It’s Not All Peaches and Cream : After All Is Said and Done, Atlanta, the Olympics Were Good for L.A. But There Were a Few Secrets.
Can it really be? You were actually cheering in the streets the day you won the right to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. God, when we were awarded the ’84 Games in 1978, the silence was deafening. And those who spoke up were not amused:
The whole issue couldn’t have come at a worse time, what with Proposition 13 and people petrified of costs and all. --Former Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman
I don’t really care if we get the Olympics or not. I just can’t get all enthused over these preliminaries. --Watts Towers security guard Jim A. Reid
As far as any spontaneous expression of feeling goes, I wouldn’t expect any great emotional outpouring. We’re talking about an event that is six years in the future. --Mayor Tom Bradley
Enthused, enshmused. We may not have been excited in 1978, but by the time 1984 rolled around we were . . . still not that worked up.
A mere 2 1/2 months before the Games began, a nationwide poll by the New York public relations firm Manning, Selvage & Lee revealed that 62% of the respondents could not name a single U.S. athlete who was going to compete in Los Angeles. Only 51% even remembered that the 1980 Olympics were held in Moscow.
Around here, all anyone talked about was how far from the city they would be during the Games, and possibly, if they really wanted to get involved, how much money they would rake in by renting their empty homes to Olympic visitors.
Strangely, by the time David Wolper’s spine-tingling opening ceremonies concluded with the lighting of the Olympic torch by Rafer Johnson on July 28, 1984, this was a town of converts. With the exception, perhaps, of the alternative Nihilist Olympics Organizing Committee, nary a soul owned up to uttering a discouraging word about the Games.
It was, now that we think of it, the best of times in Los Angeles.
We had no traffic, the city was nearly crime-free, everyone loved everyone else. Heck, we almost ended world hunger and saved the planet from nuclear disaster right then and there. Felt that way, anyhow. Yep. Those were the days.
And because the Olympics were so good to us, Atlanta, we’d like to help you with your Games. Not in a meddling way, mind you, but in the generous, magical way that is the Olympic spirit. Not the Olympic spirit of boycotts, terrorism, billion-dollar deficits and political infighting. We didn’t have any of that here. (OK, so there was a little Soviet boycottski and maybe a smidgen of behind-the-scenes warfare. No one’s perfect.)
You should think of the Olympics, Atlanta, as a play in three acts: an interminable first, a brief and glorious second, and an emotionally deflated, postpartum third.
Act I: The Long Hello
It will be a horrendous undertaking. But it’s an adventure, so what? --Angelene Kasza, principal of Norwood Elementary School, Los Angeles, Feb. 2, 1984.
Unlike a lot of Angelenos, Kasza had the Olympic spirit relatively early on and possesses it to this day.
“I remember everything about the Olympics because first of all, I am an avid sports fan, and second, the concept was so wildly exciting,” Kasza said. “I couldn’t believe that anyone would look at the work it would entail--everyone was so hysterical about it. Where was the confidence and trust that people would rise to the occasion?”
Kasza’s advice to Atlanta: “Those school kids have got to be involved in the buildup and the excitement. We had Olympic math, Olympic reading. Each day we walked our children down to the Coliseum. They saw the athletes and the excitement and really got caught up in the spirit of the thing. It’s once in a lifetime for these youngsters, and they’ll never forget it.”
Relax Los Angeles; the Soviet Union is not going to pull out of the Olympic Games. --Yale Richmond, retired Foreign Service officer, on The Times Op-Ed page, November, 1983
Which reminds us, Atlanta. Anything can happen.
Or, as LAOOC President Peter Ueberroth puts it: “Expect the unexpected. In Munich, the big worry was that they would never be able to get people in and out of town--that transportation and gridlock would be trouble. And, of course, they had quite a different problem.”
Nobody here, or in the East, thought we could pull it off. Our self-esteem has taken a perceptible jump. --Selwyn Enser, USC professor, September, 1984
“When we started this process against 14 cities in the United States, we weren’t given a chance at all, and when we were designated the U.S. candidate city, we weren’t given much of a chance at all,” said Robert Brennan of the Atlanta Organizing Committee. “Now that we’ve got the Games, people are not giving us much of a chance to stage them very well. It’s a strikingly familiar pattern.”
Putting on the Games, said Ueberroth, “is a task that’s very visible, on which your missteps are highlighted.”
Harry Usher, general manager of the LAOOC, advises that you ignore the prophets of doom and, like the commercial says, never let them see you sweat.
“I think you can doubt yourself,” said Usher, “but don’t let other people lose confidence in your ultimate actions.”
How many days of doubt did Usher have? “Let’s see, how long was I with the committee--1,500, 1,600 days?”
John Bevilaqua, a vice president for the LAOOC, lives in Atlanta, where he runs a sports marketing firm.
