In the years before and since the 1984 Olympics, Los Angeles has been a massive metropolis, a city/suburban sprawl larger than many countries and so diverse that coffee being ordered in five languages at Starbucks on any given morning doesn’t turn a head.
Los Angeles is huge, and fond of being so. This isn’t a community bake sale place. It isn’t really a community. It is hundreds of them. Most people know their freeways better than they know their neighbors.
Twenty years ago, when a band of dreamers, acting on a half-hearted commitment from the International Olympic Committee and led by an unknown travel industry executive, organized and ran one of the best Olympics ever, it was so out of character that the big city actually stopped and took notice. It had shrugged off Super Bowls and handled political conventions with ease, but this Olympic thing reached up, grabbed it by the lapels and made it pay attention.
The weather was perfect, the freeways flowed, the crowds at the Games mingled and moved nicely. The city that is too big to work, worked. People who had nothing in common suddenly did. People talked over back fences to each other, as if this were Keokuk, Iowa.
Bud Greenspan’s Olympic film called it “16 Days of Glory.” He meant the athletes and their competitions. But that worked just as well as a measure of what happened to Los Angeles that July 28 through Aug. 12.
It took years of perseverance on the part of a few dedicated people to even get another Olympics awarded to Los Angeles, much less get it to the point where they could put Peter Ueberroth at the front of the bus with instructions to drive. Matter of fact, the Los Angeles Olympic bloodline -- which brought the Games here for the first time in 1932, at the inspiration of a local businessman named William May Garland -- began flowing at the ’24 Games in Paris. There, a man from Los Angeles named John Clifford Argue competed in the pentathlon and caught the Olympic bug.
Argue was a lawyer and civic leader. After the 1932 Games, also termed highly successful in Olympic lore, the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games was formed, with the goal of bidding for future Games. Argue was a prominent member of the SCCOG.
In 1932, Argue’s son, John, was born. Like his father, he eventually graduated from Occidental College and went on to get his law degree at USC. All this time, except for the war years, the SCCOG was bidding for Olympic Games for Los Angeles, and by 1970, the younger Argue was named the attorney for the SCCOG.
In March 1978, John Argue, by then president of the SCCOG, found himself in Athens, presenting a bid to the IOC that Los Angeles couldn’t lose, but nearly did.
The world of Olympic sports was vastly different then. The 1972 Games in Munich had been disrupted by the murder of Israeli athletes. And with the memory still vivid of how that played out in the public -- broadcaster Jim McKay near tears as he described the bungled rescue attempt of the Israelis by German police -- the Olympic movement followed with the Montreal Games in 1976, where there was a boycott by African nations. Despite good competition, its symbol was an unfinished hole in the roof of Olympic Stadium, with the crane that never lifted the final pieces into place visible through the hole.
The financial losses in Munich, absorbed by government, were never measured. The psychological loss to Germany, and to the Olympic movement, was immeasurable.
In Montreal, the Canadian government was on the hook for huge losses -- some Canadian politicians say the country is still paying off that debt.
David Simon is current president of the L.A. Sports Council, whose mission is to bring major events to the L.A. area. He was also one of the original members of the L.A. organizing committee, and calls the Montreal Olympics “a poster child for financial mismanagement.”
So, when it was time to bid for the 1984 Games, interest had waned worldwide. There was too much potential downside for host cities. The focus was on the United States, and the main competition was between Los Angeles and New York to acquire the bid rights from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
It was September 1977, and New York presented its bid first. Mayor Abe Beame led a glitzy presentation in which he pledged that, were New York to get the Games, he would order every church bell in the city to ring at the moment the Olympic flame was lighted in the stadium.
Beame was followed to the lectern by California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Governor Moonbeam saved the day by keeping his presentation down to Earth. Brown pointed out that by 1984, many of the politicians who were making promises on behalf of New York would no longer be in office. The low-hyperbole approach won and the USOC voted to forward Los Angeles’ bid to the IOC.
Which put Argue in front of IOC voters seven months later in Athens, slide show set to go, presentation in hand, with no way to lose, because all the other bidders had bailed. Then, as he proceeded, there was a clunking noise from the audio-visual booth, followed by smoke, a dark screen and cursing by the technician.
Argue turned to the audience and said he would go on without the slides. He presented his case for his city as host of an international sports event that would solidify Los Angeles as a mecca for future world sport competition.
A nervous IOC, uncomfortable with an Olympics that would be put on almost exclusively with private funds, gave the Games to Los Angeles, on the condition that it would insure the IOC against losses. Eventually, the USOC, having acquired the Games for its country, had little choice but to indemnify them for the IOC. That risk turned into a great investment.
