The modern Olympics were born in Athens, Greece, resurrected in postwar London and buffed to a glistening sheen in Barcelona. But twice during the 20th century, the Games were kept afloat by a beachside life preserver known as Los Angeles.

In 1932, in the grip of a paralyzing worldwide depression, with political tensions simmering in Europe and Asia, the Olympic Games were in jeopardy before Los Angeles stepped in and turned a smallish gathering of athletes into an international elixir, a festive summer respite from the harsh realities of the day--and a telling reminder why the continued survival of the Games was important.

Half a century later, after the Munich Games had been riddled by assassins’ bullets, after the Montreal Games had wreaked financial havoc, the Olympics had become anathema, regarded more as a millstone than a gemstone by most world-class cities. In fact, in 1978, when the International Olympic Committee had to vote on where to put the 1984 Summer Olympics, it had no choice but to grant the Games to Los Angeles.

There were no other bidders.


The 1984 Los Angeles Games have been credited with “saving” the Olympics--hyperbole, perhaps, but not so far from the truth. The 1980 Moscow Olympics, boycotted by the United States, had pushed the Olympic movement to the back burner. Had the Los Angeles Games failed--aesthetically, economically and/or politically--the flame might have been extinguished for good.

Instead, the 1984 Los Angeles Games were the first Post-Modern Olympics. For better or worse, the ’84 Games transformed the Olympics, demonstrating how they could be staged for profit--to the tune of $225 million in Los Angeles’ case. The ’84 Games ushered in the era of blanket Olympic corporate sponsorship--which, it is hoped, bottomed out with Atlanta’s strip-mall Games of 1996. They also made over the Olympics’ worn and rumpled image.

Old: Financial albatross, chamber of commerce chamber of horrors, proceed at your own risk.

New: Five-ring moneymaking machine, available to the highest bidder, proceed at breakneck speed.

After 1984, potential bid cities would never look at the Olympics the same way. Suddenly, the Olympics were a prize to be coveted, with the bid process escalating into a gluttonous schmoozefest that would land the IOC in the muck of scandal--amid cries for institutional reform--by the end of the 1900s.

That isn’t the Olympic legacy Los Angeles wanted. But as local organizers begin the campaign to host a third Summer Games, in 2012, they have to ask: Is it our fault we did the job too well the first two times around?

The 1920s were in mid-roar when Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who rekindled the Olympic flame in 1896, grandly announced in 1923 that the Games would be venturing to the “New World"--to Los Angeles in 1932.

How could he have foreseen the global conditions that would conspire against those Games nine years hence, with the world’s economy bottoming out and turning the ’32 Olympics into a luxury expense many nations could not afford?

For months, there was speculation that the Games would not come off. Even the host nation had trouble raising money for athletes’ training and travel. Seeking a way to cut costs for visiting nations, organizers established an Olympic village in Baldwin Hills for male athletes at a cost of $2 a day per person. (Female athletes were housed in a hotel in the Wilshire district.)

Still, attendance took such a hit that the soccer competition was canceled because of lack of participation and the field hockey “tournament” consisted of three teams. Brazil was only able to send a team by hitching it a ride on a coffee ship, then instructing its athletes to sell coffee in the United States to pay for the trip.

In the end, 37 nations sent 1,408 athletes to Los Angeles--down from the 46 countries and 3,014 competitors who had participated in the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

The Games themselves, though spartan, were roundly considered a success, largely for such technical innovations as the photo-finish camera, automatic timing for running events and an automated results-tabulation system for journalists covering the competition.

These were the Games of Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, who shared the same nickname as America’s preeminent baseball player of the era, dominating her sport, women’s track and field, in much the same fashion as Ruth did his.

Didrikson qualified for all five women’s individual track and field events, but Olympic rules of the day prevented her from entering more than three. She chose the 80-meter hurdles, the high jump and the javelin throw--and won medals in each, although controversy clouded two of them.

She won the gold medal in the 80-meter hurdles in a photo finish with American teammate Evelyne Hall, a result Hall never accepted. For days after the race, Hall pointed to a red mark on her neck--a mark she said she got breaking the tape at the finish line.

Didrikson settled for a silver medal in the high jump, even though she, along with gold medalist Jean Shiley of the United States, cleared a world-record height of 5 feet 53/4 inches. Judges later disallowed Didrikson’s jump because she had crossed the bar headfirst--a maneuver considered illegal at the time, although the rule was revised shortly after the Games. “The judges were crazy,” Didrikson protested. “That’s the way I jumped during the whole competition. If I was illegal on my last jump, I was illegal on my first jump. So if they were right, I should have been disqualified from the beginning.”

