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Angeleno Magic: A Retrospective of the 1984 Olympics

“It was a magic time for LA.”

My father rarely brings up a conversation topic to me with that much enthusiasm, and certainly not when it comes to topic area of sports1. But, on the topic of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Steve Ishii had stories, anecdotes, history, and even a homemade scrapbook to commemorate what he described as one of the best experiences in his lifetime… that, and of course, the birth of his two favorite children.

My dad’s scrapbook. Adorable, right? Just wait until you see what’s inside… I laughed out loud on a number of occasions while perusing through.

As I read more stories and jogged my dad's memory, as well as those of others who experienced the games from different perspectives, it was clear that the ’84 Olympics were truly a beacon of hope in the history of Los Angeles; one that pierced through the smog, abated the usual throes of automobile congestion, and served as a moment of pride, unity, and prosperity for the City of Angels.

Avoiding Financial Doomsday

Let's start with cost. I know for a fact, the Games are expensive.

As our “Nolympics” article points out, the Olympics have been a source of controversy due to the lingering economic hardships, financial debt, and abandoned capital placed on the host city/country following the games. In fact, a previous Olympics Games held in Montreal in 1976 made history by racking up a 1-billion-dollar deficit that would take them until 2006 to fully pay off. Not ignorant to this fact, the City of Los Angeles held noteworthy concerns about the probable financial doomsday that would befall the city in the aftermath of the global celebration. In fact, the City refused to assume financial responsibility. In its place, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) was formed as a private entity to coordinate, negotiate, and ultimately, bear financial responsibility for the games2; the first time such an arrangement had ever taken place in Olympic history.

Upon hearing about this arrangement, I smirked. What a uniquely “LA” approach to the Olympics.

Peter Uberroth on TIME Magazine. Illustration from Gizmodo and Medium.

Enter the name Peter Uberroth, Chairman of the LAOOC. With each of the individuals I spoke with, this was a name that came up in 100% of interviews. He was described as the “face of the LA Olympics,” and each interviewee seemed to say his name with a notion of reverence. Almost like a political and business magician, I was given the sense that his respect was earned from the fact that he was able to make the impossible, possible.

The “Los Angeles” Olympics is a bit of a misnomer. The games were spread around Southern California.

As it turns out, the ’84 Games were the first to bring in a significant profit since 1932 (Los Angeles was also the host of the Olympics in 1932)3. Rather than construct of plethora of new stadiums and housing, the LAOOC primarily renovated existing city capital: the LA Colosseum by USC for the Opening and Closing ceremonies was renovated, UCLA’s on-campus housing was utilized as the Olympic Village4, and the games were spread across Southern California at stadiums, parks, canals, and fields, all in existence, but each getting a timely facelift. You know that huge park in Long Beach, El Dorado Park? Even that was given a little upgrade to host the Olympic archery competition.

Snapped this photo at an event I visited at the LA 84 Foundation building on West Adams. I almost fainted when I saw this life-sized stuffed mascot (I love stuffed animals).

As history would have it, in one of the greatest magic tricks in Olympic history, the LAOOC hosted a “Spartan Olympics”5 that minimized cost and earned close to $250 million6 in net revenue. This amount would eventually create and endow the LA 84 Foundation, a nonprofit that remains a national leader in grantmaking to youth sports groups and activities7. The significant profit would also reinvigorate the willingness of cities to put out an Olympic bid for decades to come.

Carmaggedon Crisis Averted

Being no stranger to the standard one-hour LA commute, of course, I had to ask about traffic.

“Los Angeles was not the ideal place to host,” said my father. In fact, all the interviewees recalled a general skepticism, both domestic and abroad, due to the congestion and smog commonly associated with the city. My father cited an article in the paper describing a weekend with five concurrently occurring major sporting events, describing traffic conditions as comparable to what congestion might look like during the three weeks of the games. “People were saying 'it’s going to be horrible… good luck,'” he said as he recounted public outlook on the environment of the games.

