UCLA will pay tribute to the life of beloved Bruin Rafer Johnson, a two-time Olympic medalist who helped found the Special Olympics and worked to advance social justice, during campus’s homecoming week Oct. 17 through Oct. 23. Johnson died in December 2020 at the age of 86 having left behind a legacy that continues to transform lives.
There will be a variety of tributes and activities, including a UCLA Connections conversation featuring former gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field (register for the Rafer Johnson UCLA Connections event), and an in-person celebration, both of which are open to the UCLA community and the general public.
Following a storied athletic career that culminated with a gold medal in the Olympic decathlon in 1960, Johnson dedicated his life to public service, a mission he carried out with a strength and grace he said was shaped in part by his experiences at UCLA.
“That commitment to helping others get over the hurdles in life — be they racial discrimination or developmental disabilities — was clearly a driving force for Rafer,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to the UCLA community following Johnson’s death. “He reminds us that everyone needs the help of others at times and that all of us can extend our help to others as well. Helping those who need it may be the truest Bruin value of all.”
In 2016, Block presented Johnson with the UCLA Medal, UCLA’s highest honor, in recognition of his decades of leadership in the Special Olympics and unwavering efforts supporting equality for all.
On Tuesday, Oct. 19, join fellow Bruins and sports enthusiasts online for a lively UCLA Connections discussion celebrating Johnson and his legacy. The event will begin at 11 a.m. and be moderated by former UCLA gymnastics head coach Valorie Kondos Field.
The conversation, “Greater than Gold: The Life and Legacy of Rafer Johnson,” will include Damion Thomas, sports curator from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and UCLA alumna Kaiya McCullough, social activist and former UCLA and National Women’s Soccer League player.
On Thursday, Oct. 21 at 4 p.m., UCLA will hold an in-person celebration of life honoring Johnson at the Betsy and Rafer Johnson Track at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. Speakers and guests will include Johnson’s wife Betsy, daughter Jenny Johnson Jordan, as well as the chancellor. Also speaking will be:
- Martin Jarmond, the Alice and Nahum Lainer Family Director of Athletics
- Dan Guerrero, former athletics director
- Jazz Kiang, ASUCLA board of directors member
- Dustin Plunkett and Bill Shumard, Special Olympics representatives
- Mike Warren, former UCLA basketball player and member of the UCLA Hall of Fame
- Ann Meyers Drysdale, Basketball Hall of Fame inductee
- John Naber, four-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming
- Renata Simril, president and CEO of the LA84 Foundation
The event, which should last about an hour, is free and open to the public. RSVPs are not required. Though the event will be outdoors, guests are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering.
Johnson’s family also will be honored at the UCLA football game on Oct. 23 during the first quarter break at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. On campus, banners will mark key moments in Johnson’s life, a reminder of his lasting impact on so many.
As well, the UCLA Alumni Association has created a Rafer Johnson tribute website for all to contribute stories, memories, and uplifting words about Johnson’s legacy.