One of Rafer Johnson’s most prized belongings, the torch he used to light the cauldron at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, remained in his possession for decades. Johnson, a two-time medalist in the decathlon, was the first African American to claim that honor, and he had no plans to part with the torch.
But several months ago, Johnson, 82, got a call from Damion Thomas, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, who hoped to persuade the Olympian to donate the torch. It didn’t take long for Johnson to agree.
“I think it’s important we share more instruments and artifacts that are presented for those who are . . . victorious in Olympics,” said Johnson, who won the gold in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and the silver at the 1956 Melbourne Games. “I think the Olympics will always be, in my mind, one of the most important sporting events. . . . So it’s just a matter of sharing what to me is an art piece.”
Johnson and Muhammad Ali are the only African Americans to have lighted the cauldron. And their legacies have transcended sports. “Rafer Johnson was . . . a bridge builder,” Thomas said. “He tried to reach out to the white communities and other communities.”
Johnson was also the first black man to carry the American flag at Opening Ceremonies, in 1960. He hopes the museum will highlight what some black athletes have had to overcome. The museum, he said, can “bring attention to the plight of how African Americans moved into positions where they had opportunities for the same rights. More will have an opportunity to see how some of that was done in the past and maybe how we can do it in the future.”
Item: Rafer Johnson’s 1984 Olympics torch and Opening Ceremonies uniform
Donor: Rafer Johnson
Museum exhibition: Sports
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