Category Archives: olympic savior

Los Angeles as the Olympic savior (again?)

(Newsday, March 1, 1979)

What if we updated that headline by 40 years? Will the 2024 Olympics Be the Last?

Los Angeles wound up staging the 1984 Summer Games because no other city wanted them. Now, a decision by the International Olympic Committee executive board, proposing that both the 2024 and 2028 Games be awarded simultaneously later this year, essentially has acknowledged that L.A. likely is the only possible host for ’28.

The IOC should have seen around this corner a long time ago, as Olympic candidates are increasingly shying away from the financial demands and public doubts of staging an elaborate 17-day festival that leaves behind far more debt and white elephants than global goodwill. Only L.A. and Paris remain in the exhaustive, expensive campaign for ’24 after Boston, Hamburg, Rome and Budapest withdrew prematurely, just as Oslo and Stockholm changed their minds about trying for the 2022 Winter Games.

So, rather than be stuck without a 2028 suitor, the IOC proclaimed both L.A. and Paris will get the next two Summer Games after Tokyo hosts in 2020. The loser in ’24—widely assumed to be Los Angeles, because Paris is “due” after losing bids in 1992, 2008 and 2012 and would be celebrating the centennial of its last Olympics in 1924—will be left with the ’28 consolation prize.

If, in fact, it can be considered a prize to operate an event that fills the IOC coffers while having to assume all cost overruns, as per IOC custom. To accept the 2028 Games, instead of the preferred 2024 event, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti suggested there should be a multi-million dollar IOC investment into his city’s youth sports programs. To which IOC president Thomas Bach haughtily replied, “You don’t need to reward somebody if you give them a present.”

Maybe that is what Los Angeles gets for having declared itself “an eternal Olympic city,” always ready with a solvent plan of existing venues and “unwavering public support.” But Bach has been around long enough—he was part of West Germany’s gold-medal Olympic fencing team in 1976—to know it was L.A. that gave the IOC the ultimate present in 1984. By keeping the Olympics alive.

It was on March 1, 1979 that the IOC formally signed the contract to put the ’84 Games in L.A., long after the only other bid city—Tehran, Iran—dropped out of the race. Days earlier, I had been in the office of 37-year-old Los Angeles lawyer John Argue, the man who had finally succeeded in pitching L.A.’s Olympic candidacy after years of trying. Though by default. The financial disaster of 1976, when Montreal left a $1.5 million debt that took 30 years to pay off, came “really close” to killing the Olympics, Argue said then.

“I honestly believe the Games are very much in jeopardy,” he said. “Three cities bid for the ’76 Games. Two bid for the ’80 Games. And only us for ’84. There truly were no other bid cities. We heard the Games were not welcome in Munich, Montreal, Mexico City”—the previous three summer hosts.

Attention had to be paid to the disasters in each of those cities—the Mexican government killing at least 250 unarmed demonstrators days before the ’68 Mexico City Games; Palestinian terrorists murdering 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation in Munich in ’72; the wasteful spending and corrupt leadership of Montreal organizers in ’76.

Still, the IOC stubbornly insisted that Los Angeles abide by its “Rule No. 4,” which required host cities to bear all financial responsibility for the operation of the Games. And the U.S. Olympic Committee originally dismissed Argue’s massive money-saving plan to use USC and UCLA dorms to house the world’s competitors, rather than spend more than $100 million on the traditional athletes village. “The first reaction of the USOC,” Argue said, “was, ‘impossible. The IOC will want a village.’

“We were eyeball-to-eyeball,” Argue said. “And [the IOC] blinked. In a way, they were playing brinksmanship with the Olympics—which they really didn’t have to do.”

Argue, after all, was about to save their bacon. He was a passionate Olympic patriot. He was born in 1932, the year L.A. staged its first Olympics, the son of a 1924 Olympic pentathlete, and followed his father as chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, which was formed in 1939 and had been agitating to return the Games to L.A. ever since.

Argue’s group hired as L.A.’s Olympic organizing chief an unknown travel executive named Peter Ueberroth, whose deft guidance of the Games got him named Time magazine’s Man of the Year and led to a turn as Major League Baseball commissioner. Under Ueberroth, Los Angeles established the gold standard for Olympic efficiency, marketing and fiscal sanity.

L.A. created the first “official sponsorships” of the Games, the first “unified look” of branding, and used 40 percent of its record $223 million surplus to fund the LA84Foundation, which doled out more than $185 million in donations to more than 1,000 southern California sports organizations over the next 25 years—including to a youth program that nurtured the likes of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams.

John Argue died in 2002, at 70. And what he prioritized in 1979 for the ’84 L.A. Games—that “we must demonstrate to the world that you don’t have to go broke staging the Olympics”—was so successful that it not only saved the Games but, through its ability to raise big money, also released the beasts of profligate spending at future Olympics. So that now we may be coming full cycle, back to the Montreal problem.

Neither the 2014 Sochi Winter Games nor last summer’s Rio Olympics did anything to restore economic sense. Television ratings, already slipping, won’t be helped by the next three Olympics being played out in Far East time zones—2018 Winter in Pyeongchang, South Korea; 2020 Summer in Tokyo, 2022 Winter in Beijing.

Just this week, the Olympics’ major sponsor, McDonald’s, ended its 41-year sponsorship of the Games—three years early—a high-profile departure that Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly cited as “just the latest signal that the Olympic operation is in decline, along with the benefit of being linked to it.”

Another signal is the IOC’s 2024-2028 host-city packaging, clearly uneasy about future efforts to bring this bloated, unbalanced monster in for a landing. Really: Might the 2024 Olympics be the last?