How Rafer Johnson made Olympic history in more ways than one

Johnson also played a role in lessening a tragedy in U.S. history

In this July 28, 1984, file photo, 1960 U.S. gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson carries the Olympic torch through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before lighting the Olympic flame and formally launching the 1984 summer games. (AP Photo/Peter Leabo, File) (Peter Leabo, 1984 AP)

While the world gets ready to see who China selects to light the cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics on Friday, the coinciding arrival of Black History Month is an appropriate time to look back on another significant cauldron-lighting moment in Olympic history.

At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Rafer Johnson became the first Black man ever to light the cauldron at an opening ceremony, according to teamusa.org.

While it’s easy to ask why Johnson was the one chosen for the honor, a more appropriate question is, “Why would anyone else have even been considered?”

Not only was Johnson one of the greatest American athletes of all time, but he played a role in quelling a tragedy in U.S. history.

In regards to his athletic prowess, Johnson was a star athlete in track and basketball at UCLA before going on to win a silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

In 1960, Johnson made history by becoming the first Black person to carry the flag for the United States at an opening ceremony of an Olympic Games, when he did so in Rome.

Johnson continued to make history at those Olympics, winning the gold medal in the decathlon.

Following those Olympics, Johnson started an acting career that saw him appear on TV shows such as “Lassie,” “Dragnet 1967,” “Mission: Impossible” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

Then came his role in helping to lessen what was already an American tragedy.

Johnson befriended U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s and worked on Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968.

Johnson was present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was shot by assailant Sirhan Sirhan following a campaign speech.

Kennedy died the next day.

Johnson, along with football player Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton, subdued Sirhan and prevented more gunfire from striking others at the gathering.

Roughly two weeks before the opening ceremony for 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, Johnson found out he was going to be the one to light the cauldron. He learned the news from Peter Ueberroth, the head of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.

Johnson took the torch from Gina Hemphill, the granddaughter of sprinting great Jesse Owens, and climbed 99 steps to ignite the cauldron.

To view the moment on YouTube, click or tap here.

“It was pressure,” Johnson told teamusa.org. “I was full of nerves and my heart was beating so fast that I could feel it beating in my forehead. It really was an unbelievable experience. There is nothing like it.”

Johnson died Dec. 2, 2020, at the age of 86, but his legacy in Olympic history is stamped forever.


About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.