The Days of Glory : Even 10 Years Later, Many See 1984 Olympics as a Crowning Moment in Los Angeles History That Gave Sports a Boost
Ten years ago today, a spirit of joyous expectancy pervaded Los Angeles as the 1984 Olympic Games got under way.
From the time the torch relay had arrived the week before, it was evident enthusiasm about the Games was high and that many of the fears so widely expressed during seven years of preparation were fading.
The man in charge of that effort, Peter Ueberroth, said Wednesday that he felt, on balance, relaxed 10 years ago this morning.
“Something could go wrong, but it was working,” he said. “The thousands of volunteers were in uniform. They did show up on time. They did care. They were patriotic. And the citizens of Los Angeles were complying with our traffic plan. It was working, and the doomsayers were wrong.”
As it turned out in the next 16 days, the events were tremendously successful. The crowds were an Olympic record. Despite the Soviet boycott, 140 countries sent teams, another record. There was no terrorism and little overcrowding. Los Angeles proved it could do it right.
The morning after the opening ceremony at the Coliseum, Times columnist Jim Murray sounded a note of triumph:
“The Olympic Games they said would never take place are taking place. The Olympics they said would drown in politics, strangle in traffic, are floating and breathing. The Olympics they said would tap the taxpayers out of billions are paying their way.”
Ten years later, with ever more cities applying to hold the Games, both winter and summer, the Olympic leaders here, and the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, express the conviction that Los Angeles put the Olympic movement back on the right path.
Samaranch said the financial success in Los Angeles--an unexpected surplus of more than $220 million--cleared up worldwide doubts created by the $1-billion debacle of the 1976 Montreal Olympics that the Games could be efficiently staged.
Since then, the Olympic movement has not had to face the problem that arose in 1978 when Los Angeles was the only bidder for the 1984 Summer Olympics and the IOC, after months of fractious contract negotiations, eventually had to award the Games on the bidders’ terms.
Ireland’s Lord Killanin, then president of the IOC, was so humiliated that he could never bring himself to acknowledge that the terms left the city government free of liability if the event ran into debt.
But there were no debts. The chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Games, the late Paul Ziffren, had remarked one morning to incredulous Southland media that the 1984 Olympics would net $100 million. It was a matter of pride with him for many years thereafter that he understated the eventual figure by more than half.
The Olympics, with all their glamour, international travel, A-list parties and athletic heroes, have long drawn local politicians like moths to a flame. Some have been burned when things did not go well.
Television producer David Wolper, who directed the opening ceremony 10 years ago today, once said: “The City Council members like this so much, because it gives them something to talk about besides how to collect the garbage.”
But for then-Mayor Tom Bradley, the fascination clearly went beyond that, and it has continued. He is still basking in the glow of the Games.
The 1984 Olympics “was the event which is the No. 1 highlight of my life,” Bradley said Wednesday. “The fact that Los Angeles received worldwide attention, and those Games were so remembered around the world, is a source of great pride and satisfaction to me.
“We showed that the Games could be put on in a different fashion and not bankrupt the city.”
Even some one-time skeptics mellowed their views.
City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who insisted on tough negotiations with the IOC to ensure that the Los Angeles Olympics would be privately--not publicly--financed, said Wednesday:
“The Games marked, I think, the apex of the city’s pride in itself, and they marked a high point (in) the world’s view of Los Angeles. Both for me personally and for the public at large, when we look back at the Olympics, it was one of the great moments in our lives.
“But as deep as our pride runs, we have to recognize that sports events have a superficiality about them. This city, and the 1984 Winter Olympic city, Sarajevo, have had nothing but problems since. With all the positive aspect of the Olympics, with all they represent for the world, the world still has a lot of problems. The Games put Los Angeles at its most positive point on the world stage, but they were still only Games.”
In a business sense, pride in the 1984 Olympics comes easily. The Games were not only extremely profitable, they also set certain specific standards that pointed a successful way for future Olympic organizing committees:
--The $225-million American television contract the organizing committee signed with ABC was three times higher than any network had paid for the Olympics before and helped to generate even higher prices thereafter.
--In corporate sponsorships, Ueberroth and his top deputy, Harry Usher, did far better than any previous organizing committee. Since they proved it could be done, corporate sponsorships for many events have risen in value, and the IOC took a cue, establishing its own marketing program.
--Ueberroth and ticket boss Ed Smith led the way toward spectacular listed ticket prices for big events. The $200 top ticket price they decided to charge for the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony were at first regarded by some as outlandish. However, they not only found plenty of takers but showed it would not merely be scalpers that made a fortune from marketing events.
Ueberroth was a hard-nosed businessman, and his methods had their critics, but for better or worse, the rest of the sports world has followed the commercial examples he set.
The 1984 Games will also be remembered, of course, for Mary Decker Slaney’s spill, the victories of Carl Lewis, Sebastian Coe, Mary Lou Retton, Daley Thompson and Valerie Brisco-Hooks, and the gallant efforts of so many other athletes.
But another notable aspect of the Games was they marked the last of the great boycotts that disrupted three consecutive Olympics. Much of the stories about Montreal, Moscow (in 1980) and Los Angeles revolved around those boycotts, and the general politicization of the Games. If one includes the murder of Israeli athletes by terrorists during the 1972 Munich Games, disastrous politicization indeed extended through four Olympiads.
But the Summer Games since Los Angeles, at Seoul and Barcelona, passed without boycotts or terrorism, and there have been few fears expressed about these possibilities in Atlanta two years from now.
Ueberroth said Wednesday: “I think the Olympics have passed through their low point. I believe nearly everyone now realizes that what we were saying was true, that boycotts only served to hurt athletes and that all boycotts and terrorism did was to isolate nations.”
He said he still remembers with gratitude the decisions of China and Romania to come to Los Angeles in defiance of the Soviet boycott. “This played a very little part in the wall eventually coming down,” he said.
And 10 years is a long time, Ueberroth noted. Ten years ago, he said, Manfred Ewald, East Germany’s sports minister, was one of the most influential persons in world sports. Now, Ewald’s country is gone and he is unemployed, trying to sell his awards and trophies to support himself.
“Los Angeles does an extensive job of commemorating negatives and almost a non-job or non-effort in commemorating the positives,” Uebberroth said.
“We can be sure there will be stories commemorating X years after the riots, the earthquakes. But I would say that my overwhelming thought today is the pride in the effort by all the people involved in the 1984 Games and pride in the quality of our community.”