While I was in China last week, I noticed that the media were doing the same dance they do in the U.S. They paid lip service to the Olympic ideal -- the Games as a moment when humanity puts politics aside to honor youth, talent and noble competition -- but their hook was national pride stirred by relentless images of Houston Rocket Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang. Meanwhile, the hard news was in all the business stories on the wished-for effect on the economy.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not casting aspersions here. I have fond memories of the summer of 1984, when the Olympic Games were held right here in Los Angeles. That summer, I'm not ashamed to say -- OK, maybe a little bit -- I cynically exploited my countrymen's patriotism for my own financial gain: I sold American flags outside the Memorial Coliseum.
No, I wasn't one of those licensed souvenir vendors working under the auspices of Peter Ueberroth and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Nor did I make the kind of bucks that Nike is pulling in in China. It was the summer between high school and college, and I was an independent contractor getting his first lesson in capitalism.
My oldest brother had a college buddy from Beverly Hills who had bought a load of American flags wholesale. He recruited cash-hungry salesmen -- like me -- to peddle Old Glory around Exposition Park. Our supplier wanted a dollar back for each flag we sold and suggested that the retail price should be $2. It sounded good -- we had thousands to sell -- but that's before I learned the risks of unlicensed street vending, and a little bit about consumer behavior.
At first I hawked the flags to people walking through the USC campus on their way to the Coliseum. I straddled the line between USC property and the public sidewalk. When the university guards asked me to leave their premises, I moved to the sidewalk. When the LAPD asked me to leave the sidewalk, I hopped back to USC. This system worked great as long as the guards and the police didn't come around at the same time, which of course they eventually did.
On what was probably the second day, a very grouchy -- and evidently anti-entrepreneurial -- LAPD officer threatened to arrest me if he had to warn me "one more time." So I headed across Exposition Boulevard, where the climate was even more unfriendly. There, I had to deal with the burly Coliseum security staff. They fortunately wore canary yellow windbreakers so you could see them coming at you from far off. These guys didn't give warnings. They just chased you off the property and into the street and oncoming traffic. Suddenly, I realized that the cost of doing business had gone up, and figured that my profit margin had to follow suit.
By that time, I had figured out that the USOC-approved flags, mostly sold inside the Coliseum, were all-plastic numbers that cost more and were less sturdy than the wooden sticks and cloth flags that I was pushing. I started telling my potential customers that I was their last chance to get "real" flags, not the expensive flimsy ones they would find inside. The closer I actually got to the Coliseum turnstiles and the lousy competition, the more I felt I had a right to charge more. I ended up demanding four bucks a pop.
I didn't exactly earn my freshman tuition, but the wads of singles in my green Bermudas bought a lot of beer for my brother and me at Julie's Trojan Barrel on Figueroa. And we eventually got really lousy scalped tickets to a track and field event. But that Olympic experience paled in comparison to my flag-selling adventure. Every four years, the Olympics offers up wonderful images of heroism and excellence, but on the ground, it also gives plenty of people a powerful look at what it means to turn a profit.