Ten days isn't a lot of time to prepare to be a grand symbol for people throughout the world. Yet that was the time Rafer Johnson was given to do the job. The call came on the evening of July 18. Highway patrol cars sped him to the office of Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee president Peter V. Ueberroth, where Ueberroth and opening ceremony producer David Wolper asked him to be torch-bearer for the L.A. Games.
Only those three knew Johnson's role, so his evenings were dominated by the torment of keeping a secret. They were also marked by deep thought: What does this mean? Am I worthy? "It was almost like I was getting ready for a competition," says Johnson. "I thought of many things. I tried to picture myself on top with the torch. I thought of that a lot."
In the mornings he'd practice. Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion, is still athletic, so he intensified his training by running stairs. But he did more than was necessary. "I think I attacked the stairs in the Coliseum too hard the first three or four days and I got slight shin splints," he says.
Johnson would go to the Coliseum at dawn to practice, or he'd become one of a parade of Olympians to work with the torch during rehearsals. "I ran those stairs four times before the opening ceremonies," he says. "I wanted to do it right. I'd hand the torch off to Bruce Jenner, and he'd run it and hand it off. There were a lot of athletes they were using, so it was a guessing game. Every time I ran the stairs there was a tremendous amount of emotion." Each time Johnson turned and faced the stadium floor, he shuddered.
The secrecy heightened the torch's symbolic properties: People were awaiting not some celebrity they'd read about in the morning paper, but the bearer of the flame. Then came the moment on July 28. For Johnson it wasn't like ascending the victory stand again, winning another contest. "The whole thing was bigger," he says. "I could see from the tunnel there was something special going on. As I ran I could see tears in the eyes of some of the athletes. I felt a part of all those great Olympians on the field. I was tied to all those in the stands. I think the torch run may be the great legacy of these Olympic Games. I think it tied us together and made it all warm—a feeling of binding us all together."
The man who now had become the focus—the link—made his way down the track and started to climb. He had been worried about a cramp in his thigh—a simple, human concern of the athlete, not one of the torchbearer—but at this moment he was thinking only of ascending. "I must say I was very, very fortunate," he says. "I had no problems at all." As he climbed the final steps, he brushed each stair with his hand to make himself absolutely steady. He heard the noise. "It had a tremendous, warm feeling, like in the closing ceremonies of the two Olympics I was in. We were all together. The hair on my arm was sticking straight out." Then he turned. He says, "I went home and thought, the next time I'm asked what was it like, what am I going to say? But I can't really put into words how I felt. That's the truth." But there was one clear thing: "I didn't feel myself as Rafer Johnson. I felt like the Olympian."
We are tempted in an Olympics to look past the athletics, or to make the athletes and their endeavors something other than they are. We often ask too much of the Games. We ask the gathering to prove things to us that are difficult to prove, instead of to simply affirm things to us that are true. Of course the Olympics were a success this year, that's beyond doubt. Lingering images tell us so. A champion weightlifter from the People's Republic of China holds aloft the hand of the third-place finisher from Chinese Taipei. The Olympic Village becomes overcrowded because the athletes who've finished their competitions don't want to leave. At the closing ceremony a large Australian flag is stretched taut and becomes a trampoline for riders of all nations.
Johnson, feeling bound to the thousands he can see and those he can't, ignited the flame. The whole world wasn't there, that's true, but the suspicion is that much of it wishes it had been. The torch-bearer doesn't hope to leave a monumental legacy but a simple one. Just think warmly of people tied together when you look at him, not the individual but the Olympian.
By the closing night it was clear the Games were worth celebrating—and perpetuating.