The Soviet Boycott: Out of Devastation Is Brought Success
Peter Ueberroth was on a plane flying with Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, from New York to Washington when the news flashed that the Soviets were boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics.
Harry Usher was in Los Angeles, on his way to see Police Chief Daryl Gates.
Most staff members of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee were just getting to work at the Marina Center shortly after 8:30 a.m. when suddenly the phones in the committee’s executive and press offices started ringing all at once. The press and others were calling from all over the world to get the committee’s reaction to the news bulletins.
David Israel, an aide, was with Ueberroth and Samaranch at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington when they actually got the word. Israel said there was a tip that something had happened, and he called the committee.
“I got (press aide Steve) Montiel on the phone. He says, ‘They’re going to boycott.’ I said, ‘What? Wait a minute! You sure?’
“Then Dolores Wood gets on and starts dictating the Pravda (statement) to me. And I’m sitting there taking it down in longhand on yellow legal pages. And Samaranch is reading over my shoulder. Finally, I get to this one sentence, and Samaranch blanches. He goes: ‘That’s it. It’s over.’ ”
The only one in a position of any authority in the committee’s executive offices when the boycott was announced was Don Matso, the newest group vice president.
“It had a staggering effect on the people who had been there a long time,” he said. “You could cut it. You could walk through those hallways . . . and it was a shock. They (the veteran staff) were absolutely committed to putting on the best damn Games that have ever been put on, under the circumstances, and now not to have a major, major force in terms of competition come, and the uncertainty of how widespread that was going to be, that was devastating.
“I sat up there that day, and there were a lot of people in senior management positions in that committee who came to me during that day and closed the door, and their attitude wasn’t, ‘Gee, it’s all over,’ but, ‘This sure changes the thing. This sure changes it.’ ”
To Chuck Cale, the group vice president for sports, the boycott announcement “was like somebody took a bucket of ice water and throws it in your face, and all of a sudden all your senses are heightened by the way that this has happened. There was a moment of disbelief.”
Maidie Oliveau in accreditations said: “The staff was devastated. I couldn’t believe it when I first heard. I just refused to believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. Everyone was really sad. And there were various stages that we went through. The first stage was just devastation, the second stage was anger, and the third stage was fight. It was very quick.”
Cale said it took about two days. By the third day, he said, the mood at the committee had turned around.
Israel said that with Ueberroth--unlike Samaranch, who couldn’t eat lunch after hearing the news--there never really was any devastation.
He said that late that night, after a brief meeting with President Reagan, countless telephone conversations and many press and television interviews, Ueberroth told him: “You know, we didn’t really stop to think about today, but we really made history, and this is a historical day, and we were right in the middle of it.”
Israel said: “That’s how he was looking at it. It’s like, this sort of got the juices going. First it was a shock, then it got the juices going, and what are we going to do next? And it was all putting the best possible face on it for the public.”
It soon became obvious that in many respects the boycott was a plus. Some even thought that it created the spirit that made the Games such a huge success, with the public and at the committee offices as well.
Richard Sargent said that as he accompanied the torch relay through sizable crowds in Connecticut the day after it was announced, “We’d see signs, you know, ‘To hell with the Russians’ and ‘Go America,’ and that kind of stuff. . . . In my opinion, anytime you push the Americans to the wall, that’s it.”
Oliveau said that with her parents, “all of a sudden, it was ‘we’ this, ‘we’ that, instead of ‘they.’ They thought it was a low (blow).”
Israel, when he got back, found the spirit at the committee sky high. “It was great for the chemistry of the place,” he said.
It was a tailor-made situation for Ueberroth. Usher said:"One of the great assists that could have possibly been received was the action of boycott by the Soviets, it really was.”
Committee member Robert Montgomery said: “The fact that the Russians withdrew . . . really did get Peter to be able to sing his theme about pull the wagon trains around because they’re coming after us. And people then pitched in and, really, it was a great unifying thing. It was fabulous for the success of the Games.”
Ueberroth, while conceding that the boycott probably contributed to the success, quickly added: “If I had my druthers, I would have had them there. I would have liked to have sent home a thousand Soviets experiencing the quality of the hospitality of the 72,000 people who worked, experiencing the quality of the fact that they would have not gotten booed. They would have been given an ovation and treated with dignity.”
