In 1932, when the world was broke and there couldn't have seemed a greater irrelevancy, the Olympic Games were staged in Los Angeles.
Doubters abounded. The notion of a world festival of sport at a time when bank presidents were selling apples on street corners, unemployment was rife and veterans were marching on Washington in search of money to buy bread seemed incongruous. Sponsors were urged to cancel the Games and to hold them in abeyance until something called "recovery"--whatever that was--took place.
Countries sent wires that they could not spare the capital to send athletic teams. Some could not even afford the sea fare. Hardly any could afford the food and lodging.
In Germany, a noisy but still minor politician, Adolf Hitler, got the appropriation for the Olympics kicked out of the Reichstag budget. An L.A. Olympic official travelled over to get President Hindenburg to reinstate it. Mussolini thought so little of the Olympic Games that he traded away, to Japan, the 1940 Games that Italy had been awarded. They were, of course, held nowhere in 1940.
The 1932 organizers promised the world they would construct an Olympic Village in L.A. to house athletes at almost no cost. They told Brazilian teams to pay their passage by bringing coffee with them, which the organizing committee would sell for them. Other countries brought goods, artifacts, even wine that was illegal in this country then.
The organizing committee had only one million dollars--a state bond issue--to stage the Games. With it, they built, among other things, some 650 Olympic dwellings in the Baldwin Hills--at a cost of $165 apiece. They laid out five miles of street with a borrowed road grader, and built kitchens featuring the peculiar cuisine of each country present.
It was an audacious, innovative idea. It revolutionized the Olympic Games. It shocked the world, then amused it. A multi-million dollar deficit was freely predicted. Even our own country tried to sabotage the event. Chicago tried to steal it at the 11th hour.
Those crazy people in Los Angeles were the butt of jokes. At the time, it was considered that Los Angeles consisted of Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse and not much else.
But the Games were an enormous success. A non-profit committee of 21 highly placed Los Angeles businessmen put personal rivalries behind them to underwrite the Games. And the Games were not only staged as announced, they returned a profit of $1.3 million to the people of Los Angeles at their conclusion.
L.A. had saved the Olympic movement.
We dissolve now to 1984. Once again, Los Angeles had the Olympic Games. No one else wanted them--including, as it happens, many Americans. Our own politicians warned of burdens to the taxpayers, of traffic snarls, health hazards. Newscasters and newspapers suggested that L.A. was out of its mind. Terrorism would have a field day.
The White House turned down request after request for financial aid. Which was ironic because, after its boycott of the Moscow Games, it went around the world offering to subsidize something called "Alternative Games" at American taxpayers' expense. There were no takers. The world was not up to offending Russia at any price.
The Games-Nobody-Wanted were held up in the public eye to be combination of Rosemary's Baby and a social disease. People spoke of them in embarrassed terms. Politicians gave them a wide berth.
It was considered a good idea to send them back where they came from. There was precedent for this: when the 1976 Winter Olympics had been awarded to Denver, it kicked off an environmental uproar. A referendum was put on the ballot and the citizenry, throughly scared by the media, turned them back to the IOC with a firm, No Thanks. The little town of Innsbruck, Austria, took in the orphan Olympics and put them on quite nicely without noticeably polluting the Alps.
It wouldn't have taken much to get L.A. to turn back the '84 Summer Olympics. The scare mongers were out in force. The politicians, as usual, hid in a closet. The vocal ones were four-square against the Olympics. They were "saving the taxpayers' money," etc., etc. The others took no stand at all.
The International Olympic Committee itself bedevilled the L.A. Games. They periodically hinted they might revoke them. But they were bluffing. They had no place to put them. Their last option, Iran, had disappeared with the Shah. With him gone, the Games had about as much chance of going to Tehran as Ronald Reagan. Like Mussolini and Hitler, Khomeini had priorities that didn't include hosting a world youth sports festival.
The final indignity was dumped on the L.A. Games when the Soviet Union pulled out and took most of its captors with it.
It came as no surprise to anyone who knew the regime and system. The hallmark of Communism has always been its implacability. But this didn't stop smug sportscasters from confidently predicting this was just a ploy, that the Russians were coming. Have no fear.
It they didn't, of course, this was supposed to be the death knell for the Games. They would dwindle to being just "a track meet."
What the world forgot was that the Russians had not even been part of the Olympic movement in the first place until 1952.
They hadn't been at Los Angeles in 1932, either, and these were outstanding Games. They hadn't been to Berlin in '36, either, and those Games were an athletic and artistic success.
So were the 1984 Games. None of the dire prophecies came true. The only traffic tie-up was between Mary Decker and Zola Budd. The taxpayers will not be paying for the Olympics for the next hundred years. The Games made mor money than General Motors. In fact, they made so much they brought the politicians out of the closet to demand an explanation of how dare they make money.
L.A. had saved the Olympic movement again. As the French say: "The more things change, the more they are the same thing".
I expect in 2036, after another 52-year span, the Games will have run aground again. And a pack of L.A. businessmen will have to get together and bail them out again.
It's not that they're geniuses. It doesn't take a genius to know that something that only comes around once every four years and has the attention of the whole world for two-and-a-half weeks is a very valuable property.
But how many times do we have to keep showing the world that?