Uniform decorations like this adorned the Greater Los Angeles area. Photo from the Commemorative Book of the XXIIrd Olympiad.

But as another work of magic, Peter Uberroth and the LAOOC took a two-pronged approach to solving LA’s persistent traffic problem. The first was a simple ask. Approaching each of LA’s major businesses, the ask was made to minimize work and encourage time-off during the period of the Olympic Games; this was an ask that many LA businesses were amenable to. The second was the development of the RTD bus system to provide direct and regular transportation to all locations of the Games.

My dad kept these souvenir RTD bus passes in his scrapbook.

Even the RTD rides seemed to be a work of magic. As my father showed me the souvenir bus passes (which were only $10 flat for all transportation throughout the games) and described the ease of parking and riding and the virtually empty freeways to and from the venues, it was clear that the LAOOC had made good on promises that were previously inconceivable.

No Crime, No Controversy… No Homeless?

Let’s talk security post-Munich.

Security around the protection of the athletes was at an all-time high for these games. In my interview with Paul Hirano, who served as a medical volunteer in the Olympic Village, he described his uniform which came with a name tag and a specific security clearance. In the aftermath of tragedy with the Munich games, the Los Angeles games instituted new heightened security measures for the protection of the athletes. “For volunteers, you had to go through something like we see at the airports now. Bags searched, and metal detectors. This would be normal now, but back then, it was a lot,” described Hirano. Volunteers were allocated differing levels of security clearance with badges scanned frequently to ensure clearance of individuals at any location.

This is my dad... referring to himself... in his own scrapbook.

That was the story for the athletes, but beyond the borders of the official Olympic housing and services campus, the story seemed to change. “For those three weeks, the police force was your friend,” my father stated as he described the relatively low crime rate during the period of the games. He described a nearly picturesque Los Angeles with no controversy, no civil unrest, and no homelessness. Up until this point, it was clear that the LA Olympics had worked some magic… but the eradication of homelessness across the city seemed too good to be true. All interviewed parties seemed to have a general gap in knowledge when it came to how LA handled its widespread homeless population.

This seemed preposterous. It was time to do a bit more digging.

As I discovered, in lesser know history of the ’84 Olympics, Los Angeles sought to “sanitize” the city through increased policing and municipal law. Laws prohibiting the habitation of streets, the usage of vehicles as domiciles, and sleeping on bus benches were passed while the Los Angeles Police Department swept the streets with an associated set of incarcerations and relocations. One LAPD Captain was quoted as saying that the LAPD would “have more police officers on the streets… than at any time in the city’s history.”8

This seemed more realistic. Yes, LA made its homeless population “disappear,” but no magic tricks here.

“LA Saved the 1984 Olympics”

In quick history lesson, my father reminded me that the 1984 Olympics took place seven years before the official fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. As a retaliation to the US’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the USSR announced they would not be participating in the Los Angeles games (with the exception of Romania) two weeks before the start of the games. The boycott presented a gap in ticket sales, with non-favorable revenue and occupancy predictions.

Photo from the Commemorative Book of the XXIIrd Olympiad.

“I think LA really saved the Olympics that year,” said my father, proudly. “When they found out two weeks before that there were huge amounts of tickets available, the LAOOC offered up everything for sale. Everyone in LA bought tickets. Everything was sold out, and it was all locals. From the bottom to the top row every seat was sold out.”

In a truly unique and affordable turn of events, residents like my parents were able to get choice seating at major events and even in the opening and closing ceremonies for the games. “We got seats really close to the flag stand. Carl Lewis – the fastest man in the world at the time, was close enough where I could take his picture,” he said, as he flipped to the impressively close-up shot in his scrapbook.

Oh my stars… what is this caption??

It wasn’t just the spectators. He also went into the impressive number of volunteers that that LAOOC was able to recruit to assist in all facets of the games. This wasn’t surprising to me, in fact, if anything, it sounds like something that I would call “so LA.”

