LANE ONE: Bach asks for “frugal Games” in Tokyo; what can be learned from the ultimate “frugal” organizers in Los Angeles four decades ago?

John C. Argue (1932-2002), driving force behind the bid for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He famously wrote of the organizing philosophy of the Games: "Arrangements are to be spartan." (Photo: LA84 Foundation)

For those of a certain age, who lived through a prior crisis that threatened the existence of the Olympic Games, it was simply staggering to hear International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach of Germany talk about the future relevance of the Olympic Games during an online teleconference with 300-plus reporters last week:

“I think, first, as society, we will be much more health conscious than before. Society will also be, to say, more relying, I guess, on human efforts, less maybe on algorithms predicting the future and taking their fate in their own hands. Society will also be more concentrated on essentials, and maybe not so much anymore than the ‘nice to have’ things in society. And all this will be reflected in the organization of these postponed Olympic Games.

“You know, we were discussing this among us, and I think I mentioned it at the beginning, to say, that we want to have – we want this Olympic Games – to be frugal Games, concentrating on the essentials, and the spirit and the message of the Olympic Games.” (emphasis added)

Frugal Games? F-R-U-G-A-L Games? The IOC? Really? What?

Before the end of the 47-minute session, Bach made sure that everyone got the message, again. Asked about when the sports program of the Paris 2024 Games would be confirmed, Bach doubled down:

“We are in discussion concerning this question with Paris 2024. As we are in discussion with Paris 2024, on a wider scope, already, what can be transferred, maybe, from the new measures we take for Tokyo; also to Paris ‘24. So, how can Paris ‘24 benefit from this new approach there in line with Olympic Agenda 2020 and in line with the New Norm, and where we are – as I said in this Olympism and Corona message – now already in a new phase of looking into a new reduction of costs, or better said, focusing on the essentials of the Games. So you can see this, the question you are raising, in this wider context.” (emphasis added)

For those who were part of the Los Angeles organizing effort leading up to the Games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad in 1984, this was the realization, the validation and the vindication of the approach summarized in the first sentence of the bid committee’s responses to the questionnaires of the IOC and the International Federations back in 1978:

“Arrangements are to be spartan.”

As outlined by Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games chair John Argue, the principal driver of the L.A. bid effort for the ‘84 Games, that sentence and the 149 pages that followed underscored the determination not to follow the example of Montreal, whose just-concluded 1976 Games ended with a deficit of more than C$1 billion, which was not paid off until 2006.

It’s now well remembered that the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee ended its tenure with a record surplus of $232.5 million. Although mostly disrespected by the Olympic Movement in the years after the ‘84 Games, many LAOOC staff members have wondered when the careful approach that made our success would be widely adopted.

Maybe that time has come. So how did it happen?

The key document that crystalized the as-developed LAOOC approach wasn’t issued until 16 January 1984. Created primarily by LAOOC Planning Director Lee Aurich and called the “Commissioner’s Mandate for the Preparatory Phase,” it was a 15-page list of instructions to the LAOOC Commissioners for each of the 21 sports on the program.

Selected primarily from business, these individuals had the ultimate authority of each of their sports … within limits. Those limits, and the overall goals of the organization, were outlined with clarity in this document. Two highlights:

● “The Commissioner should strive to prepare and operate the venue in a manner consistent with overall LAOOC policy. The Commissioner is not staging a world championship. Rather LAOOC is staging 23 sports which create an integrated event perceived by the world as a unified whole. Consequently, deviations between sports as to services which will not be recognized as different by anyone other than the IF are not appropriate.”

● “The primary objective is to make the Games work. Whatever emergencies occur, the show must go on. The public perception of the Commissioner’s venue and the overall Games should be of a smooth, functioning, integrated event.

“The Commissioner’s second goal is to make the venue function for each of the audiences. These are:

TV Public
Press (written and photo)

“Finally, the events at the venue should be staged at a reasonable cost; not a minimal cost, not a spartan cost, not a lavish cost, but at a cost which provides for a reasonable show.”

Those were the goals, reinforced by an 8 June 1984 document called the “Commissioner’s Authority Memo,” which further detailed the responsibilities of the sports commissioners and those of the operating departments.

Not everyone was happy with the mandate memo, including those of us in Press Operations, working feverishly to meet the needs of the 9,150 news media accredited for the Games and who felt our priority was way too low. But, as it turned out, our allocation of facilities and staff was more than satisfactory to meet everyone’s needs; our authority was also strengthened later in the mandate memo.

The LAOOC’s “reasonable show” turned out to revolutionize the Olympic Games, sports marketing worldwide, event staffing and many technical areas, such as accreditation (where the LAOOC-created approach is still in use).

Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 will find their own innovations on the way to success in staging their Games, especially now that impact, rather than cost, is being emphasized by no less than the President of the International Olympic Committee.

Those who served with the Los Angeles organizing committee were told, almost continuously, that the Games would fail, and probably end after 1984. We never believed a word of it and worked desperately to make the event a success for our city, for sport and for the future.

That an IOC President has, actually and enthusiastically, endorsed Argue’s strategy – albeit a little less dramatically – 42 years later, is one of the most rewarding legacies that any organizing committee can have.

Thanks, Thomas.

Rich Perelman

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