“Atlanta has had a complex all these years, you know,” said Bevilaqua. “It was burned to the ground in 1865 by Sherman. Its symbol is the phoenix rising from the ashes. We had civil rights problems in the ‘60s. Then a couple of years ago, Sports Illustrated called Atlanta ‘Loserville USA’ ” because of the dismal records of its professional sports teams.
We looked it up and, as it happens, Sports Illustrated was merely quoting local columnist Lewis Grizzard, who dubbed Atlanta “Losersville.” Not very nice words from a native son. But coming from a newspaperman, not surprising.
“The L.A. Times would run almost daily some expert, quote unquote, who would forecast the failure of the Games,” said Ueberroth. “You live with these people for five years.”
Well, Atlanta, 1996 is your big chance to shine in sports. Not that we want you to feel over-pressured. But as Rich Perelman, LAOOC vice president for press operations, put it: “It’s not just Atlanta on trial here, it’s the whole country. Everyone is counting on them to do a good job. They’re going to be on TV in front of the world for a long time. Look at Miami during the Super Bowl. Multiply that by 2 billion viewers. It makes a real big impact.”
Speaking of impact, Deborah Sussman ought to know. Her firm, Sussman/Prejza, designed the look of our Games--the explosively bright confetti of magenta and vermilion triangles that became synonymous with the joyousness of the Games.
Her advice to designers: Start early, stick to your guns, eschew politics and don’t let your nightmares get to you.
“I never gave up. I never compromised,” she said. “I am sure people thought I was nuts.”
Possessed, maybe. We don’t know about nuts.
“There were a lot of difficulties,” said Sussman. “Some of us got weird flus. I remember I was nauseous for about a month and a half. My doctor insisted it was stress. I had nightmares constantly that it wouldn’t get done in time or get done well or that the people who were working against us would prevail. Mainly, the problem was shortness of time and largeness of project. I had dreams that there were mountains of sand and I had to hold them up.”
But nuts was great in 1984. Nuts were ash-covered Japanese performers dangling from the roof of the Music Center. Nuts was Shakespeare performed in French by actors in whiteface. Nuts was the 10-week Olympic Arts Festival, and nowhere was the boldness of the 1984 Summer Games expressed more explicitly.
We understand you’re planning your own four-year festival, tentatively dubbed the Dance of Life, scheduled to begin when the 1992 Barcelona Games end. One piece of advice from a man who knows: “Forget four years. Do four weeks.”
That man is Robert Fitzpatrick, director of our 10-week Olympic Arts Festival. His advice came via car phone, from Paris, where he is now president of Euro Disney, the amusement park scheduled to open in 1992.
“Barcelona had been trying to do a four-year festival and it is a meaningless exercise,” said Fitzpatrick. “A festival by its very nature means a focused period of time in which you get people to step out of their ordinary lives and try something different. The whole point of the festival is not to do one more performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, but to show works you wouldn’t normally get to see.”
What an arts festival director needs, said Fitzpatrick, is vision, independence and an ample budget--in his case, more than $10 million. His counsel: be controversial, stay out of politics, don’t bow to outside pressure.
“We were under great pressure to include a specific dance company with close ties to the Reagan family and their supporters. We originally had conversations (with the company) but they did not want to meet our requirements. What they proposed had no impact.”
You’ve got six years to make it work, Atlanta. So go about your business and remember what Usher said: “Try not to maintain the high. Let the enthusiasm go into remission. You can’t maintain anything for six years and if you try to, you’ll just wear people out.”
The White House wasn’t even speaking to me. --Peter Ueberroth in “Making it Happen: Peter Ueberroth and the 1984 Olympics,” by Times Staff Writer Kenneth Reich
Don’t let the big shots push you around, Atlanta. Believe us, they will try.
“Every ambassador from Washington, everyone in the State Department, every consulate and every consul general will tell them how to run their business,” said LAOOC protocol official Joel Rubenstein. “Everybody has their agendas. They tell you you’re going to create an international incident if you don’t give (a country’s official) front row seats at the events. There’s 160 countries out there that have very important people.”
Act II: Build It. They Will Come.
Boycotts notwithstanding, that is.
By the time the first teams arrive in your Olympic villages, you will have constructed an estimated $420 million worth of new facilities. We didn’t have much building to do at all. All we had to construct were a velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills and a swimming complex at USC. (That was one reason we did so well financially.) But you! You’ll even have razed an island in the middle of a lake at Stone Mountain Park to make way for rowing events. That would never have happened here. Trust us.
“It’s not like Catalina Island,” said Bevilaqua. “It’s not usable. There’s a big attitude toward environmental impact out there (in California). It’s not like that in Georgia.”
By the time the Opening Ceremonies commence, everything will be in place--or at least appear to be. By then, not even the most solitary Atlantan will be unaffected by the Games.
I was lying there thinking I was probably the only person in the whole world watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics in a flotation tank. --Larry Hughes, co-owner of Altered States MindGym, August, 1984
Hughes estimates he spent a total of 20 hours watching the Games afloat on 10 inches of Epsom-salted water.
