Peter Ueberroth's L.A. Olympics: Bigger, better, richer

Woven into the fabric of every sport is the concept of the underdog. Twenty-five years ago, a man who may have had more broken noses than goals in his sport of water polo was the ultimate underdog.

Peter Ueberroth had come out of nowhere and onto the front pages. Los Angeles had acquired the 1984 Olympics and had chosen him to run them.

City pride was at stake. National and international interests were at stake.

The Olympics seemed relatively innocent then. Mom and dad could gather the children around TV sets for 16 glorious days and nights and root with unabashed joy. Nobody talked much about drugs helping performances. These Games were unburdened with the excessive marketing and sales pitches of today. The Dream Team wasn't even a fantasy yet.

Ueberroth was 42 when he was chosen in 1979. Few knew of him.

Six years later, after having directed an Olympics of unprecedented financial, athletic and aesthetic success and becoming an international figure, he found himself face to face with a dose of perspective at a convenience store in Laguna Beach.

"I had been out on a boat, writing my book on the Olympics," Ueberroth recalled this week. "I was working hard on it because I didn't want [former Times reporter] Ken Reich's book to come out first and be the only history. He didn't know all the things I did.

"I just got home when I got a call from Amy Quinn."

Quinn had been his Olympic press secretary.

"She said I should go get a Time magazine, because I was on the cover, they had made me Time magazine Person of the Year. I didn't really believe her. I thought some mistake had been made.

"I got in the car and drove down Pacific Coast Highway to a Circle K. I was in shorts, and unshaven. I went to the newsstand and there it was. It wasn't a picture of me, but a caricature.

"They had seven copies and so I grabbed all seven and went to the cashier. The guy said I can't have all seven, that he has customers who reserve copies. I said, 'What if I can prove to you that my picture is on the cover? Then, can I have all seven?'

"He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he said sure, but he'd have to see an ID."

Ueberroth got his seven copies. They represented an honor usually reserved for kings, presidents or ayatollahs, an honor now bestowed on a water polo player from San Jose State, who had never quite made an Olympics, but who ran one like nobody before or since.

The 28th of July will be the 25th anniversary of the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics. Tonight, an event co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Sports Council and the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games will be held on the floor of the Coliseum, and Ueberroth will be among the guests.

He will see old friends, most with whom he has stayed in close touch, and will enjoy the David Wolper influence on an Olympic-themed show.

"David was my commissioner of ceremonies in '84," Ueberroth said. "After the opening, which came off so perfectly, I sent a message around to the commissioners of all the other sports. It said: 'David Wolper won his gold medal tonight. Now it's your turn.' "

Wolper had been instrumental in choosing Ueberroth. Once the SCCOG had acquired the Games from the International Olympic Committee, leaders John Argue and Paul Ziffren headed a committee of 22 that would search out and vote on an operational chief of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. First person to get 12 votes would be the choice.

Some names were put forth. Others were found by a search firm that attempted to cull the field to candidates in their 40s who had built a business and had some past experience in sports.

"My name got spit out of a computer," Ueberroth said.

Along with Argue, Ziffren and Mayor Tom Bradley, Wolper, a Hollywood producer, was on the committee. So was 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson.

Ueberroth, by then president of a booming company named First Travel, with more than 200 offices worldwide, thought little of his candidacy. He had dealt with Wolper over a volleyball project, knew Johnson had taught his brother's children in Sunday school, but felt he was much less plugged in than other candidates. Nor was he even sure he'd accept, if offered.

When the voting was to begin, Ueberroth told his wife, Ginny, to go ahead with a planned ski trip with two of their four children.

"No reason to stay," Ueberroth said. "I wasn't even giving it much thought."

He was in his office in Van Nuys when he got a call from Reich, The Times' Olympic reporter.

"He told me I was the choice, that he had polled the voters," Ueberroth said. "I told him he must be mistaken."

Shortly, he got a call from the committee. Reich was not mistaken. After many ballots, and after Wolper and Johnson had changed their vote to him, Ueberroth had slowly gained traction with the committee. After he got the 12th vote, they made it unanimous.

