Remembering a Revolution . . . in the Olympic Games

July 28, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Olympic Games 

LOS ANGELES, Jul. 28, 2011 – The culmination of a six-year revolution in the Olympic Movement began exactly 27 years ago today in the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad took place.

For those who were there, or watched on television, the David Wolper-produced show was a stunning success and a revelation to those who expected a flat statement of American hegemony and mushroom clouds dancing on the Coliseum floor. From the entry of the Rocket Man at the start to the 84 pianos playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to Rafer Johnson lighting the Olympic Rings on fire, leading to the Coliseum torch being rekindled, it was a magical moment for Los Angeles.

The Games that followed were historic enough, despite the Soviet-led boycott. No one from the Eastern Bloc or Cuba was going to deny Carl Lewis his four gold medals, and Mary Lou Retton’s victory in the gymnastics all-around over Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo would likely have stood up against anyone the Soviets would have fielded.

But in many ways, the most significant outcomes of the Los Angeles Games only became apparent after the Closing Ceremony:

• The Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, led by former travel executive Peter Ueberroth, showed that the Olympic Games need not be undertaken at unending expense by a national government, but could be organized solely with private resources. Actual government expenditures on the Games that were not paid for by the LAOOC were limited to a $50 million Federal grant for security at the Games and the 1984 Democratic and Republican national political conventions.

• Moreover, the LAOOC created new concepts in revenue generation by the sale of corporate sponsorships to a small number of companies, but for much larger amounts. The International Olympic Committee didn’t waste any time recognizing the bonanza, copying the program themselves in 1985.

• For the first time, volunteers became the primary source of staffing for the Games. Some 33,000 volunteer staff were used in Los Angeles and have become the backbone of the staffing program of every Games since.

The 1984 Games offered other Olympic firsts, of course: electronic mail, voice mail, use of cellular telephones, the first user-operated information retrieval and query system for athlete biographies and an astonishingly low number of new sports facilities – the key to the financial success – including a cycling velodrome, an outdoor swim stadium and a shooting venue.

And with all of these elements, the LAOOC also finished with a record surplus of $232.5 million U.S. on about $780 million in revenue. That surplus was divided between the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. national governing bodies (60%) and what is now known as the LA84 Foundation (40%). What’s happened since?

• In Los Angeles, the original $93 million share of the surplus has resulted in $194.1 million in grants for youth sports in the area, and the Foundation still has assets of $127.7 million. In February, 2012, it will play a major role in the first-ever International Olympic Committee’s World Conference on Women and Sport to be held in the United States.

• The U.S.O.C. Foundation, recipient of $111 million in surplus funds, has distributed $253.5 million in grants since the 1984 Games and had net assets of 171.2 million as of December 31, 2009. Additional foundations were set up for many of the U.S. national governing bodies and have been supporting those organizations as well.

Perhaps the most impressive legacy of Los Angeles, however, was the way in which it changed worldwide perceptions about the Olympic Games. After an unremitting string of bad news – shootings prior to the Mexico City Games in 1968, the terrorist attacks at Munich in 1972, the financial meltdown in Montreal in 1976 and the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games – Los Angeles returned the Games to a celebration of youth and sport. The results of this were almost immediate:

• Before the Los Angeles Games, the I.O.C. had only three bidders for the 1976 Games, two for 1980, one for 1984 and two for 1988 (decided in 1981).

• After Los Angeles, bidding suddenly got popular again, with six cities trying for the 1992 and 1996 Games, five vying for 2000, 11 for 2004, 10 for 2008, nine for 2012 and seven for 2016. That’s a lot better.

All of this makes Los Angeles one of the few “revolutionary” Games that changed the way international sporting events are organized and produced. Of the 26 editions of the Games actually celebrated, my list of “revolutionary” as opposed to “evolutionary” Games includes six: 1896 in Greece (first modern Games), 1912 in Stockholm (major revision of the program and organization), 1932 in Los Angeles (first Olympic village, first Games to show a net financial surplus), 1936 in Berlin (first torch relay, first use of television), 1972 in Munich (first extensive use of computers) and Los Angeles, with its advancements in organization, finance, staffing and technology.

All these years later, it’s worth remembering some of those who helped make the Games so successful, many of whom have passed on. Happily, Peter Ueberroth – the LAOOC president – is still with us, but we have lost leaders such as John Argue, who led the 1976-1980-1984 Los Angeles bids so tirelessly; Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and LAOOC Chairman Paul Ziffren, who worked so quietly and effectively in the background to ensure a positive relationship between the organizers and the City; Harry Usher, the brilliant LAOOC general manager; Joel Rubenstein, the LAOOC’s first marketing chief who – with Ueberroth – created sports sponsorship as we know it today; David Wolper, who has never received the credit he is due for revamping how sports television contracts are negotiated, and then went on to create the memorable Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1984 Games; and many others.

Today, they are smiling broadly in a skybox somewhere above us, but those of us who are still here and were present for the unique moments of the 1984 Olympic Games, we cherish them still, and wonder at the lasting impact of the “little committee that could.”

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)