'84 Workers : An Olympic Army Waits for New Call

Times Staff Writer

Picture the prototypical accountant. Give him horn-rimmed glasses, conservative suits and all the wear and tear and wild hairs attendant to middle age and 20 years logged with the same firm. His name is Smith, Ed Smith, and he has decided to take leave of the straight life for a temporary assignment as ticket manager with the Los Angeles Olympics. He will not be coming back.

The nomadic Games came and went, and so did Smith. Today, on the fourth anniversary of the Opening Ceremonies of the Los Angeles Games, he remains absent from the button-down world--an itinerant organizer, migrating from one special event to another in pursuit of the rush that comes, he says, "from trying to create something out of nothing."

Planning Parade

Last week Smith was in Seoul, South Korea, planning a parade for the 1988 Olympic Games. "This is over in 60 days and what is my next afterlife?" he mused via telephone. Later that day, he was to catch a flight to Hong Kong, conduct some Olympic-related business, and then fly on to France to interview with the organizers of the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville.

"That's not a good way to live," said the 52-year-old Smith, a divorced father of two grown children, whose previous port of call was the Statue of Liberty centennial pageant. "It doesn't make for a stable life. You are on the road all the time, at the whim of the event. . . . After Liberty Weekend, I really went through some soul-searching and concluded I didn't want to chase special events. I said, 'I'm going to go straight. . . .' (But) frankly, I could never generate sufficient enthusiasm about any job I looked at."

Others Also Affected

Smith is not alone. Many former Olympic workers have not yet made full peace with what they call "the real world." Some have bounced from job to job, frustrated by their inability to rediscover the sense of shared mission that fired the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Others have become event junkies. Even those who put the Games behind them and forged ahead with conventional careers--and by now they likely are the majority--came away from the triumph of 1984 changed.

They can be found everywhere today--from the baseball commissioner's office in New York City to a tiny locksmith's kiosk in Culver City, cater-cornered from the converted helicopter factory where the Games were headquartered. They pop up at events like Live Aid, the 1987 papal tour of America, the Democratic National Convention. Dozens if not hundreds have formed consulting firms. Others have pursued corporate careers or resumed college educations. An unofficial Olympic network has created pockets of former staff members within certain organizations, like the Walt Disney Co.

Strong bonds remain. A few former staff members liken their circle of Olympic colleagues to a benign cult. And interviews with about two dozen of them make clear that many would abandon post-Olympic positions to answer a call-to-arms for a similar project, especially if it was issued by Peter V. Ueberroth or Harry L. Usher, the men who ran the LAOOC.

"The people would come out in seconds, by the droves," said David Rosenfeld, who at 23 had about 150 people working under him to distribute VIP accreditations and now owns and operates three lock-and-key stands. People would quit jobs, leave wives, husbands, whatever, to do something like that again."

The LAOOC staff was built slowly over a period of five years, and then exploded in the final months before the Games. By April, 1984, there were 800 so-called permanent employees. The number increased to nearly 2,000 during the Games. Roughly 50,000 volunteers also helped stage the Olympics, along with thousands of temporary employees.

The longer term employees came from diverse backgrounds--professional firms, government staffs, political campaigns, college campuses. They tended to be either young, and inherently transient, or middle-aged professionals who had reached a point in their careers where radical change seemed appealing. They were risk-takers.

The environment was frenetic, intense. In the final months, days off were rare and 14-hour shifts common. Some people melted in the pressure cooker and were moved aside to lesser tasks. Many personal relationships went on the rocks. The ties among employees were strengthened by a sense that the community for a long while was not convinced it wanted the Games.

"We felt it was us against the world," said Debra K. Henry, who worked for Ed Smith in the ticketing operation.

Of course the Games turned out to be a smashing success and financial bonanza. It took a while for the glow to leave the city, but eventually the banners and brightly hued decorations did come down, along--in another sense--with the Olympic staff.

"Most people suffered from the malaise that comes after a big event is over," said former LAOOC staff member Anita DeFrantz, who has since become a force in international amateur sport. An Olympic rowing medalist, DeFrantz is a member of the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee; she also runs the sports foundation created to disperse $90 million of the Games' surplus among Southern California youngsters.

"Some people," she said, "were very gung ho and had big plans for how they were going to take the world by storm. . . . Other people just felt lost, I think because they were a part of such a strong community, with such a focused goal, and suddenly the goal was gone and the community was gone. So now what do you do?"

The first year was the roughest.

"A year later people were still floundering," said Linda Lucks, whose final task at the LAOOC was running a jobs placement program. "At that point, I didn't know one person who was happy."

While more than 300 people were placed--however temporarily--through the program, Lucks saw its role as more therapuetic than practical. "The job opportunity program," she said, "gave people a reason to come into the building, to look up friends . . . and try to get your head on straight. So I always looked at it as therapy."

