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LOS ANGELES – The Games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad in Los Angeles in 1984 was one of the pivot points in the history of the Olympic Movement. Beset by the terrorist murders of Munich 1972, the financial fiasco of Montreal 1976 and the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, the International Olympic Committee – and its new President, Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch – desperately needed a major success in 1984.
What they got was a revolution.
The man who led the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to heights never before imagined, Peter Ueberroth, was honored with a massive plaque saluting his achievement in the Court of Honor of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Monday morning.
Ueberroth was the first staff member of an “organizing committee” that inherited more than $300,000 in debt – in 1979 – from the bid effort that had brought the Olympic Games back to the U.S. for the first time since Los Angeles in 1932. Five years later, his LAOOC had not only staged a hugely popular Games – despite a retaliatory boycott by the USSR and most of the Warsaw Pact countries – but had re-written the book on sports management:
● Completely privately financed, the LAOOC’s original budget projected $368 million in revenues and a $21 million surplus, but ended with about $780 million in revenues and a surplus of $232.5 million. The LAOOC’s new concepts in television rights sales, sports sponsorship and ticketing made the stunning revenue total possible.
● Of that surplus, 40% went to the U.S. Olympic Committee (now the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee), 20% to the U.S. National Governing Bodies and 40% to the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles (now the LA84 Foundation). All three segments of the surplus continue to produce revenue today, through the U.S. Olympic Endowment, and the LA84 Foundation, which has supported more than three million children to participate in sports programs and certified thousands of coaches to teach them.
● The ‘84 Games was the first to widely use volunteers as the primary work force and more than 33,500 volunteers staffed the Games, mostly Angelenos, but with help from individuals from countries around the world. This program continues today and is a bedrock of the organization of every major sporting event in the world.
● The Olympic Torch Relay, up to then a short program ending with the Opening Ceremony, was expanded to a cross-country parade that raised $10.95 million for charity across 82 days, 9,375 miles and with 3,436 Youth Legacy Kilometer torch bearers.
● Significant expansions of women’s events at the Games, including the women’s marathon, and first-ever wheelchair races, with the women’s 800 m and men’s 1,500 m added as demonstration events in the track & field program.
These and many other firsts were recalled as Ueberroth, with wife Ginny and their family, was saluted by speakers including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, 1984 Olympic champions Edwin Moses (400 m hurdles) and Benita Fitzgerald Mosley (100 m hurdles) and LAOOC staff members Debra Duncan – immediate past Chair of the LA84 Foundation – and Anita DeFrantz, the retired long-time head of the LA84 Foundation and a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1986.
Garcetti, whose term as Mayor is ending this year and who helped bring the 2028 Games to Los Angeles, said of the 1984 organizing effort:
“We witnessed with our eyes what it meant to engage an entire city in an effort of common purpose. To unify a world that was split and divided; sound familiar? To see the potential of sport to not just come to the moment, but to meet that moment, and to re-write that moment. …
“You gave us a new narrative, for our city and for our world when we needed it most. …
“I hope we will not only meet the legacy, but match the legacy in ‘28, to pour more money into sports [and] games. In fact, I tried to get the surplus up front, so we got $160 million out of the IOC before we even started the Games, so whoever comes after me [as Mayor], don’t screw it up!”
The most dramatic comments came from Candace Cable, a nine-time Paralympian and the winner of six Boston Marathon women’s wheelchair titles, who was the third-placer in the women’s wheelchair 800 m race:
“By adding the two wheelchair events to the 1984 Games, you created a massive paradigm shift for us, disabled people, and also for non-disabled people all over the world. It wasn’t just for the 90,000 people in the stadium, and it wasn’t just for us athletes that were on the floor of the Coliseum – which was amazing – or even all the disabled people watching. It really was a moment where millions and millions of non-disabled people in the global community that were watching those seven to eight minutes of competition, where their negative bias and stigmas surrounding disabled people, at that time, were peeled back on that day.
“Those few minutes [on] the worldwide broadcast took us – the discarded, dehumanized, disabled people – out of the dark shadows of worthlessness, and brought us into the bright light of truth: that we are all human beings with value and deserve access and inclusion to all that life has to offer.
“Using sport as the vehicle for inclusion and access messaging was perfection.”
Moses underscored the change the LAOOC’s television and marketing programs have made across the decades:
“Peter, you and your team really changed the way sports is looked at forever, and so when you look at a sports program, you see the marketing … all that started right here, at the Coliseum, thanks to Peter Ueberroth and his fantastic team. And I appreciate it and thank you on behalf of all the athletes that aren’t here, but it’s something that has changed our generations forever.”
About 200 people attended the ceremony, staged by the LA84 Foundation in conjunction with the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission. Duncan, a key member of the team that re-wrote how tickets could be sold at a major event, recollected the not-always-upbeat view of the LAOOC in the lead-up to the Games:
“We were such underdogs and did not have much support from outside our Committee. We knew we needed a lot of things to go right for the Games to go well. We never in our wildest dreams thought they would go not only well, but be the most successful Games ever, and change the trajectory of the Olympic Movement.
“Maybe Peter knew, but I certainly didn’t, how important to the entire Olympic world it was for these Games to succeed. … We are here to celebrate the success of a Games that will never be duplicated. We are here to celebrate the individual who had the vision and wisdom and ability to lead, my dear friend, Peter Ueberroth. …
“It was truly life-changing for me, a defining moment, that I could not possibly understand at the time. Like many of my colleagues at those Games, I worked on many other Olympic organizing committees, but nothing ever came close to the feeling of success and community that I had with those 1984 Games.”
Ueberroth, now 85 and in good health, spoke only briefly at the end of the program, continuing his message that was honed in front of then-dubious audiences in 1982 and 1983:
“I just want to thank everybody. You heard a lot of nice comments; some of them were true and some of them were exaggerated, but the fact is, in this society that we all live in, everybody that I can see [here] and everybody who can be behind us or in front of us, we can make a difference. And we can all make a difference, and God bless you all.”
The massive plaque was then unveiled, facing across from that saluting Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (1917-98), who worked closely with Ueberroth to help make the Games a success. The LAOOC’s three phases – bid, organization and legacy – are now all saluted with plaques in the Coliseum’s Court of Honor for bid chair John Argue (honored in 2004), Ueberroth and Bradley (2019), and DeFrantz (2017).
Ueberroth joins William May Garland, the chief organizer of the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, with plaques in the Court of Honor, which also includes Baron Pierre de Coubertin (FRA), the founder of the modern Olympic Movement, honored in 1958, and Count Henri de Baillet-Latour (BEL), the IOC President at the time of the 1932 Games (honored in 1964).
DeFrantz, who joined the LAOOC in 1981, remembered that the organizing committee got no help at all from the 1980 Moscow organizers and had only sparse information from the 1976 Games in Montreal. But that hardly fazed Ueberroth:
“Peter saw it as an opportunity. We don’t have a map, so we’ll create our own. We’ll do the things we need to do. …
“Peter led us. I cannot, in all these years, imagine anybody else having presided over these Games. No one else had the ability to visualize what could be, and make it happen.”
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