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30 Years Ago Rafer Johnson Lit Up Los Angeles

By Amy Rosewater | July 28, 2014, 12:30 p.m. (ET)

Olympians Janet Evans and Rafer Johnson hold the 1984 Olympic torch during the United States Olympic Committee's Team USA Club Night at the Beverly Hilton hotel Feb. 7, 2014, in Beverly Hills, California.

Leading up to the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, there were all sorts of wild speculation about who would light the Olympic cauldron. With the Games being staged not far from Hollywood, and with a well-known TV producer named David Wolper arranging the Opening Ceremony, celebrities such as Michael Jackson were being bantered about in the same breath as Nadia Comaneci.

Fanning the flame was Peter Ueberroth, the head of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee who told reporters that there could be more than one person who would share the Olympic honor.

About two weeks before that Opening Ceremony, Rafer Johnson found out he was selected for the job but, of course, he couldn’t tell a soul. Johnson, an Olympic champion decathlete with strong ties to Los Angeles, having starred at UCLA, had been a strong candidate for the honor.

Rafer Johnson holds the torch to light the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad on July 28, 1984 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.

“Newscasters were making all sorts of predictions, and my name came up but so were lots of names,” Johnson said. “Then Peter said it could be it two people so people started rumors saying it would be me and Bruce Jenner.

“And there was even talk, because of David Wolper …” Johnson added with a laugh, “that it would be me with Elizabeth Taylor.”

But 30 years ago, on July 28, 1984, only a handful of folks knew for certain who would be handling the torch that day. Johnson let his wife, Betsy, in on the secret but they did not let their children catch wind of it.

Amidst a ceremony that featured 84 pianos, 2,500 pigeons and 10,000 singers, and President Ronald Reagan asking athletes to win “for the Gipper,” one of the most memorable moments was when Gina Hemphill, the granddaughter of Jesse Owens, running into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and handing off the torch to Johnson.

Johnson then had to traipse up 99 steps with the flame and ignite the cauldron in front of a crowd of about 90,000 in same stadium that hosted the Olympic Games back in 1932.

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

“I had rehearsed it but seeing the faces of the athletes up close just made my heart pound. I tell you, my heart was beating so hard I thought I was going to die. It was almost overwhelming.”

Johnson, a former star athlete at UCLA in both track and basketball, had earned a silver medal in the decathlon in 1956 and then a gold medal in 1960, and he knew plenty about pressure situations. And not just on the track. Following his Olympic career, Johnson was with then-Senator Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated and helped subdue the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan.

But there was a different kind of pressure of being asked to light the Olympic cauldron. Ueberroth had called Johnson to the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee offices a couple of weeks before the Opening Ceremony. Johnson, who had worked closely with the Games, wasn’t sure why he was called in for this particular meeting.

“The first thing that came out of his mouth was the Opening Ceremony and lighting the (cauldron) and before he finished his sentence I said, ‘Yes,’" Johnson recalled.

Johnson, who had competed in two Olympic Games, later watched his daughter, Jennifer, compete in beach volleyball in Sydney in 2000, and has traveled to several other Olympic Games, called the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, the “greatest Olympic Games ever held.”

He makes that declaration for several reasons. One is that the Games were on U.S. soil, and in 1984, the Los Angeles Games marked only the third time in history that the summer edition of the Games had been in the United States. They had been held previously in St. Louis (1904) and in Los Angeles (1932). Johnson also credited Ueberroth for making the 1984 Games profitable and for rescuing the Olympic Movement.

“Peter was totally brilliant in how he supported the Games, charities, the city of Los Angeles,” Johnson said.

The Opening Ceremony was the start of something very special for the United States, especially when one considers the incredible moments that would follow throughout the 16 days of those Games:

  • The United States dominated the competition, capturing 83 gold medals, 61 silver medals and 30 bronze medals for a total of 174 medals in Los Angeles. The United States garnered 197 medals when the Games were held 80 years earlier St. Louis (62 gold, 66 silver, 69 bronze).

  • Despite the fact that several Eastern bloc countries boycotted the Games in Los Angeles, a record 140 nations participated in the 1984 Games. More than 7,000 athletes competed in the 1984 Games.

  • Women shined in several new events as Joan Benoit won the inaugural Olympic marathon, Connie Carpenter-Phinney and American teammate Rebecca Twigg finished 1-2 in the first Olympic women’s cycling road race and rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming were added to the Olympic program.

  • Some of the memorable American performances came from Greg Louganis, who captured two gold medals in diving in Los Angeles; Mary Lou Retton, who became the first American woman to win the gymnastics all-around gold medal; Edwin Moses, who won his second gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles; and Carl Lewis, who became the second American track athlete to win four gold medals in one Olympic Games (Jesse Owens captured four in 1936).

  • Americans won nine of 12 gold medals in boxing, the men’s and women’s basketball gold medals, nine wrestling gold medals (seven in freestyle and two in Greco-Roman) and 21 gold medals in swimming.

The Hollywood-style fanfare all started 30 years ago when Johnson helped ignite the Olympic flame. His role in the Opening Ceremony was even grander in history than it was on that stage that afternoon. He made history as the first black man to light the Olympic cauldron. Johnson, of course, was not new to adding his name to the history books as he was the first black person to carry the flag for the United States in the Opening Ceremony in 1960.

At the Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles, he also made a very personal Olympic impact on his family. His daughter, now Jennifer Johnson Jordan, who was 11 at the time of the Opening Ceremony, has told him that she caught the Olympic bug when she saw her father climbing all of those steps.

Sixteen years later, she was competing in Sydney, and Rafer Johnson traveled Down Under to witness her Olympic journey.

“Watching her compete was much harder for me than competing myself,” Rafer Johnson said.

Jennifer Johnson Jordan recently returned to Southern California with her family and to become an assistant volleyball coach at UCLA. Rafer Johnson’s son, Josh, was a javelin thrower at UCLA.

These days, when Rafer Johnson is not spending time with his grandchildren, he keeps himself very busy with Special Olympics, a program with which he has been involved for decades dating back to his friendship with Robert Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded Special Olympics.

“I truly believe in the saying that we can all be the best we can be, and I am proud to be a part of Special Olympics,” Johnson said. “I always felt that I had some skills and ability but there is no way I’d be where I’d be today without help.”

Now 78, Johnson still works out at 5:30 a.m. four days a week for workouts at the track.

“It’s become a little more of a social group for me lately, but I still run,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not as fast as I was but I still run.”

And he still runs into many friends he made from the 1984 Games. On Monday, the 30th anniversary of his run to the top of steps in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he will be reunited with many stars from those Games at a gala at the LA84 Foundation, an organization that benefits youth sports and is part of the legacy of the 1984 Games.

He is hopeful that Los Angeles can reignite the Olympic Movement in the United States by hosting the Games once again, perhaps in 2024. Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. the four cities hoping to become the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Games.

“The ’84 Games were very special,” Johnson said. “I have none of my memorabilia from my Olympics in my house, but I know those Games in Los Angeles really touched my family and they touched me.”

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.