Putting His Olympic Story Over the Hurdles : 'It's an Experience That Should Be Told,' Says Organizer Peter Ueberroth

Times Staff Writer

With the possible exception of sex, it has all the makings of a formula top-seller: politics, intrigue, business strategy, sports, international diplomacy, patriotism and a team spirit that doesn't stop.

It is also the story of overcoming adversity, of proving the naysayers wrong.

And it doesn't hurt that the tale has not only a very happy ending but a strong central character: one who inspires boundless loyalty from those who have worked with him, one who "you know is in the trenches with you," as one aide remembered. "You know," the aide added, "he would never ask you to do something he wouldn't do himself."

Mutual Admiration

On the other hand, the admiration is quite mutual. Respect for the 72,000 staff people he assembled to work under him is one of the main reasons that former Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee President Peter Ueberroth says he decided to write a book, set for publication this fall by William Morrow. Morrow said it paid Ueberroth a six-figure advance, but a company spokesman said it was not that firm's policy to reveal or confirm an exact figure.

"Basically I think it's a story that should be told," Ueberroth said, "because 72,000 people knew they had their country's reputation at stake, and they performed an incredible task. There were many superstars who were unsung, and I'm in the best position to point them out and talk about them."

Ueberroth said he began thinking about a book as early as when the Games were in progress. But it wasn't until afterward, not until the XXIII Olympiad's astonishing surplus of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars was announced, that Ueberroth was able to slip away for a two-week vacation with his wife, his children, his secretary of 16 years, Sherry Cockle, and his tape recorder.

"We'd work about three hours in the morning and three hours in the late afternoon," Ueberroth said. "I'd dictate it into a machine, and then Sherry would transcribe it."

"Having been my assistant and my brain for 16 years, she knew my every move, she knew where I was at any given time and could correct things like dates, and she knew things like how to spell people's names," Ueberroth said. She also knew where to put the punctuation, a grammatical reality Ueberroth said he has tended to ignore in committing his thoughts to tape.

As for co-writers, "I have a couple of people who are helping to polish it, to refine it," he said. "And then there is the editor, Bruce Lee."

He entertained several offers of publication before deciding on Morrow, Ueberroth said, in part because editor Lee, a former president of the U.S. Sailing Assn. and one-time member of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Yachting, "had Olympic experience. He understands the Olympic arena."

In Ueberroth's mind, that arena all but spans the globe, encompassing meetings with the Pope, Presidents Carter and Reagan, the 1980 U.S. Olympic boycott, the 1984 Soviet bloc boycott and so many trips to Switzerland that Ueberroth probably qualified for a special marathon mileage award.

But Ueberroth's Olympic sphere also comprises business savvy that has led some to dub him the Lee Iacocca of the Olympic world.

First Private Group

Because the International Olympics Committee had waived Rule 4 of its charter, the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics became the first Games to be run by a private organizing committee rather than by a host city or nation. Ueberroth opened the Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee on, as if he could forget this date, "April Fool's Day, 1979," with his own $100 deposit in a then-barren bank account and a staff that numbered zero.

A former travel executive and a one-time aspiring U.S. Olympic water polo player himself, Ueberroth's professional background was nonetheless in business, not sports. To some extent, he said, his book will be "The Peter Ueberroth Story," tracing his personal history. But also, Ueberroth said, the book will center on his "special management styles," and while stopping short of being a how-to manual--"I always think of those as sort of 'how-to-hang-a-screen-door' "--will "hopefully be applicable" to "business and private lives, any type of venture or challenge."

But Ueberroth said he would focus also on "some of the doomsday predictions that we heard for five years--that's virtually all we heard, every day--and on the strength of the people to keep moving ahead against all those dire predictions. We heard we would be creating mountains of debt, that we'd create traffic jams that would never unscramble, and that terrorism would be the byword of each day."

And so, Ueberroth, said of his still untitled manuscript "it's a book about patriotism and the fact that when you get a group of Americans together who are determined and you structure it right, you can accomplish anything."

In part, Ueberroth concedes, his book will also be a kind of love letter to his mammoth staff. Mostly, however, "I think since I was a key architect in the Games, not the key architect, but a key architect, I think it's important that what actually happened is told."

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