“The TV screen was about two feet above my field of vision and I was unaware of anything else besides what was on the screen. I liked watching the swim meets because the camera angles are so fantastic that you see just the upper bodies of the swimmers as they move along, and as I was floating there, it seemed like I was in the next lane with them. “My recommendation for Atlanta is for people to buy video-equipped flotation tanks and to set them up and watch the Olympics. I’d like to issue a challenge to some Atlantan out there to break my record of 20 hours.”
Float like a wet butterfly, Atlanta, for only $4,000 per tank.
We thought it would be Saturday night every night, but actually it’s Wednesday night every night. --Patrick Terrail, owner of Ma Maison
So maybe business was off in a few places. OK, in a lot of places. Mostly, our locals figured the restaurants would be so jammed, they ate at home for two weeks.
“We were expecting bonanza business. We were almost shocked the first week when the business did not come through,” Terrail said. “We woke up one morning by about the third day and found there was no traffic.” Wistfully, he adds, “We wish it would be like that today.”
Terrail suggests that Atlanta restaurateurs do what he and a number of local restaurateurs did: promise not to raise prices.
That is almost precisely the advice that Usher gave to Barcelona’s committee recently: “I told them the most important thing that the citizens and businesses should avoid is getting greedy and looking at this as a cow to be milked.”
Or an orange to be juiced. Or a peach to be cobblered.
You have to realize that Los Angeles is made up mostly of nonmainstream people. --Elisha Shapiro, organizer of the Nihilist Olympics, July, 1984
Hard to believe it, even in the South where we know y’all are crazy for sports, but not everyone likes the discus throw. (Actually, polls show that women’s gymnastics is by far and away the most popular Olympic sport. There is no close second.)
For the non-sports inclined, Elisha Shapiro created the Decathlon of Housework, the Freeway Relay and the Rosie Ruiz Marathon (start on foot, end on foot, use any mode of transportation you want in between).
“It was an antidote to feeling left out,” said Shapiro, who teaches English at Santa Monica College. “Watching people throw discuses about wasn’t really that exciting to me. I wanted to get in on the fun.”
And you can too, non-mainstream Atlanta.
“Atlanta is a wonderful, vibrant, sophisticated city,” said Shapiro. “A city like that probably has a lot of people who are not mainstream, and to those people, I address my suggestions because the mainstream people will already know what to do.”
The South being famous for fried foods and lardy gravies, he suggests a cholesterol-raising competition, in which the first person to raise his or her cholesterol 100 points wins. Or, for the sportier types, a target-shooting contest, in which mailboxes could be shot from moving cars.
“I would say to Atlanta, make your own fun,” said Shapiro. “Don’t wait for whoever is organizing the Olympics to make your fun for you.”
Some of our biggest attractions are our supermarkets. --LAOOC protocol official Joel Rubenstein, April, 1984
“We had a lot of people coming in from Third World and Eastern Bloc countries who had not experienced anything like (our supermarkets). These are the simple things that you and I take for granted,” said Rubenstein. “You buy a jar of instant coffee, you don’t think anything of it. Someone from a Third World country, a 16-ounce jar of Maxwell House is a treasure.”
So stock up, Atlanta. It’s the little beans that mean a lot.
Act III: The Crash
When it was all over, zoom, it was over. We kind of hit bottom. --Norman Miller, director of UCLA’s Olympics Games office, September, 1984
How can we tell you what all the days after are like? Well, we were aching from the loss. Our foreheads were still hot from Olympic pin-trading fever. We’d hosted 650,000 visitors, 7,800 athletes and 9,000 journalists. The Games straddled 29 cities, nine counties and three states. Thanks to the thrifty ways of Ueberroth and his LAOOC, the Games realized a profit of $222.7 million, divvied up among the U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. sports federations and Southern California youth sports.
Yes, we did kind of hit bottom. But when we did, we bounced, buoyed by memories of the impish Mary Lou Retton in graceful action, Rocket Man swooping into the Coliseum, wiry marathoners running past our homes as we watched (for free!). We liberated the brightly colored Olympic banners from the light poles, wrote glowing letters to local newspapers and watched in dismay as the traffic returned to normal.
Some of us were changed forever. Literally.
“I lost most of my hair,” said the LAOOC’s Rich Perelman. “I went from balding to pretty bald. I think I was going to lose the hair anyway, but the stress of the Olympics probably accelerated it.”
Robert Fitzpatrick of the Arts Festival was similarly altered: “My hair was bright red when I started and it was white when I finished. At least, that’s how I remember it.”
So brace yourself for exhilarating sadness and relief and instant nostalgia, Atlanta.
“When you’re doing it, you’re crazed, but then it’s over and it’s wonderful,” said David Wolper.
“I think there are an awful lot of hard-working, intelligent people in Atlanta that don’t really have a clue what they’re in for,” said Bevilaqua. “It’s a real roller-coaster ride. They don’t have a feel for the (enormousness) of the task yet.”
But you will. And soon enough.