The odyssey began with the committee handing Ueberroth keys to office space in Century City, and the landlord, citing the terrible financial mess the Montreal committee had left for its city after the 1976 Games, decided not to rent to the LAOOC. Ueberroth opened an LAOOC checking account with $100 of his own money.

That checking account grew quickly.

Unlike today, the local organizing committee was allowed to deal directly with potential television rights-holders. Ueberroth and Wolper came up with a plan that would immediately identify the serious buyers, and also raise some cash. They put out the word that bidders would have to demonstrate their sincerity with $500,000 in earnest money. The winning bidder would have that amount applied to its rights fee; the losers would get their money back.

The LAOOC got earnest money from all three TV networks, plus an independent packager. Ueberroth took that $2 million, at a time when interest rates were around 18%, and operated off the interest for the next three years.

Next came his plan to have fewer sponsors than past Olympics, but each with more prominence and exposure. Previous large Olympic sponsorships usually brought about $1 million. Ueberroth and Coca-Cola chief executive Don Keough sat at a table with their lawyers, wrote down eight points of agreement and set the price tag at $14 million. Keough suggested the lawyers could keep the agreement to one page and finish it in a couple of hours.

"He said, 'Let's go to dinner,' " Ueberroth said. "We did, and it was done when we came back."

Today, Ueberroth and Keough are members of Coca-Cola's board of directors.

Under Ueberroth's leadership, the LAOOC waded through the years of projected problems and issues.

Perhaps the biggest was the expectation of gridlock. Most critics had pointed to the middle Friday of the Olympics as the day the roads would lock up and the city would come to a stop. Black Friday, they called it.

"We knew we had that licked a year before the Games," Ueberroth said. "Our studies said that, if we could just decrease the traffic by 8%, we would be fine, it would flow. We didn't believe that, so we shot for 22%."

They got people to ride share, unions to rearrange work shifts, beer trucks to stay off the roads until after dark.

So, on Black Friday, Ueberroth went up in a helicopter at 5 p.m. over the main downtown freeways. News helicopters followed along and hooked their microphones into his sound system.

"I remember looking down, and seeing cars moving through open spaces," Ueberroth said. "I said something like, 'Well, it all seems pretty clear down there. . . . Oh, here comes a car. . . . Oh, yes. There's another one."

Four months before the Games, the Soviets boycotted in response to President Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Quickly, Ueberroth put his envoys to work and the Soviet list of 100 countries that would boycott started decreasing. When he was told that China would compete, it became one of those signature moments that told him this was going to work.

"I got the call in the middle of the night," he said.

Romania quickly followed, which was important in more than strictly political ways.

"They excelled in about six events where we were weak," Ueberroth said.

The Games produced $232.5 million in net revenue, a portion of which is still finding its way into the community through distributions from the LA84 Foundation.

The Games ended Aug. 12 and Ueberroth reported to work as commissioner of baseball Sept. 1.

"I didn't exhale until after the World Series," he said.

Nor has he slowed down since.

Along the way, he has headed up the Rebuild Los Angeles project after the 1992 riots, has purchased a piece of the Pebble Beach golf and hotel properties with partners Clint Eastwood and Arnold Palmer, made a short run for governor in the 2003 recall election and finished sixth out of 135 -- even though he had withdrawn before the voting -- and recently stepped down as chairman of the board of directors of the United States Olympic Committee.

He kept the USOC post through last summer's Beijing Olympics in a gesture of gratitude to the Chinese for coming to L.A. in '84 and helping make the Games a success.

He will turn 72 in six weeks, and that has slowed him only slightly. His investment and philanthropic business, of which he is chairman, is called Ambassadors International. He comes to work most days with his spearfishing gun in the front seat and his prized border collie, Coot, in the back.

Last Monday, he had his special monthly dinner with his wife and remembered the days when they started this monthly anniversary dinner tradition in Hawaii. Then, they had little, but always managed to find a place where they could afford dinner.

September will mark monthly dinner No. 600 for Peter and Ginny Ueberroth. It was 50 years ago that she married the underdog with the oft-broken nose, certainly hoping against hope that he would, one day, make something of himself.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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