Rafer Johnson Chosen Parade Grand Marshal

Rafer Johnson spoke at Olympics Days at Palisades Elementary on Tuesday.
Rafer Johnson spoke at Olympics Days at Palisades Elementary on Tuesday.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

It’s hard for Rafer Johnson to believe 44 years have passed since he stood on the victory platform in Rome and, with the national anthem playing, had a gold medal placed around his neck. Johnson had just won an epic decathlon at the 1960 Summer Olympics and he remembers that moment like it was yesterday. ‘It’s one of those things you never forget, especially because I had to work so hard for so long to achieve that goal,’ said Johnson, who has been chosen as grand marshal for this year’s Fourth of July parade in Pacific Palisades. ‘Actually, finishing second in 1956 [in Melbourne] made me realize that no matter how hard you work, there are no guarantees. I learned more from winning the silver than I did from winning the gold four years later.’ Arnie Wishnick, executive director of the Palisades Chamber of Commerce, knows a personal friend of Johnson’s and suggested he ask the former decathlete to consider being grand marshal. Johnson was quick to accept the invitation. ‘I’m really looking forward to that,’ said Johnson, who lives in Sherman Oaks with his wife, Betsy. ‘I rode in the Rose Parade four or five years ago and I enjoyed that experience. I’m a parade veteran, but I’m going to have my 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter, Jaylen, with me and it’ll be her first parade.’ Johnson was at Palisades Elementary Tuesday morning to participate in the school’s annual Olympics Day. ‘My daughter [beach volleyball player Jenny Johnson-Jordan] wanted to be here but she is busy trying to qualify for the Athens Olympics, so she asked me if I would come in her place,’ Johnson said, addressing the students and faculty. ‘As a father, I can honestly say the most difficult thing in the world is watching my daughter compete because there’s nothing you can do. You can only sit and watch.’ Johnson-Jordan is vying for her second Olympics, havingompeted at the 2000 Sydney Games. Rafer’s son, Josh, was a javelin thrower at UCLA. Prior to Tuesday, Johnson’s last public appearance in the Palisades was in December 1998, when he gave a talk at Village Books to promote his autobiography ‘The Best That I Can Be.’ The book’s title has been the underlying theme of his speeches and the message he tries to convey to kids through the 20 charity organizations he is involved in. ‘More important than winning a medal’whether it be gold, a silver or a bronze’is representing your country when the opportunity presents itself and being the best you can be,’ he said. Though winning Olympic gold was the highlight of his athletic career, Johnson considers lighting the torch at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles the defining moment of his life. ‘This year marks the 20th anniversary of those Games,’ Johnson said. ‘That was special because it was right here in our own backyard. What made that Olympiad so successful was the volunteers’over 10,000 in two weeks. And of course being the final torchbearer was the single biggest thrill of my life. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.’ Becoming a decathlete was Johnson’s goal since he was 15. As a high school junior and senior in Kingsburg, near Fresno, he won back-to-back state decathlon titles and earned a scholarship to UCLA. One of the most grueling competitions in sports, the decathlon consists of 10 track and field events over two days to determine the best all-around athlete. Competitors try to accumulate as many points as possible in the 100 meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110 meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meter race. After winning in Rome, Johnson was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. He used that victory as a springboard to launch the California Special Olympics in 1969, holding a competition at the L.A. Coliseum for 900 people with mental retardation. Johnson became chairman of the organization’s Board of Governors in 1992. ‘Of all the charities I support, Special Olympics will always be the closest to my heart because I helped found it and it’s so important that everyone feels loved and appreciated,’ said Johnson, who annually leads fundraisers for the March of Dimes and PAH (People Assisting the Homeless). ‘We all need to do what we can to help other people.’ Johnson cited the influx of steroids and increased security as the two biggest differences between athletes of his day and the present. ‘When I was competing, drugs were not an issue at all and we traveled pretty freely to the different venues. We didn’t even need to wear our I.D. badge to go in and out of the Village. That is obviously not the case anymore. I know safety is a big concern in Athens.’ As for the people he met through competition and travel, Johnson said boxing champion Muhammad Ali is one of his favorites. Like Johnson, Ali won a gold medal in Rome (in the light-heavyweight division), he lit the Olympic torch (at Atlanta in 1996) and is heavily involved in numerous charities. ‘He was Cassius Clay back then, before he changed his name,’ Johnson recalled Tuesday. ‘We were teammates on the U.S. team and both of us signed up with the same speakers bureau. We traveled all over the country after the Olympics and became very good friends. He was much more outspoken than me but I admired that because he said a lot of things I wanted to say. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.’