Argue’s grace under fire notwithstanding, the IOC had no choice. Tehran, the last competitor, had backed out, prompting Ueberroth later to explain wryly, “Tehran had a management problem at that time.”
Getting Off the Ground
Argue never intended to be the man in the spotlight for the Olympics he had acquired. When he died two years ago, he was eulogized as someone who got things done by working behind the scenes.
“He always felt he had a law practice to attend to,” said his wife, Liz. “The day after the ’84 Games ended, he got in the car and went to work.”
On April 1, 1979, Argue handed the new leader of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee a shoebox filled with files and an office key. He wished Ueberroth luck, and Ueberroth, a former water polo player from San Jose State who had become a millionaire in the travel business, knew he’d need it.
First, the key to the office wouldn’t work because the landlord, who didn’t think this crazy Olympic thing would ever fly and would probably go broke, had changed the locks. When Ueberroth got into the office, he had no desk or chair. When he got a desk and a chair and opened the shoebox, he had papers listing debts of $300,000.
In the next 30 days, it became clear that Ueberroth was the right choice. In consultation with entertainment executive David Wolper, Ueberroth did something never done before by an Olympic organizing committee. He went to the three television networks, as well as Jerry Perenchio’s broadcast group, and gave each an opportunity to pay for the chance to bid on the TV rights for the L.A. Olympics. He was, in essence, playing poker with television. Ante up to get in the game. And he was the house.
A month after Argue handed him $300,000 of debt, Ueberroth had $500,000 from each of the four TV groups. The bankrupt LAOOC had raised $2 million, and with that seed money, he never looked back.
Ueberroth also chose the path of fewer sponsorships, with bigger tabs buying more exclusivity. The entry level was $4 million and major corporations such as Arco, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and 7-Eleven were going above that number without flinching.
Ueberroth continually asked people to stretch, including some of his major sponsors. When he realized that a velodrome would have to be built for the cycling competition -- one of the few venues that was not already in place in Los Angeles -- he called a top executive at 7-Eleven. The executive asked what he needed and Ueberroth said, “A velodrome.” To which the executive replied, “What’s a velodrome?”
A Growing Talent Pool
From the start, Ueberroth ran it lean and mean, and attracted great talent.
Anita DeFrantz, who went on to become a member of the IOC’s executive committee and is now one of the most influential women in sport, joined the LAOOC in August 1981.
DeFrantz, a bronze medalist in rowing at the 1976 Games, had championed the cause of the athletes and their resistance to President Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, which he eventually sustained. If there were a soapbox nearby in those days, DeFrantz, emboldened by a law degree from Pennsylvania, would climb up and loudly scold Carter.
She laughs now at her subsequent meetings with the former president, who a few years ago was seated next to her at a luncheon. After directing most of his conversation in another direction, he eventually turned to her and said, “Anita, are you ever going to stop beating me up?”
DeFrantz was put in charge of the athletes’ Olympic village at USC. In addition to her IOC duties, DeFrantz runs the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, funded by profits from the L.A. Games."Peter recruited me heavily to come here,” DeFrantz said. “I had written a speech in which I said that Olympics needed to celebrate more than just the winning and the winners. He liked that a lot and wouldn’t let me say no. Eventually, I realized I had to get over what happened in 1980, and that the L.A. Olympics would be the best place for me to do that.
“And once I got here, Peter made it quite clear that we were all on a mission to do right by the athletes who had been wronged in 1980.”
Another early arrival on the LAOOC was David Simon.
Simon, a young lawyer from Los Angeles, was working for then-Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke in Washington. One day in 1977, he saw a story in The Times about the efforts of Argue and his committee to bid on the Games. He showed it to his boss, whose district included the Coliseum. Burke was born in 1932 and named after Olympic swimmer Yvonne Godard of France, whom her parents had watched compete. She also had gone to law school with Argue at USC.
Burke wanted her office to be involved, and Simon became the point person in that effort. In 1979, at age 29, he joined the organizing committee, carrying the title of vice president for governmental relations.
“I was one of the first five on board,” Simon said. “I was young and eager. It was a wonderful time. The exuberance that people in L.A. felt for those two weeks, we felt for five years.”
Now, Burke is an L.A. County supervisor and Simon is president of the SCCOG, which is still bidding on Olympic Games at every opportunity, carrying on the legacy of William May Garland and John Argue.