At first, Glenn Wilson recalled, the reaction to the boycott “was deadly. Everyone felt they had gone to their uncle’s funeral.”
But when Ueberroth started his countermoves, he said: “The troops generally thought he was great, and they were going to follow him over the mountain. When Peter said something around there, everyone believed it.”
Within a few days of the boycott announcement, a number of Soviet satellites joined in. The concern at the committee was that the boycott would spread beyond the Eastern Bloc into the Third World, particularly in Africa.
Under Ueberroth’s direction, the committee staff undertook a country-by-country campaign to stem the boycott, seeking commitments that the individual national Olympic committees would send their teams to the Games.
The heart of that effort was a phone bank operation run directly out of the committee, although in several cases actual emissaries were sent to key countries, such as China, Romania and, unsuccessfully, East Germany. Ueberroth flew to Havana in a fruitless attempt to persuade Cuban President Fidel Castro to at least send the Cuban baseball team.
Most of the efforts were unpublicized, at least until they were completed and, with the phone bank operation, very little was said about it until after the Games.
The committee paid for an air charter that brought African athletes to Los Angeles, and it contributed to the costs of the Romanian team. The results of all these operations were that a record 140 countries competed in the Los Angeles Games as opposed to 81 at Moscow, 88 at Montreal and 123, the previous record, at Munich.
Afterward, many staff members were more than willing to give full accounts of what had been done. They regarded it as one of the greatest accomplishments of the committee. William Hussey of the protocol department, who was certainly in a position to know, said one thing should always be clear about what had happened:
“The tremendous operation that took place right, say, starting on the ninth of May, was completely Peter. It wasn’t Joel (Rubenstein). It wasn’t Harry or anybody else. It was Peter’s calling us all in and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to marshal an entire thing. Divide your people up into teams and geographic areas and countries and so on, and we’re going to go after it.’ ”
Rubenstein, who said his protocol department was sure the Soviets were working at the same time to talk countries into joining their boycott, told what “a full-court press” the committee’s effort really was:
“We polled every one (of the eligible countries), and if they hadn’t yet responded to the invitation, (said): ‘Come on, tell us you’re coming and don’t just tell us on the phone. We want it in writing. Send us a telex. We want it today.’
“And we didn’t consider we had a country committed until we got it in writing, signed with a name. A telephone ‘OK, we’re coming to the Games,’ was not good enough.
“And we would call some countries 10 days in a row, and they would say: ‘The telex isn’t working,’ and ‘The secretary’s out,’ and all kinds of things. ‘Fine, put it in writing. Go to the public telegraph station. Do something.’
“We started to get them. And every morning, Pete would come by and say: ‘What’s happening? Where are we?’ And we’d give him a report, an assessment, what do we got going? Who’s saying yes? What are the verbals? What are the written commitments? And when we got (past the Munich record), we had the press conference. That’s when we went public. We said we’ll have more countries represented than any other.”
Probably the greatest single morale booster for the committee was the announcement that the Romanian team would be coming to the Games, defying the Soviet Union and becoming the only Warsaw Pact member to participate.
The Romanians, considering their relatively small national population of about 23 million, have been highly successful in recent Olympic competition. Their team was ninth in the medal standings at Montreal and seventh at Moscow. At Los Angeles, they won the third-largest number of medals behind the United States and West Germany.
Symbolically, of course, the participation by the 127-member Romanian team was immensely significant, and Ueberroth was determined to do everything he could to assist it.
On May 29, 1984, without any public announcement, the Olympic president sent four committee staff members to Romania to help the Romanians make their arrangements. They had been planning to ship considerable equipment with the East Germans, who were no longer going.
They said they needed financial help with their transportation and housing costs, and they had to get landing rights in Los Angeles for their national airline, Tarom, which had never flown to the city.
Heading the committee’s delegation was the personable, low-key Cale. Agnes Mura, who was born in Romania, spoke Romanian fluently and would be the committee’s envoy to the Romanian team, was on the delegation. So were Willi Reich, the committee’s judo commissioner and a travel expert, and Mike Jacki, the competition director in gymnastics, one of the principal Romanian sports.