Didrikson won a second gold medal in the javelin throw, even though, she claimed, the javelin “slipped out of my hand” on the winning attempt. The three medals established Didrikson as the star of the ’32 Olympics and would eventually contribute to her being named female athlete of the half-century in 1950 by the Associated Press. But Babe was disappointed. “I could have won a medal in five events if they would have let me,” she said.

Other highlights:

* Little Eddie Tolan, considered too small to succeed as a world- class sprinter, won the 100- meter and 200-meter races. Tolan, who stood all of 5 feet 5 inches, beat American teammate Ralph Metcalfe in a photo finish in the 100-meter sprint, posting an Olympic-record time of 10.3 seconds. Tolan completed the double with another Olympic record--21.2 seconds--at 200 meters.

* Japan won five of six men’s swimming gold medals, Yasuji Miyazaki eclipsing Johnny Weissmuller’s Olympic 100-meter freestyle record by 0.8 of a second. The lone American man to win a swimming gold medal: Clarence “Buster” Crabbe in the 400-meter freestyle. Crabbe would later follow Weissmuller onto the silver screen as Hollywood’s futuristic swashbuckler, Flash Gordon.

* A lap-counting mistake caused competitors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase to run one more lap than required. The error didn’t affect the gold medal; Finland’s Volmari Iso-Hollo would have won regardless. But American James McCluskey was running second when the race should have ended, only to be overtaken by Britain’s Thomas Evenson during the extra lap. McCluskey was given the option of rerunning the race the next day, but declined. “A race has only one finish line,” he declared, and settled for the bronze medal.

* American football--"gridiron,” as the Brits refer to it--made its first and only appearance at the Olympics. Yes, you could look it up: Football was played as a non-medal demonstration sport at the 1932 Summer Olympics, inside the Coliseum. A team of West Coast college all-stars, coached by USC’s Howard Jones, defeated the East, coached by Jones’ brother, former Yale coach T.A.D. Jones, 7-6.

* American Ralph Hill lost the 5,000-meter gold medal to Finland’s Lauri Lehtinen by mere inches after Lehtinen appeared to interfere with Hill down the stretch. The pro-American Coliseum crowd booed Lehtinen before public- address announcer Bill Henry intoned, “Remember, please, that these people are our guests.” With that, the boos turned to applause. Films of the race showed the Lehtinen had clearly impeded Hill but the U.S. team declined to file a protest and the result stood.

The 1932 Games turned a profit of more than $1 million and were so well received by Olympic officials that the IOC considered bringing the Games back to Los Angeles eight years later. Tokyo had been granted the 1940 Games, but when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, the IOC stripped Japan of the Games and moved them to Helsinki. Then when war began in Europe, the IOC sought alternate sites--Los Angeles among them--before the 1940 Summer Olympics were ultimately canceled.

Nine years after the Olympic flame was doused at the Coliseum, Los Angeles began campaigning for its second Olympics. In 1939, an organization dedicated to pursuing the Games, the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games (SCCOG), was formed. And from 1942 on, Los Angeles bid every time a Summer Games was to be awarded--finally succeeding in 1978, when every other candidate to host the 1984 Olympics dropped out of the race.

The ’84 Games were notable before they began--the first since 1896 to be financed without governmental funding. Headed by Peter Ueberroth, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee lined up more than 30 corporate sponsors, who contributed more than $500 million, and negotiated a $225-million television contract--more than doubling the previous agreement.

Those contracts, plus the deployment of an army of 77,000 volunteers, resulted in the most profitable Olympic Games to that point--a then-unheard of surplus of $225 million.

John Argue, the Los Angeles attorney who chaired the SCCOG’s successful bid to win the ’84 Games, notes, “Since the beginning of time, the Olympic Games have always made money from operations. But all of them lost money except two: L.A. and L.A.

“Why is that? Because other cities have taken that money and used it to build new stadiums. Los Angeles already had the facilities it needed.”

A rousing financial success, the ’84 Games were tarnished competitively by the boycott of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellites. The Soviets cited a concern about security, but most saw the boycott as thinly veiled retribution for the United States’ boycott of the Moscow Games four years earlier.