A Spirit of Togetherness

Two of my interviewees had donated their time as volunteers to the Olympics that year. While differing in age and volunteer role, both vividly remember feeling the unity of the Games. Paul Hirano, mentioned earlier, was an optometrist at the time and volunteered his professional expertise to the Olympic medical clinic located on the UCLA campus near the village housing the athletes. In ten shifts over ten days, he served patients from swimmers to sailors, from China to Switzerland. Recalling his experience, he described a feeling of unity emitted from the athletes. “There was certainly comradery, and it was exciting to be around all of these athletes,” stated Hirano as he described the athletes he interacted with in the clinic and in his walks around the village.

Photo from the Steve Ishii scrapbook. This is how good his seats were!

Kathleen Chuman, a high schooler at the time, found herself with the unique opportunity of working the set during the opening and closing ceremonies. She was quick to share that the days leading up to the opening ceremony were more miserable than magic, attributing it to the sweltering heat during the many practice sessions as well as the not-so-fashionable green coverall outfits assigned to the volunteers. Chuman was also assigned the rather daunting task of running, not walking, a giant tympany drum off the field, up the stairs, and into the tunnel. “I remember, the whole thing I was gearing up for was making it up those stairs with that tympany drum,” she humorously recalled. But it was in the aftermath of her assignment that she described feeling the magic of the games:

“As the opening ceremonies were closing, I was on the field, and at one point after the parade of athletes finished, everyone just rushed into the middle of the field and started dancing. It was like the most festive, joyous, unifying scene I’ve ever seen.”

She went on to describe how nobody cared where anyone was from. Instead, the feeling of unity, freedom, and peace permeated through the field that evening.

Funny story that Kathleen Chuman shared about these helium balloons launched at the opening ceremonies: as they lost their helium, they eventually descended to random locations across LA for weeks after the games.

So there it was again: magic, but not in the form of revenue, or in the absence of smog, but instead, in the spirit of patriotism mixed with world unity - the best part of the games that we're all familiar with, corroborated by people who felt it live and in-person.  

Here’s Looking at You 2028

I feel conflicted about our 2028 games. I’m hopeful yet skeptical, excited yet scared.

Yet again, another award-winning photo caption dad. I’m not sure if I would call Cerritos, California “abroad.”

Although it’s clear that the ’84 Games produced magic tricks never before seen in Olympic nor Los Angeles history, not even magic can solve all of the city’s problems. And as the 2028 slowly inches closer, any certainty of how we’ll humanely handle those issues is yet to be said.

So, it’s a conflicting feeling. While on one hand a modern day local Olympic palooza will bring all the pomp and circumstance, infrastructure upgrades, (hopefully) profitable revenue for ongoing philanthropy, and worldwide unity to this incredible place we call LA, will we shove our problems under the rug, or seek to remedy? Will we seek to hide the real issues of our city in a quick shell game, or provide the world with an example of a real city with real issues being addressed in stride?

It’s a daunting task to be certain, but if these stories from the ’84 games have shown anything, it’s that magic can happen, and maybe, just maybe, we’ve still got a few tricks left up our sleeve.

References
1 As those who are close to me know. Sports and Craig Ishii are like mixing Gatorade with ramen noodles… they just don’t go together.
2 Games of the XXIIIrd Olmpiad Los Angeles 1984
3 "Olympic Cities: Booms and Busts". Cnbc.com. 2012-01-19. Retrieved 2014-02-07.
4 For UCLA alumni, Bruin Walk was also paved at this time as part of the Olympic Village campus renovations
5 "Lessons from LA's 1984 Summer Olympics". curbed.com. 2018-05-17. Retrieved 2020-08-08.
6 "The Surplus of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games Continues to Benefit Youngsters in Southern California". la84.org. 2012-06-13. Retrieved 2020-08-08.
7 "Our Story." LA 84 Foundation, https://la84.org/our-story/
8 "LA ‘sterilized’ its streets for the ’84 Olympics—how will it treat the homeless in 2028?". curbed.com. 2018-07-12. Retrieved 2020-08-08.


Special Thank You's
Kathy Chuman
Paul Hirano
Mother & Father!

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