Cale said the visit was one of the highlights of his life. What stood out in his memory was the reception given the delegation by the Romanians when his party’s plane arrived at Bucharest.
“They were very warm in their welcome and . . . immediately got us onto a special bus and gave us all flowers . . . and of course, we did not have visas. But they got them for us . . . and gave us coffee. (They) had cars waiting for us.
“One of the things (I will) always remember was walking down the hall and there were soldiers all very well dressed, and as we’d walk along they’d all snap to attention and salute. I will always remember that from the standpoint of . . . a poor guy who spent a little time in the National Guard as a private.
“They took us to a villa outside the city on a lake that they use for their rowing and canoeing training . . . and we sat there and started to talk, and they were wonderfully warm, just really, very genuine, wonderful people, and they were just ecstatic to have us. . . . They wanted us there so much.”
Virtually everything the Romanians wanted was arranged. Later, Ueberroth said that the LAOOC paid $60,000 and the IOC another $60,000 toward the $180,000 cost of bringing the Romanian team to Los Angeles.
The other major recruiting trip, Ueberroth’s two-day excursion to Cuba to see Castro, was unsuccessful, but that had been expected. Indeed, Ueberroth, who by that time had been named baseball commissioner and was set to assume the post after the Games were over, greatly enjoyed, and had framed for his office, a banner headline that said, “Ueberroth Strikes Out in Cuba.”
Israel said that Ueberroth would have gone anywhere to solicit teams for the Los Angeles Games. He had offered to go to both the Soviet Union before the boycott was declared and to East Germany after it was declared, but neither of those parties were receptive to a visit.
Castro, through Mexican Olympic President Mario Vazquez-Rana, a key figure in the world Olympic movement, at least told him to come ahead, and in going Ueberroth was showing that he was determined to leave no stone unturned in the committee’s efforts to ensure successful Games. Also, the Olympic president was seldom averse to a little grandstanding.
According to Israel, who went with Ueberroth, the Cuban reception was even fancier than the Romanian one had been for Cale. It was just that Castro’s answer was no.
“We thought we might stay in a hotel,” Israel said. Instead, the Cubans put up the delegation in a mansion, “one of these protocol mansions, these big Beverly Hills, Bel-Air kind of mansions, and beautifully appointed, except that the furniture was a little old and sort of tacky.
“We don’t know where our bags are, we don’t know where our passports are--they’ve taken everything. They led (us) through this house out to this expansive backyard with this beautiful long swimming pool and these 40-foot-long buffet tables.
“I mean, it’s like the greatest bar mitzvah in history, and this is the revolutionary government, and they have this big buffet set up for us.
“First thing we get there, they serve us a drink, like a Cuban version of mint julep, except it’s mostly rum. You got to fire those down, and . . . the whole aristocracy of Cuban sport is here, from Guerra on down, and Hernandez is with us, or Fernandez, whatever the hell his name is, and this is the top level of the government.
“And they also served us these things, these chopped oysters in this dish. They’ve put some Tabasco or something in it, and you just drink ‘em. And that’s your macho deal, that’s your sign of manhood. So Peter is allergic to oysters . . . and he’s got to keep passing.”
The feasting continued.
“We were just having a great old time and drinking too much and eating too much,” Israel said.
“Finally, there’s a rustling, and it’s like 11:30 now, and Peter and Mario disappear. The rest of us are told to stay. And they’re taken off for the meeting with Castro, who’s nocturnal by nature.
And two hours later, they come back. It’s like 1:30, 2 o’clock in the morning, and now we’re going to have our dinner. And it was like this incredible bacchanal.
(The Cubans) were all saying, ‘We wish we could come,’ and the reason they couldn’t come . . . this (was) Castro’s reason, which was conveyed to Peter and also to me by all these other guys, (was that) during the ‘60s, during (the American) embargo, when we stopped having diplomatic relations with them, and we had no sports relations with them . . . the only teams they could find to compete with were the Eastern Bloc teams and out of a sense of loyalty and to show solidarity, he was going (to boycott).”
When Ueberroth flew home to Los Angeles on June 8, one month to the day after the Soviets had announced their boycott, the Olympic committee’s campaign against the boycott was really over and for the most part a success.
