.’ Now that to me is a miracle.”
The origins of Special Olympics date back to 1963, when it was a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities held at Shriver’s home in Maryland. Johnson, a 1959 UCLA graduate, became the link between the Special Olympics and UCLA. Johnson, who medaled in the Olympic decathlon in 1956 (silver) and 1960 (gold), was approached by Shriver regarding the games, and Johnson joined Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign for president. In 1968, with a month to go before the first international Special Olympics, Johnson not only witnessed Kennedy’s assassination but also helped wrestle Sirhan Sirhan down and turned the gun over to police.
“I went home and that was going to be it for me. My mind was blank … I wasn’t even thinking about the games,” Johnson said. But days later Shriver reached out and inspired him to return, for the athletes and Kennedy’s legacy. “Mrs. Shriver called me and said, ‘The meet’s going to go on and we want you there.’ I think it was the first phone call I picked up. And I told her I’d be there.”
Johnson, who turns 80 in August, is a special assistant to the UCLA athletic director. He describes UCLA as his home base. The campus hosted many practices, meets and statewide competitions after Johnson founded the California Special Olympics in 1969. It was in part due to his influence that UCLA hosted the 1972 international games, which took place in some of the same facilities that will play a role in 2015, including Drake Stadium and the Student Activities Center.
Even after 47 years with the Special Olympics, “I’m not finished by a long shot,” Johnson says.
“Like anything else, change will come, but if you have people interested in making things different and making things better, then there’s going to be change faster,” Johnson said. “I became the best I could be because someone helped me … and I want to give something back.”