Westwood and UCLA community members recall the 1984 Summer Olympics with fondness and pride as the Los Angeles 2024 Exploratory Committee refines its bid to host the Games again in 2024.
Sandy Brown, president of the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association and member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Committee, said Los Angeles has never looked better than when the city hosted the Olympics in 1984.
“The streets were calm and quiet, but there was the greatest excitement in the air,” she said.
After Montreal incurred a $1.5 billion debt from the Olympics in 1976, no other city wanted to take on the financial burden of hosting in 1984, said Zev Yaroslavsky, who was a Los Angeles City councilmember at the time. He added the city had the leverage to demand a binding promise that would keep taxpayers from having to bear the burden of the cost of the games.
The 1984 Olympics were the first not to be sponsored by the federal government, so the city hosted the “Spartan” Olympics, a budget-conscious games with controlled expenditures led by businessman Peter Ueberroth.
Yaroslavsky said organizers saved money by modifying existing venues instead of building new ones. The design team used affordable and temporary materials, such as festival tents, modified scaffolding and painted cardboard tubes.
“Instead of using a theme of red, white and blue, they used a beautiful palette of magenta, orange and aqua to show that they were welcoming the whole world,” said Steve Sann, chair of the Westwood Community Council who graduated from UCLA in 1983.
UCLA hosted the primary Olympic Village in Drake Stadium, which was transformed into a main street with shops and other establishments. The Hill housed more than 4,000 athletes and staffers.
“Everywhere you went you could see the spirit of the Olympics with colorful banners,” Brown said. “Walking through the village and seeing the welcoming ceremony for each country was one of my favorite memories.”
The Opening Ceremony
Many Westwood and UCLA officials said they thought the opening ceremony at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was the highlight of the 1984 Olympic Games.
UCLA alumnus Rafer Johnson, who won the gold medal in the decathlon in the 1960 Olympics, vividly remembered running up the steps to light the Olympic cauldron during the ceremony.
“My heart was beating so hard, I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I was replaying in my mind the path I travelled through high school sports, my dream to be an Olympian and what it was like being an American athlete standing on the field watching the cauldron being lit. The emotion was overwhelming. I can still feel it today.”
Yaroslavsky remembered Romania was the only Eastern bloc country to participate, because the Soviet nations boycotted the games in response to the United States boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow.
“The Romanian team got a standing ovation and the loudest cheers because everyone in the stadium knew they had bucked their political cohorts,” he said. “The American public understood it wasn’t easy for them to come.”
American swimmer Robin Leamy, a UCLA student at the time, won the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics by swimming for the winning U.S. team in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. He said his most vivid memory was walking into the stadium with the U.S. team at the ceremony.
“Our team came in last, so we were waiting anxiously in the back,” Leamy said. “We came around the corner and saw the stands packed with screaming Americans. It was electrifying. There’s nothing else like it.”
Gordon Henderson, director of bands and vice chair of the UCLA department of music, was assistant director of the 736-member Olympic All-American Band in 1984. He said 125 UCLA band members participated in the event, more than any other school involved.
“Everyone in the band realized this was a once in a lifetime experience and there would probably never be a band like this again, and they were right,” Henderson said.
Then-UCLA students Peter Vidmar, Mitchell Gaylord and Timothy Daggett won medals in the Olympic gymnastics competition, which was held in Pauley Pavilion. Vidmar won a gold medal and Gaylord became the first American gymnast to score a perfect 10 in the Olympics.
“That was an unbelievable bit of Olympic history,” Sann said. “Not only did they win in their home country, but also in their own school.”
Henderson said he remembers sitting on the floor of Pauley Pavilion with the band just a few feet from the U.S. Olympic team bench during the women’s gymnastics competition. He watched American athlete Mary Lou Retton become the first female gymnast outside of Eastern Europe to win the individual all-around gold medal.
UCLA also hosted tennis, which was a demonstration sport at the time, at the Los Angeles Tennis Center, which was completed just in time for the games.
Yaroslavsky said he recalls watching American athlete Joan Benoit cruise past him on Rodeo Road during the women’s marathon, the first to be held as a part of the Olympics. He said watching her become the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon champion inspired him to run a marathon himself.
Yaroslavsky ran the 1985 Los Angeles Marathon, where Joan Benoit was signing autographs.
Looking toward the 2024 Olympic Games
Despite being the first privately funded Olympic Games, budget-conscious planning leading up to the 1984 Games allowed organizers to generate over $230 million in profit, earning Ueberroth the title of Time Magazine’s 1985 Man of the Year. The only other Summer Games to return a profit were the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932.
LA24 spokesman Jeffrey Millman said he estimates a $161 million surplus if the city hosts again in 2024.
Yaroslavsky said one hole in the current budget proposal is a lack of funding for security, which he thinks is typically one of the most costly aspects of the games. He added London spent $1.6 billion on security alone when the city hosted in 2012.
Millman said organizers expect the federal government to pay for security, as it typically does for all games hosted in the country.
Yaroslavsky added he thinks the current budget also underestimates the cost to build the Olympic Village. The Los Angeles budget proposes $1 billion for the village, while Boston and Tokyo budgets estimated $2.5 billion and $3 billion, respectively.
Over the next two years, LA24 will refine its bid and present it to the International Olympic Committee, which will choose a host city in September 2017. Other cities in the running include Paris; Rome; Budapest, Hungary and Hamburg, Germany.
“If the committee sincerely works toward keeping costs low and approaches it from a place of cooperation, then the games could be a huge success,” Yaroslavsky said. “The whole city loved hosting the world in 1984, and the city wants to do it again.”