Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Olympics: Silver anniversary brings back golden memories

AP National Writer

In many ways, Peter Ueberroth looks at the uncomfortable bickering over the billions of dollars the Olympics produce as a good thing.

It means they are still thriving, a quarter century after the Los Angeles Games that gave us Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton and Mary Decker also revolutionized an Olympic movement that was on the verge of extinction.
The 25th anniversary of the opening ceremonies in Los Angeles is Tuesday. In an interview, Ueberroth acknowledged some of the current problems that plague the Olympics — with tension between the U.S. and International Olympic Committees at the top of the list.
“Do some people get a little crazy when there’s a lot of money on the table, the way there is today? Yeah, they do,” Ueberroth said. “But you can look beyond that. The L.A. Games are a very good part of the heritage.”
Los Angeles was awarded the games in 1978, with the Olympics still reeling from the tragedies of Munich and the financial disaster of Montreal, which carried $1.5 billion in debt out of the 1976 Games — a bill that wasn’t paid off until 2006. Local and national governments footed the bills back then, and the mayor of Montreal infamously said the Olympics were such a proven winner that the city could “no more have a deficit, than a man can have a baby.”
Against that backdrop, Tehran was the only other city to show any interest in hosting the 1984 Olympics. Los Angeles was seriously considering giving them back, when the idea to turn the games into a privately financed endeavor came about.
That led to the hiring of Ueberroth, who helped the L.A. Games turn a profit of $233 million. He sharply reduced the number of sponsors but increased what they paid, a model that has proven to be a winner over time. He maximized payments for TV rights, which today represent the biggest chunk of money taken in by the IOC, but back then were negotiated directly between the networks and the local organizing committees.
“It was a paradigm shift,” said Edwin Moses, who took the athlete’s oath at opening ceremonies, and later won a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles. “The explosion of corporate sponsorship changed the look of all sports, maybe pro sports, most of all.”
Ueberroth was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for making those games a success, and they were memorable for more than the bottom line.
—Lewis won four gold medals, matching the record haul of Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936.
—Decker was a favorite in the 3,000 meters, only to see her hopes squashed when she got tangled with Zola Budd and had to be carried off the track in tears — one of the most heartbreaking, and made-for-TV, moments in Olympic history.
—Retton became a household name, winning the gymnastics all-around with her perfect 10s on the floor and vault and getting swallowed up in hugs from her coach, Bela Karolyi.
—Shooter Xu Haifeng became the first Chinese athlete to win an Olympic medal. China did not honor the Soviet Union’s call for a boycott — a gesture Ueberroth believes was invaluable for the long-term health of the Olympics.
—In fact, the Soviet boycott of the games backfired on most fronts, maybe most notably because it allowed so many more Americans to win medals and become famous, which stoked greater interest in the Olympic movement in the world’s biggest media market.
Ueberroth gave credit to former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch for making the L.A. template a permanent part of the Games instead of merely handing it off to the next hosts, Seoul, South Korea.
The template has been replicated and refined numerous times and the Olympics have thrived. They are now the ultimate brand name in sports, a biennial event that stands above almost every other sporting event for athletes, media, fans and sponsors.
“The results were much better than any expectations,” Samaranch wrote in a letter Ueberroth read to a gathering that met to celebrate the 25th anniversary. “The L.A. Games meant the beginning of a new era in the games’ concept and organization. L.A. delivered and its organizational success generated vast interest from cities to become, themselves, organizers, when for 1984, L.A. was the only bidder.”
Of course, the success has also begat the current strife between international leaders and those in the United States. They are fighting over the way TV and sponsorship money is shared, as well as the recent USOC plan to start its own Olympic TV network.
All this comes against the backdrop of another American city, Chicago, trying to land the 2016 Olympics. Many wonder if the USOC’s sticky relationship with the IOC will hamper the city’s chances when the vote is taken in October.
But Ueberroth doesn’t let today’s problems dim his outlook or tarnish his feelings about the legacy of Los Angeles. As one small example of the success, he points to the rise of hundreds of Olympic athletes over the past two decades from countries that couldn’t afford to run their own programs without the financial help of a rich Olympic movement.
“I think there’s never a perfect world, but back then, nobody would put on an Olympic Games,” Ueberroth said. “They were in the worst position of all. If we didn’t do it privately, it wouldn’t happen. So overall, things are much better.”