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Golden Days

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By Paul Feinberg '85

Published Jul 1, 2009 9:05 AM


In 1984, the Olympics came to Los Angeles and history was made. The architect of that success, Peter Ueberroth, calls UCLA a "main pillar" in the achievement. And no wonder — from the competition to the campus itself, the university was a major player in the first Games to turn a profit.

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Gymnast Mary Lou Retton and coach Bela Karolyi celebrate a victory at Pauley; the Rings writ large at the opening ceremonies in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

"The Los Angeles Olympics became a spectacular dramatization of a renascent American entrepreneurial energy and optimism. The driving force behind them was Peter Victor Ueberroth," said Time magazine in 1985, explaining why it had chosen the L.A. businessman as Man of the Year.

The Man himself is a bit more restrained.

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The Olympic Village on the UCLA campus.

Sidebar: A Reporter's Notebook: Take a peek at the Bruin names that helped make the '84 Games a success. One UCLA prof founded the country's first Olympic-accredited dope-testing lab, and another helped lead the Olympic band at the opening ceremonies.

Making History: The UCLA History Project weighs in on the '84 Olympics, where Bruin athletes won 37 medals — more medals than any other university.

"The citizens of Los Angeles came together to accomplish two objectives," says Ueberroth about that fortnight a quarter-century ago when the world came to Southern California. "[To host] great games for the athletes of the world and to make the country proud. We accomplished that."

While Ueberroth's claim is true by any measure, it's also unduly modest. The Los Angeles Games revolutionized the modern Olympics and transformed the way in which the international competitions are hosted. From the first trans-American Olympic Torch Relay (which began in New York City and concluded in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with Bruin Olympian Rafer Johnson '59 bearing the flame) to the financing, which not only eschewed government funding, but actually turned a profit, exceeding $200 million.

Ueberroth considers UCLA "one of the main pillars of the 1984 Olympics," but not just because of the success enjoyed by Bruin athletes during those Games. Olympic gymnastics were held in Pauley Pavilion, while the Los Angeles Tennis Center (constructed for the Games) was the tennis facility. UCLA served along with UC Santa Barbara and USC as one of three Olympic Villages where the athletes were housed and fed. And James Easton '59 served as mayor of the UCLA Olympic Village.

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Bruin legend Rafer Johnson on his way to light the Olympic Torch; Peter Ueberroth sets the stage in 1984; let The Games begin!

As for the Games themselves, 60 UCLA-affiliated athletes and coaches participated, earning 41 medals (21 gold), including gymnasts Peter Vidmar '83, Mitch Gaylord and Tim Daggett '86 (who competed in Pauley Pavilion), and track stars Evelyn Ashford, Dwight Stones, Willie Banks '78, J.D. '83 and current UCLA women's track coach Jeanette Bolden '85. Even now, Bolden recalls the camaraderie among the Bruin contingent. "Every time you'd see somebody that was a Bruin, you would just nod and smile and you just felt that unspoken kinship. It's a legacy that lasts a lifetime."

Distinguishing the overall legacy of those Bruin-flavored Games, however, requires a bit of history: The '84 edition followed the U.S.-led boycott of the '80 Moscow Games, the fiscal disaster of the '76 Montreal Games and the terrorism at the '72 Munich Games. Only Los Angeles and Tehran showed interest in '84. Los Angeles got the bid, and then passed a ballot measure that eliminated public financing. Ueberroth, then-Mayor Tom Bradley '41 and a handful of other influencers decided they could put the Games on with private financing.

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Summer Games souvenirs were big business in 1984.

"We changed the paradigm," says Ueberroth. "In Montreal, they had over 150 sponsors. We narrowed it down to about a dozen. We gave them value and protection against their competitors. Coca-Cola was the first lead sponsor that we signed. Prior to that, no sponsor ever committed a million dollars in cash, but I'm guessing their sponsorship was $7–$10 million dollars. It was a huge breakthrough." Corporate sponsorships brought in approximately $126 million, six times more than similar programs had raised at Lake Placid or Montreal.

Due to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics, a Soviet-led boycott of L.A. was all but inevitable. The L.A. organizing committee was ready. Ueberroth explains that the committee developed a "mini state department," training envoys for three years while they each established relations in a foreign country. When the boycott was announced, the envoys deployed to encourage their contacts not to join. Judge Charles Carter Lee led a group to China and convinced them to come, while Agnes Mura did the same in Romania. Ultimately, only 14 countries boycotted Los Angeles.

Easton, whose sporting goods company produces archery equipment, was already involved in the Games as commissioner of the archery event when Ueberroth asked him to help out on campus. "The most visible responsibility I had was to greet every team when they came in, give them gifts and flags and welcome them to the village," Easton recalls. Behind the scenes, he worked at solving problems and ensuring that things did indeed go smoothly. "When one of the countries needed something, we would try to help them and make them feel happy and glad they were at UCLA," he says.

Easton, chairman and CEO of Jas. D. Easton, Inc., and his wife, Phyllis, have supported many activities on campus, from UCLA Athletics to engineering and medical research, including the Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease, to the Easton Technical Leadership Program at the Anderson School. He also is one of two U.S. representatives to the International Olympic Committee and serves on the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

His long involvement with the Games enables him to put the L.A. version in perspective.

"Immediately after the Games, in L.A. and on campus, [there was] a real pride in being an American and in being from Los Angeles and in knowing that UCLA was a significant part of it all," Easton concludes. "And those feelings are still with us 25 years later. We were proud that through free enterprise, we were able to put on the Games — without government support — and we just felt good about doing that."

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Medaling Bruin gymnast Peter Vidmar competes in Pauley; fun and games at an Olympics dance on campus; the Olympic marching band, including 125 Bruins, rehearses under the hot August sun; before the Dream Team, a collegiate basketball player named Michael Jordan helped his squad win gold.

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