A revolution with a happy ending: Los Angeles 1984

PALM DESERT, Jul. 28, 2016 – Amid the unceasing reports of the problems in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, veterans of past Olympic organizing committees are smiling.

They have been through this before.

Rio has challenges, no doubt. But on the 32nd anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of another Games – in Los Angeles in 1984 – it’s worth remembering that warnings of impending gloom can give way to sunshine and satisfaction.

The 1984 Games established the modern format of a major-event organizing committee that maximizes revenues from television rights sales, corporate sponsors and ticket sales and uses a primarily volunteer workforce to operate the event. But it was also heavily criticized and dismissed as a failure-in-waiting because of the absence of government funding or even a guarantee.

Having served as the Vice President/Press Operations, in charge of support services for the 9,150 press, radio and television staffs attending the Games, and then as the Editor-in-Chief of the Official Report of the Games, I had an opportunity to participate and then reflect on why that organizing committee was able to create the format for all mega-events that followed.

The key was discipline.

In my view, there were five indispensable individuals who molded, shaped and produced the remarkable success of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC). This is not to de-emphasize the critical role of more than 1,500 full-time staff members of the organizing committee, the 33,000-plus volunteers and the goodwill and support of the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Movement and so on. But these five created the last revolutionary Games the Movement has seen:

Peter Ueberroth, David Wolper, John Argue and Harry Usher at the '84 Opening Ceremony after-party
(Left to right) Peter Ueberroth, David Wolper, John Argue and Harry Usher at the ’84 Opening Ceremony after-party
  • John Argue:
    The chair of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games (SCCOG), Argue was the shepherd-in-chief of the Los Angeles bids for the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Games. Despite losses to Montreal and Moscow, he never lost confidence that the Games could be a great success in Los Angeles. He was right.
  • Tom Bradley:
    The Mayor of Los Angeles for the 1980 and 1984 bids, Bradley’s cool command of city politics (in close coordination with City Council president John Ferraro) and then of his own departments in the run-up to the Games was critical and has been under-appreciated. The private-sector achievements of the LAOOC would have been impossible without unwavering support.
  • David Wolper:
    Renowned after the Games for his spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Wolper was a key member of the SCCOG in the bid phase, and of the LAOOC. But most important was his breakthrough concept that U.S. television rights should be sold based on the projected advertising sales of the domestic broadcaster rather than on any reference to any previous sales price. The result was a then-staggering $225 million (plus $100 million in host-broadcasting services) deal with ABC that was the foundation of the LAOOC’s financial success.
  • Peter Ueberroth:
    Elected by a single vote to head the LAOOC in 1979, he worked seamlessly with Argue, Bradley, Wolper and others to create and lead a cutting-edge organization that brought innovation, determination and fearlessness to the organizing effort. He is rightly credited with the insistence on building as little as possible, recognizing from his study of past Games that Olympic operations had made money, but the overall budgets were capsized by construction costs.
  • Harry Usher:
    Asked by his friend Ueberroth to put aside his law practice and become General Manager of the LAOOC, Usher mastered the unending details of actually staging the Games. His ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of the organization yielded a discipline in the staff, sponsors, vendors and officials that made the Games so well planned that a minimum of supervision was needed during the actual events.
Tom Bradley, Los Angeles's Olympic Mayor
Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’s Olympic Mayor

All but Ueberroth have passed away, and they are much missed, as friends as well as colleagues.

A reporter of long acquaintance called yesterday and asked if the Los Angeles experience – a Games long on organizational excellence, but without excessive public spending – is either “possible” or “realistic.”

It’s both.

The key is discipline.

The LAOOC was loathed for saying “no,” when previous organizers had agreed to plan changes that increased costs. And this led to a considerable period of revisionist history that the success of the 1984 Games was more luck than work. Those voices have receded. When – in 1978 – the Olympic Movement teetered on the abyss, with no bid cities other than a privately-funded experiment in Los Angeles, the long shot came through, with $232.5 million to spare.

Today’s hand-wringing over Rio reflects the same worries as have bedeviled all Olympic organizers since the modern Games were first held in Athens in 1896. That does not mean that the Games will not be a success, this year or in the future. Every time it seems the Olympic Movement is lagging, a long shot comes through.

Los Angeles did, 32 years ago today.

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