When the lack of construction progress put Athens in jeopardy of having the 2004 Games sent elsewhere by the IOC, reports circulated that Los Angeles had been approached about its possible readiness. Simon would not confirm that, but smiled when he said, “The IOC knows that there is no city in the world that could stage an Olympics successfully with less advance notice than Los Angeles.”
Bob McCarthy, a 40-year-old businessman, was put in charge of both marathons and the 4,200 volunteers they required. He called the LAOOC “the last children’s crusade.”
When the Games were held, Ueberroth was 46. His general manager, Harry Usher, was 45. Simon was 34.
More remarkably, the two people left in charge of orchestrating the image the public would have of these Games were press operations chief Richard Perelman, 27, and news secretary Amy Quinn, 29.
Perelman was close to a law degree and he had a love of sports statistics. The thought of an Olympic Games in his city -- with records and numbers and wind-aided times and box scores that had to add up -- left him weak-kneed with excitement. So he signed up and Usher, who hired him, wrote down his first title: Press Operations Guy.
By the time that title became vice president for press operations, Perelman had earned his law degree and had started organizing everything from the flow of track and field results to the way the napkins were folded in the press cafeteria. On his watch, all the trains, literally and figuratively, ran on time for the thousands of writers and broadcasters who came to chronicle the Games.
Quinn came from a political background, working as an intern for Sen. Hubert Humphrey, then later holding press positions with Sen. Alan Cranston and Jerry Brown. She was hired to help run a promotional tour for the Olympic mascot, Sam the Olympic Eagle. She traveled the country with that project, which began in 1980, and when her boss, Hank Rieger, resigned, Ueberroth moved her up.
“Peter’s friends were telling him to hire somebody like Tom Brokaw,” Quinn said, “but he stuck with me. He said I was the last Indian standing.”
Both had challenges.
Perelman realized early that the media marketplace he was serving for these Games was unique. It was not only Hollywood, but it had more large-circulation newspapers than in any previous host city. The demand for credentialed access would be unprecedented, and the USOC’s normal allotment would not come close to covering the needs of a national press, plus Southern California. So Perelman, with Ueberroth’s backing, championed a clause written into the contract by Argue that allowed it to acquire additional “local” credentials.
The issue came to a head in one of those stuffy and high-powered IOC meetings in Rome in 1982, where Monique Berlioux, a regal woman and longtime IOC director, held court as details were being ironed out. At one point, Madame, as she was known, did a verbal rundown of the worldwide press badges and said there would be no local credentials.
Perelman responded that local credentials were in the contract, that it wasn’t negotiable. Berlioux repeated that there would be no local credentials.
Perelman had two choices: to swallow and accept defeat or take on a 60-something IOC legend in a very public forum. Perelman, choosing legend-bashing, started pounding on the table, yelling, “No, no, no. It is in the contract. It has to stay. No, no, no.”
It took almost a year before Berlioux backed down, but the word was out on Perelman, who spent the rest of his time at the LAOOC denying that he did the pounding, Khrushchev-like, with his shoe. For a short time after that, Ueberroth, secretly pleased, was known to start a conversation with Perelman by asking, “Well, did you insult anybody today?”
Quinn was Ueberroth’s sounding board. She had to direct the denials and damage control when a June 1984 profile by The Times’ Bella Stumbo came out. Under a headline that read “Ruthless and Shy,” it quoted Ueberroth as questioning whether LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was “a Nazi at heart.” The story ran the day the U.S. track and field trials began at the Coliseum.
She also was there when Ueberroth made an early visit to the Time magazine editorial board. He felt good about the meeting until Quinn informed him that he had referred throughout it to Nikita Khrushchev, when he meant Mikhail Gorbachev.
Time editors were sufficiently impressed that misidentified Soviets didn’t matter. Time named its Man of the Year for 1984 and put his picture on the cover: Peter Ueberroth.
First Outside the Box
Before corporate executives of the ‘90s overused the term into an employee turnoff, Ueberroth was thinking outside the box.
He lived by the management doctrine that “90% of authority is taken, not given.” He delegated, but he also knew what he wanted and when to pull rank to get it. His concept of a nationwide torch relay, with all of its logistical nightmares and the controversial element of charging $3,000 for many of the legs for charity, was met with horror by staff. In a meeting, a vote was taken and all his advisors voted no. Ueberroth looked around the room, said he was happy it was unanimous and began talking about plans for when the torch relay would begin.
Ueberroth knew the Soviets would boycott the Los Angeles Games. Carter had kept American athletes out of Moscow in 1980, so turnabout would be Soviet fair play.
But it was one thing to know that and another to take steps to contain it. On his committee, he had people designated as envoys to each Olympic country. When their athletes or officials came to visit, the envoys entertained them in their homes, became their friends, usually spoke their language.
