Why this matters
Anita Lucette DeFrantz and Kenneth Shropshire honor the life and legacy of Rafer Johnson.
Last Wednesday marked a sad day in the world of sport. Rafer Johnson, the iconic American decathlete, passed away at the age of 86.
Johnson’s life was marked by excellence. He was a star athlete at UCLA, who broke the decathlon world record during his freshman year and played basketball on John Wooden’s team. At the 1960 Olympics, in the midst of the civil rights movement, he became the first Black athlete to carry the U.S. flag and won the gold in the decathlon.
Following his iconic athletic career, Johnson befriended Robert Kennedy and joined him on the campaign trail. Johnson was in the audience during Kennedy’s victory speech following California’s Democratic primary. He and NFL star Rosey Grier tackled Kennedy’s assassin that fateful night.
Johnson was then recruited by Eunice Kennedy to establish the Special Olympics. He was one of the original board members and served as president for nine years. In 1992, he was elected as the Chairman of the Board of Governors.
In addition to his athletic accomplishments and public service and leadership, Johnson was also an actor and sportscaster. He seemed to be someone who had done it all.
Kenneth Shropshire recalls watching Johnson compete at UCLA while he was in elementary school. Not only was he heroic, but Shropshire says, “He was really this image of a stellar person who happened to be an Olympian.”
Johnson’s success as a Black man during the civil rights movement and desegregation was especially powerful and indicative of a transforming society. Shropshire notes, “He was this unique athlete who had a lot of pressure on him to be somebody special beyond the track.”
Even with this pressure, Johnson made a lasting impact on the world and individuals like Anita Lucette DeFrantz, a former Olympic rower, the first woman vice president of the IOC, and former president of the LA84 Foundation. She met Johnson while training for the Olympics and was in awe of his presence and spirit. “To have actually had the opportunity to shake his hand during the time when I was competing for a seat in the 8 made a world of difference to me,” she says.
At a 2019 exhibition celebrating Johnson’s accomplishments, she was able to tell him that he was her “north star” who inspired her in and beyond sport. “I knew that for a long time, but I hadn’t said it,” she says. “I had the chance to let him know how much he meant to me.”
Johnson’s legacy will live on, and he will be remembered by generations for his courage, excellence, and humanitarianism.
Anita Lucette DeFrantz's 2017 book "My Olympic Life: A Memoir" is available now.