A total of 142 countries were signed to come to the Games. The Soviets had been joined by only 13 other boycotters.
In the remaining seven weeks before the Games, two countries that had said they were coming, Angola and Libya, joined the boycott and one on the fence, Upper Volta, decided not to come.
The final count was 140 of the eligible countries and territories at the Games and 17 others boycotting them. Those 17, however, included 6 of the top 10 medal-winning countries at Montreal--the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Cuba and Hungary.
The shining memory that nearly everyone on the staff retained of the weeks before the Games was of the dedication, the high morale, the excitement at the committee offices.
“You could feel it the minute you walked in in the morning,” Gloria Conroy said. “You’d walk in the door, and it was like a buzz. It was like the eve of a great big race, or a big event, and the adrenaline, it was just the adrenaline was really flowing then.”
Larry Klein, the design director, said that in a lifetime of working in projects he had never seen anything like the spirit that seized the committee.
“They had a big calendar in the Cafe de Coubertin (the cafeteria),” he said. “It said 100 days to go, and 90 days to go, 50. They changed it every day. I don’t think it got to anybody at 100 even, but when it started getting down to where it was 50 and 40 and 30, people really began to feel it, and then I think that that whole thing was building inside the committee.
“That was when the word started to spread through the committee . . . that the torch relay was a success, that people were turning out in droves all over the country, everywhere it was, people getting up at 2 and 3 in the morning.
“And then, occasionally, I would go up to Harry’s office, and they’d be bringing the video clips in and running them, and it just got ahold of everybody . . . this single clear goal that everybody was working toward . . . It (was) an experience, it (was) like going to war.”
Some of those who had worked at the committee the whole time were deeply touched by the emotional anticipation of the Games.
A week before they began, Jeanne D’Amico started her day by running the torch a kilometer. Her run was a gift from Ueberroth in honor of her long service. Then, she said, she was “so stoked” that she followed it through the crowds all that day and finally wound up in Westwood that evening. “There were just people, solid, waiting for it to come through, and that was wonderful.”
The committee had had five years to plan the Games, and despite the personnel turbulence, the planning was so highly detailed that when the Games began, there was very little that could have happened for which the committee was not prepared.
Just before and during the Games, John Argue, the man who had been so instrumental in bidding for them in the first place, was, by his own choice, a manager of the hospitality center at the Coliseum. Among the things that impressed him the most were the pre-Games organizational meetings conducted by the venue manager, Mike Crowley. “They would have 20, 25 departments (represented),” Argue said. “The Coliseum was a huge operation, and they would all sit around a table and then they would go through a table-top exercise. They would go through the entire day, take a day, opening day or first day of competition, whatever, and go through it, minute by minute.
"(Crowley) would stop it and he’d say: ‘OK, we have a heart attack here. What do we do?’
“And things would come out. ‘Who do you tell?’
“Or a bus is wrecked, or the terrorists stop a bus. ‘Now, what happens? What happens? You’ve got to think, you’ve got to revise the competition. You’ve got to work with the press.’
“And through those meetings, everybody got to know each other.”
Argue said that it wasn’t just potential crises that were aired at these meetings. He said that all the back areas were examined, “how (staff) people were fed, how people were clothed, how people access, and, like in the protocol area, how do you make sure that you have the tables and the fans and the tents and napkins and the food and the this and the that.”
He said the epitome of the planning was evident at the Closing Ceremony, when they brought out horses at the Coliseum for the awarding of the equestrian medals in the main stadium in accord with Olympic tradition.
“Those weren’t the real horses,” he said. “The real horses are too high spirited, too valuable, so they brought in couple of other horses, shills, one of which was owned by a friend of mine.
“When they got out there, one of the horses did his thing right on the ARCO track. You noticed what they had. Attendants in white uniforms with pooper scoopers. And why did they have them there? Because they anticipated.”
One of the few serious venue problems in the closing weeks was with the soccer field in the Rose Bowl. Cale said that a motocross event had made a shambles of the field and that when he paid a visit there about June 1 for an early dress rehearsal of the soccer operations, he was completely taken aback.
“You go out and see vacant lots that look better,” he said. “And we knew we had eight weeks until we were starting the Games.