When the Soviets announced their boycott in April 1984, many of the envoys were immediately sent abroad to the countries and officials with whom they now had working relationships. When the Soviets announced the boycott, they predicted that as many as 100 countries would fall in line. In the end, only 12 did. Even Romania, a Soviet-bloc country, defied the boycott, taking Ueberroth up on his offer to pay its way over to compete.
The IOC, used to being treated like royalty because much of it was back then, never quite knew what to make of Ueberroth and his untraditional organizing committee.
As was their custom, IOC members and other dignitaries visited often from all over the world in the years and months leading up to the Games. But instead of limos awaiting them, Ueberroth sent members of his committee, some of them CEOs and some of them recent college graduates living at home with mom and dad, to do the pickup. It was not inconceivable to have the likes of King Constantine of Greece leaving LAX in the passenger seat of Perelman’s little red Datsun, with the white racing stripes.
“Sometimes, for special occasions,” Perelman said, “I borrowed my mom’s big white Cadillac.”
But just when the dignitaries started to view the Los Angeles organizers as the Beverly Hillbillies, Ueberroth threw the IOC a 10-course dinner at the Biltmore in conjunction with the Olympic Arts Festival that dazzled the foreign visitors. On that night, Perelman’s socks even matched.
Simon said that the key to much of what Ueberroth was able to do centered on the expectations that he established.
“Peter set the bar so low on everything that we could hardly lose,” he said.
DeFrantz said that when she joined the organizing committee in 1981, they got much accomplished because few people were paying attention.
“There were only about 30 of us then, and we were the stealth organizing committee,” she said. “We just flew below the radar. Nobody paid much attention.
“Except for Ken.”
From the beginning of the bid process to the day the Olympic flame was doused after the closing ceremony, The Times’ reporter on the LAOOC, the IOC, the USOC and all things related was veteran metro staffer Ken Reich. He churned out stories almost daily for four years leading to the Games. A call from Reich was greeted with a combination of dread at what he was going to ask and gratitude that at least somebody was asking.
Argue loved to tell the story of the day he was having lunch with Reich at the California Club. A waiter stopped to congratulate Argue on the role he had recently played in getting the Games and commented that everything seemed to be very positive, “except for that jerk in The Times, who is always writing negative stuff about the Olympics.” Argue, never missing a beat, replied, “I’d like to introduce you to the jerk.”
Among Reich’s themes was his conclusion, based on his reporting, that the Los Angeles Olympics would be profitable. He estimated a result of millions in the black, and with every story that said that, Ueberroth and Usher quietly cursed and grumbled. They too suspected that, if everything went well, there would be a nice financial legacy for Los Angeles at the end. But part of that would come from big companies, and it wasn’t easy selling sponsorships to people who were reading in the paper that a pot of gold was already there.
In the end, Reich, who recently retired, was right, although much more spectacularly than even he could have imagined. The profit was $232.5 million, of which 40%, or about $93 million, stayed in Los Angeles. That went to the Amateur Athletic Foundation, now run by DeFrantz, who has, in these 20 years, used $143 million for grants to local sports programs and operational expenses, and has also, through investment and money management, retained an endowment of $140 million.
The other 60% went to the USOC, which had indemnified the IOC against shortfalls in the L.A. Games. That 60% amounted to about $140 million, which was then divided among USOC federations, many of which still operate off those proceeds.
On July 5, an Olympic anniversary dinner was held in Long Beach. During the program, Perelman was paying tribute to members of the L.A. ’84 effort who had died -- Argue and Usher among them. When he mentioned local labor leader Bill Robertson, a voice intoned from the back of the ballroom: “Nope. Bill Robertson is not dead.”
Perelman corrected himself as another former LAOOC member leaned to his tablemate and whispered, “Twenty years later, and Ken Reich is still keeping us straight.”
Twenty years later, and McCarthy, the volunteer who ran the marathon events, still lives the 1984 Olympics daily, in some form.
“It’s the single greatest thing I’ve ever been involved with, the greatest gift L.A. could ever give me, to just let me be involved,” he said.
That was his motto, as he recruited his volunteers as people talked about where they would go to escape the expected terrible crowds and traffic. McCarthy told people: “Don’t be inconvenienced. Be involved.”
He said that, on the day of the women’s marathon, he walked portions of the course and was stopped by people about every 50 feet.
“If I had taken every hot dog and beer offered me that day, I’d still be out there,” he said.
