The Sports Examiner: Remembering the pivotal Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games

The Opening Ceremony of the Games of the Xth Olympiad in Los Angeles in 1932 (Photo: Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games)

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As Friday, 28 July was the 39th anniversary of the revolutionary Games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad in Los Angeles, Sunday was the 91st anniversary of the equally-important Games of the Xth Olympiad, also in Los Angeles, in 1932.

While the U.S. sports movement had been a key collaborator with France’s Pierre de Coubertin in the revival of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, the first Games held in the U.S. – in St. Louis in 1904 – was widely considered a disaster, lumped in with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the 1904 World’s Fair.

Los Angeles changed all that. Like so many Olympic bids, the concept was developed by a civic group – the California Fiestas Association – as a way to promote Los Angeles nationally and internationally, just as “Hollywood” was beginning to become synonymous with the motion picture industry.

Prominent developer William May “Billy” Garland made a trip to the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games and met with the IOC, asking for the 1924 Games. But Paris and Amsterdam were already in line for 1924 and 1928; nevertheless, the IOC elected Garland as a member from the U.S.

And, low and behold, Los Angeles was awarded the Games in 1923, the same year in which the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was opened as the city’s monument to its World War I servicemen. The heavy-duty organizing didn’t get started until 1929, after the California Olympiad Bond Act of 1927 was confirmed by 73-27% in November 1928 to provide $1 million in funding for the organizing of the Games.

Then the Depression hit, but Los Angeles plowed ahead. Despite massive doubts on the local, national and international levels, a staff of 70 finally put the event together with enormous local support, but no additional government funding.

And on 30 July 1932, U.S. Vice President Charles Curtis opened the Games before 101,022 at the Coliseum. Given the distances and the Depression, only 1,503 athletes were entered and 1,427 participated from 37 countries, in 14 sports and 117 events, per the Official Report of the Games.

The 1932 Games impacted the future of the Olympic Movement in significant ways:

● First Games contained within 16 days; prior Games had been spread over many weeks or months.

● First all-nations Olympic Village, built on a temporary basis on 250 acres in Baldwin Park; this was for men only; the 126 women athletes were accommodated at the Chapman Park Hotel.

● First awards podium, with the raising of flags and playing of anthems, requested in 1931 by IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour (BEL).

● First appearance of automatic timing and photo-finish technology, by former American Olympic Association President Gustavus T. Kirby, working with Western Electric.

● First organizing committee to realize a post-Games surplus, after repaying the $1 million bond which initially financed it!

The Xth Olympiade Committee reported a surplus of $1.25 million after expenses, and then won a court fight to repay $1,053,733 in California bond money (with interest) voted in 1928. The final surplus was approximately $196,267 in 1933 – in the depths of the Great Depression – and given to the city and county.

The individual star of the Games had to be the wiry Texan, Mildred “Babe” Didriksen of the U.S., 21, who won the women’s 80 m hurdles and javelin – both new events – and was second in the high jump in a jump-off.

A permanent memorial to the Games, not well known by many Angelenos today was the renaming of the important east-west artery Tenth Street as Olympic Boulevard in honor of the Xth Olympiad.

The 1932 Games was so successful that Garland was asked in 1939 to form a group to take over the 1940 Olympic Games, given to Tokyo, but which was deeply involved in a brutal invasion of China. The result was the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, which finally brought the Games back to Los Angeles for the Games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad in 1984.

~ Rich Perelman

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