“I really took the position without even talking with Harry or Peter, that I didn’t care what it cost, that’s within reason obviously . . . we were going to do it. We had a situation that was an absolute, would have been just a disaster.”
The field was resodded, at a cost of about $50,000, Cale recalled. In addition, the committee flew in George Toma, an athletic-turf expert from Kansas City, to oversee the project.
It seemed that there were uncertainties right up until the last minute. At 12:30 a.m. on July 28, with the Opening Ceremony just 15 1/2 hours away, Jeff Benjamin, who was then handling tickets for the Olympic family, got an emergency call from David Simon.
“He said: ‘The Fiji Islands are threatening to pull out of the Games, if they do not get their Opening Ceremonies tickets tonight.’
“They only wanted a couple apparently. (But) that’s what they wanted. (And he said), ‘If they go, Western Samoa may go with them.’
“So I said: ‘Well, I’ve got about 2,000 Opening Ceremony tickets in my trunk out here, so tell me where to go and what you want me to do and I’ll get their tickets to them.’
“These were the consul or somebody from Fiji, one of their government officials who had not gotten their tickets. David told me to go to this house in Hancock Park where some of them were staying, and deliver the tickets.
“So I drove over to Hancock Park and got to this house. It was a big fortress up on the top of the hill with the lights coming out the front door, and these two huge guys are standing there at the front door.
“So I walked up and, a little nervously, told them who I was, and . . . I pulled out the tickets, and as soon as they saw the tickets, they just had smiles on their faces, and they were fine after that. So the next day, we went into Opening Ceremonies and waited for the Fiji team to show up, and they showed up.
But David Simon, he said that they were fairly serious or he would haven’t bothered tracing me down at 12:30 at night.”
Even in small matters, committee aides were often quick to move.
Argue said that at the Coliseum, when Primo Nebiolo, the head of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, asked that the positions of the federation flag and the Olympic flag be exchanged so that he could look at his own flag from his own seat, the committee was accommodating.
“Now, it’s up on the rim of the Coliseum,” Argue recalled. “It’s blowing some, it’s quite dangerous to go up there. So it takes three men four hours to exchange the flags. But the next day we have it.”
As it turned out, the last-minute adjustments were mostly at the venues. At the operations center, staffed by 40 persons, there was little to do. Lee Aurich said the command group spent its time fielding queries about small difficulties and procedures.
“So it was mostly giving out information, serving as a communication hub,” he said.
That center, of course, was different from the security command center downtown, which also escaped having to deal with any serious incidents.
Margy Fetting, the community relations coordinator, said that in the middle of the Games, Ueberroth called her and asked for a list of community people who had been helpful. He wanted to invite them to sit in his box at the Coliseum to see the track and field competition.
For Fetting, the Games ended spectacularly with a favor she felt honored to do at the Closing Ceremony for Ethel Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
“I was sitting right in back of Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Don Klosterman and Ethel Kennedy, and Hayden and I had done some work together, so we talked and chatted,” she said.
“And then about 20 minutes into (the closing), Tom said: ‘Margy, can you help me out. You know, Ethel is my guest, and she had no idea you were going to have fireworks and she has a violent reaction to fireworks, I guess because of Bobby.’
“So, it’s like, great, another chance to beat the system and get something done here. . . I went over to Anita de Frantz, and she got me going in the right direction. An hour later, and bitter struggles, I got Ethel in a soundproof booth . . . and she got escorted off by protocol security.
“And then afterward. . . she just came up to me and said: ‘You’re just a miracle worker,’ gave me a hug.”
The day after the Games were over, Jay Flood, the aquatics commissioner, threw a big party with leftover funds at Lawry’s California Center for the 1,100 persons, volunteers and paid, who had worked at the swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo events. Like the Games themselves, he found it an overwhelming experience.
“There was so much love and affection in that place I had to leave, because I couldn’t handle it,” he said.
“I gave away 80 television sets, umpty-ump trees and VCRs and motorcycles and had a dinner and a jazz band and gave away pins, had group pictures taken of people in the stands and it was just a wonderful, literally awesome, love-in.
“And I literally had to leave. I just couldn’t take it. It was just too much. I really cared about these people. They made my job real easy, and they had a hell of a time.”