McCarthy’s job that day was to stay well ahead of the lead runners, but when he got to the top of the Coliseum tunnel and turned around, he was shocked to see leader Joan Benoit, closing in on him and all alone.
“She had turned off the street and the cars and motorcycles leading her couldn’t go that way,” he said. “She was all alone, so tiny, and she just had this small moment of peace and quiet before she went down the tunnel and into the stadium. It was just one of those moments I’ll never forget. I got all teary. I still do. It was like everything had stopped for a minute, and everything I had been working on, and for, was right there, a few feet away from me. I wished I had had a little American flag to hand her.”
When his Olympic volunteer stint had ended, McCarthy got a check for $7,000 from the LAOOC. It was $7,000 more than he had been promised. Before he cashed it -- “It didn’t even cover the cost of my gas,” he said -- he made a copy to frame and put on his wall.
“It represents $7 million in memories,” he said.
The recent gala dinner in Long Beach was all about memories. As so many of the key people from the ’84 Games watched a Greenspan film, made especially for this night, they had to flash back:
* DeFrantz, to seeing the athletes dressed up in their opening ceremony uniform for the first time at her USC village. She was especially fond of the Kenyan runners, who had been so confused by stoplights when they went outside to run in the streets before the Games that they found a place to run where there were no red lights: the freeway.
* Simon, to his amazement at how, every time they had done an opening ceremony rehearsal, at least one of 84 pianos had clinked or clunked or malfunctioned, and how, the day of the opener, all 84 played in harmony.
* Quinn, to hearing just before President Reagan was to enter the stadium that a TV technician had cut a wire, that some power was out and that, if the Secret Service were to hear that before it got fixed, Reagan might have been ushered out and the opener marred.
* McCarthy, to the first time he saw the 2,500 body bags that security officials had purchased and stored, just in case.
* And Rafer Johnson, the UCLA star who became the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion, to his climb up the long ladder to the Olympic rings, where he lighted the torch at the opening ceremony, looking so strong and invincible that few people could imagine the truth. He had shin splits so bad that he couldn’t make it to the top the day before and a younger American decathlon champion, Bruce Jenner, was nearby with torch-run uniform on under a flag-bearer outfit, ready to step in if Johnson faltered.
“Wasn’t gonna happen,” Johnson snarled on the film.
A Lasting Presence
Ueberroth took the podium at the end of the evening.
Since the Olympics, he has been commissioner of baseball; director of Rebuild L.A.; a successful businessman whose Contrarian group has led him to, among other things, part ownership with Arnold Palmer and Clint Eastwood of the Pebble Beach golf and resort complex; a candidate for governor; and back into the Olympic movement, where last month he became chairman of the USOC.
His presence now is no less authoritative than 20 years ago. But it is softer, less edgy, more comfortable with itself.
In early June, he went to the Coliseum at the request of Greenspan, who was shooting the film for the gala dinner. While the massive city that he brought together honked and hustled outside the walls, Ueberroth walked the floor of the Coliseum. The purpose was filmmaking drama, but a side result was real-life imagery. The man who had packed the historic stadium and given it some of its finest moments now had it all to himself.
A couple of times, the shots were wrecked by clouds blocking the sun. So Ueberroth walked his walk again. He is still a very busy man, but there was no hurry this day. Twenty years ago, this was his place, and he was taking his time, soaking it all in.
He said that day that, when July 28 arrives, he will not make a big deal out of it.
“I’m not the kind of person who looks back a lot,” he said. “I tend to live in the present or the future. I’ll probably find a few good friends and have some good red wine. That’ll be it.”
At the dinner, he kept it direct and uncluttered, much like his personality. He called the Olympics “an emissary of peace,” and said that the upcoming Athens Games could best serve our country’s current “tattered reputation by reopening lines of communication that are now being severed.”
He took off his sport coat, revealing a blue-and-white shirt that was worn by volunteers during the ’84 Games, “by people who drove buses and worked in parking lots,” he said.
The crowd cheered, understanding the perfection of the gesture. Twenty years later, he was still their leader, still the most recognizable symbol of those 16 days of Olympic glory, when an urban sprawl became a block party.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
* Twenty years ago, Los Angeles staged an Olympics that no one else wanted and turned it into a financial and athletic success story for the ages.
* Peter Ueberroth, who saved the Games in 1984, is back to salvage another Olympic institution. D9 * Revisiting some of the leading story lines from 1984, D10-12
* Wednesday: Rafer Johnson starts party.
* Aug. 1: Carl Lewis earns four gold
medals -- and hears boos.
* Aug. 8: Bela Karolyi lives the dream.