The Soviet Union, East Germany and other boycotting nations represented 58% of all gold medals won at the 1976 Olympics. Without their presence, the 1984 Games became a 16-day star-spangled celebration for the home side, choreographed to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

U.S. athletes won 83 gold medals and 174 medals overall, dwarfing runner-up Romania, which earned 20 gold medals and 53 total medals. Carl Lewis led the American windfall with four track gold medals, duplicating Jesse Owens’ achievement in 1936 by winning the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 400-meter relay.

Lewis’ accomplishment, however, was greeted with less enthusiasm than Owens’. Lewis was criticized for grandstanding after grabbing a U.S. flag from a spectator and carrying it triumphantly during a post-100-meter victory lap. Some claimed the flag had been planted by Lewis with a friend.

And Lewis’ long-jump victory was accompanied by boos throughout the Coliseum after he chose to pass on his final four attempts--and a possible assault on Bob Beamon’s world record.

Lewis, however, had maintained that practice throughout his career. In meets at which he both sprinted and jumped, Lewis never completed all six jumps. And, as he later noted, “The weather was getting cold and I had two more events to run, so I made the decision to rise and fall on my first jump. As it happened, it turned out to be the right decision.”

But that controversy paled when contrasted to the furor caused by the collision between American Mary Decker and rival Zola Budd, a South African running for Britain, in the women’s 3,000-meter final. It produced the indelible image of the Games: Decker sprawled on the Coliseum infield, crying in anguish at the realization that her best chance to win an Olympic gold medal had just gone down in a heap.

The collision occurred at the 1,700-meter mark, shortly after Decker had bumped into Budd and knocked her off balance. Five strides later, the runners bumped again, this time with Decker tripping and falling over Budd’s leg.

Budd, who ran barefoot, was left with bleeding spike marks in her lower leg, but she continued and finished the race in seventh place. One difference between 1932 and 1984: Whereas public-address announcer Henry had quelled the boos after the Hill-Lehtinen incident in ’32, there was no such assistance for Budd in ’84. For the rest of the race, she was booed and jeered.

Otherwise, in the 1984 Games:

* The U.S. men won the country’s first gold medal in team gymnastics, with Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar winning individual golds on the parallel bars and pommel horse, respectively.

* American Mary Lou Retton edged Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo for the women’s all-around gymnastics title by scoring a perfect 10 on her final event, the vault. Szabo settled for a silver to accompany four gold medals (floor exercise, vault, balance beam and team).

* Britain’s Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe repeated as Olympic champions in the decathlon and the men’s 1,500 meters, respectively.

* American Greg Louganis became the first man since 1928 to win the springboard and platform diving comp-etitions and the first diver to score more than 700 points in the platform event.

* West German swimmer Michael Gross set world records in the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter freestyle--and fell just short of a triple in the 800-meter freestyle relay, barely 24 hours after his butterfly victory. A fatigued Gross, swimming the anchor leg, held the lead until the final 50 meters, when American Bruce Hayes caught and finally passed him. The upset earned the U.S. team the sobriquet “Grossbusters,” a play on the popular Bill Murray movie of the day, “Ghostbusters.”

* American swimmer Mary T. Meagher won three gold medals, in the women’s 100- and 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter medley relay.

* U.S. hurdler Edwin Moses won the 400-meter title en route to his record winning streak of 107 consecutive hurdles races.

* American Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic marathon, followed 20 minutes later by the unforgettable sight of Switzerland’s Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, overcome by exhaustion and heat prostration, staggering through an agonizing 5-minute 44-second final lap before collapsing into the arms of three medics at the finish line.

* Michael Jordan led the United States, eight years before the canonization of the Dream Team, to the men’s basketball gold medal.

* Tennis returned to the Olympics as a demonstration sport with a sneak preview of the sport’s future. The men’s and women’s tournaments were won by a couple of teenagers named Stefan Edberg and Steffi Graf.

* The men’s soccer final between France and Brazil drew 101,799 to the Rose Bowl, a figure that would later persuade international soccer officials to hold the World Cup in the United States a decade later.

Los Angeles is one of only four cities to have hosted two Summer Olympics, and the only non-European city; Athens, Paris and London being the others. In 2004, Athens will become the first to have hosted three Summer Games, a mark Los Angeles will try to equal in 2012.

“We have been told the ’84 Games were the best-run Games ever,” says Argue, who is heading the L.A. 2012 campaign. “Well, we plan on running the 2012 Games the same way.”