Many staff members who took jobs right after the Games did not stay with them long. Priscilla Florence, who managed personnel at the LAOOC and now runs her own consulting firm, said she has accumulated resumes from more than 200 staff members seeking new jobs. Many have averaged a job a year.

Debra Henry, an accountant by training, went from the LAOOC ticketing operation to a position with an L.A.-based trade magazine. The publication ran into financial difficulties, and when her old boss Smith called looking to build a staff for Liberty Weekend in New York, she jumped. After New York, she ran ticketing operations at the Winter Games in Calgary, and since has returned to Los Angeles to work in the travel industry.

In both New York and Calgary, she said, she felt an immediate sensation of belonging as soon as she walked in the door. It was, almost, like working at the LAOOC again.

"You continue to look for that kind of thing," she said of the Olympic experience. "It gets in your blood. . . . The one thing you have to learn, and I don't know you can learn it, is that this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It isn't going to happen again."

"I saw a lot of people who took a job (after the Games) that they thought was their forever-and-ever job and then months later change into another forever-and-ever job. . . . A lot of us have changed a lot of jobs. And a lot of us hadn't changed a lot of jobs before we found the Games, so it's not like something that was a pattern always."

Staff members often were disappointed to learn that in the outside world they would not be given as much pay or responsibility as at the committee. One obvious solution was to go into business for themselves.

No one knows for certain how many consultants were spawned by the LAOOC, but earnest estimates run into the hundreds. Most have chosen to focus on special events or sports management. Even some of those who have chosen this route doubt there is enough work to keep them all occupied.

Richard B. Perelman, who ran press operations for the LAOOC and edited the official final report on the Games, was among those who decided to hang out his own shingle as a special events consultant.

Options Described

"I could either get a real job or do consulting work," is how he described his options. "The special events area has only emerged in the mid- or late-1980s as a viable full-time industry," he said, "and I think the reason for this is twofold: One is the success of the '84 Olympic Games as a marketing vehicle; and two, the extremely high cost today of broadcast and print advertising."

Smith, speaking from his hotel room in Seoul, conceded that the life has its downside but spoke enthusiastically about the intoxicating nature of his work.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't enjoy it," he said, adding that many of his LAOOC colleagues now returned to the 9-to-5 world probably would not mind trading places.

"I think," Smith said, "that most people whom I maintained contact with are not particularly happy in their present situations. . . . I think if I had an event, especially in Los Angeles, it would be very easy to find people to leave whatever they were doing to come work on the event. They would do that because there is a thrill that is indescribable."

For all the lows that workers encountered after the Games, most staff members agree that the experience sharpened their skills and boosted their confidence. Some compare it to going off to war--and coming back alive to tell about it.

Ueberroth, former LAOOC president and now baseball commissioner, maintains that a majority of the staff has "followed accelerated career paths since the games." He said the Olympic workers are " the story of the Games. . . . They climbed the mountain. Some of them are still seeking another mountain, but most of us realize you have to return to another day-to-day, normal, hard job."

Will Leave Post

Ueberroth himself has announced he will be leaving his baseball job in 1990 at the end of his five-year term. He has not said what he plans to do next.

Some staff members were surprised at the sense of fulfillment that came from working on a more or less altruistic endeavor. This was especially true of those with a background in politics. Ruth Berry, who served on White House advance teams before joining the Olympic Torch Relay staff, recalled how she broke down crying as a blind child carried the Olympic flame through Dallas.

"I never in a million years believed that something like that could get to me," said Berry, who recently acted as press secretary for the Democratic National Convention. "It put a balance in my life."

The Olympic bug trafficked among all levels of staff.

Bonita Hester was one of the first employees hired by the LAOOC. A receptionist, she became a fixture at the front door of the headquarters--the gatekeeper. Her relationship to the Olympics became almost familial. Today she works in a similar capacity at the post-Olympic foundation.

"I feel like it's a part of me now," she said. ". . . When I hear LAOOC I am proud. I still feel, 'Wow! I was a part of that! I did that!"

Untapped Resource

An oddity of the Olympic afterlife is that there has been no effort to tap the collective talent of the LAOOC staff and volunteers. For 16 days they helped the freeways flow unjammed. They designed and assembled an enormous Olympic puzzle on the fly and on the cheap--and all the pieces fit. And then they were allowed simply to dissolve into the cityscape, consumed with their own lives and careers, a disbanded army.

Said Usher, who went from the Olympics to become commissioner of the now-deceased United States Football League and currently is president of Weintraub International Enterprises in Los Angeles: "I think there's a number of people--volunters, paid, everybody--waiting to have some sense of purpose again in Los Angeles. All of these people are hopeful that something exciting can happen to this city, or the area of this city, again to bring it together. . . .

"They are sort of an unidentified network of people who shared an experience that was a manifestation of (their) desire for the common weal. And I think if ever any cohesive thing happens to this city, whatever it is, there are a lot of people ready, willing and able to help."

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