By Mark Heisler
In the wake of the just-concluded Winter Games—aka They Can Even Sell This Stuff?—it’s amazing to think how little was left of the Olympic movement in 1984, when it crawled into Los Angeles on its last legs.
After the horrific murder-kidnapping in Munich in 1972 that showed the event had become a global lightning rod, the 1976 financial disaster in Montreal and the boycotted Moscow Olympics in 1980, Los Angeles got the games by default.
The only other interested city, Tehran, withdrew from bidding due to a change in the political climate, the Shah of Iran having just been deposed.
As it was, the International Olympic Committee, which had held its Summer Games on U.S. soil only twice in the previous 90 years—Los Angeles in 1932 and St. Louis way back in 1904—didn’t have its heart set on a return.
As recounted in Alfred Senn’s “Power, Politics, and the Olympics,” the IOC saw Los Angeles’ bare-bones budget as an affront, with IOC head Lord Killanin saying that his body would make its own determination if “economical” meant “uncomfortable.”
Relations with the IOC had been badly strained by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow games. Peter Ueberroth, who organized the 1984 games, wrote later that when he arrived for the ceremony presenting the host with a Los Angeles flag (President Jimmy Carter forbade displaying the Stars and Stripes), Reginald Alexander, the head of the Kenyan delegation, told him: “You represent the ugly face of capitalism and its attempt to take over the Olympic movement and commercialize the Olympic Games.”
Ueberroth’s reply should have been, “And your point is?”
It was a watershed moment, not that the Olympic movement would put up much resistance.
In a best-case scenario for all concerned, 14 communist bloc nations wound up boycotting the Los Angeles games to get even for the U.S. boycott.
Actually, if the commies hadn’t packed it in, Ueberroth would have done well to pay them to stay home.
The games became an American pageant, even coming up with a new wrinkle on Coca-Cola diplomacy: A McDonald’s promotion titled “When the U.S. Wins, You Win,” with scratch-off tickets giving customers a Big Mac if they uncovered a gold medal, french fries for silver and a Coke for bronze.
With the U.S. winning 173 medals to second-place Romania’s 53, American viewers, who didn’t care if they beat the USSR or the UAE, sent TV ratings off the charts.
A few years later, NBC’s multibillion-dollar commitment, the first of several, locked up the games until the end of time. The modern Olympic movement got busy being born, culminating in the arrival of multimillionaire professionals staying in five-star hotels and visiting the Olympic Village to show the rest of the “team” they were regular guys.
Of course, in 1984 the IOC was in its own transition—or headlong rush—into the modern world.
Stepping down was Lord Killanin, emblem of the old ideals as set forth by Sir John Gielgud, playing a Cambridge master in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” telling sprinter Harold Abrahams that hiring a coach is not “the way of the ama-toor, is it?”
On his way in was Spain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Juan Antonio Samaranch, who tore down the barrier against pros, starting with the U.S. Dream Team that turned the 1992 games in Barcelona into its own tour de force, safeguarding NBC’s ratings until the end of time, too.
How’s that for the ugly face of capitalism, guys?
I guess this would be a good place to note that most of what I watched of the Vancouver games was on CNBC, the financial channel, which broke away at midday to show … curling?
Not to put down a sport someone loves, but to those of us who didn’t grow up in a culture where someone skids a big granite thing with a handle (curling stone) slowly down the ice, as two teammates with sponge mops (curling brooms) sweep the way to speed it up or slow it down, it’s hilarious.
I was surprised to find sports writer friends following it with interest—but not that surprised. The first thing I learned covering the Olympics was: When nations compete, anything from basketball to badminton suddenly commands interest.
Take the national colors off and it goes back to what it was.
In Vancouver, when Canada squeaked out a 2-1 overtime win over the upstart U.S. team, which had tied the game with a dramatic goal with seconds left, TV ratings went through the roof.
“Our country can market Snuggies,” ESPN anchor John Buccigross subsequently noted to former NHL player Matthew Barnaby. “Why can’t [Commissioner] Gary Bettman market the NHL? How can we get this game and use it to get people to watch what we think is the best game in the world?”
Of course, aside from explaining who this “we” are who think hockey is the best game in the world, Buccigross could try to get his own network, which dropped the NHL years ago, to pick it back up.
Time will tell if the NHL gets a real boost, but I’ve seen this play before.
I covered the U.S. women’s basketball team in Atlanta in 1996, where it was all the rage. With everyone bored by the men’s domination, the women, who had had to play their entire pro careers overseas, were about to get not one but two U.S. leagues.
It was a triumphant moment for the women, who got bumper ratings and couldn’t have been more gracious or appreciative as they swept to the gold.
One of the new leagues collapsed overnight. The WNBA, subsidized and marketed by the NBA, still exists, officially.
In sports, the IOC is like SPECTRE in the James Bond novels, a third force emerging between East and West. It’s so much a power unto itself that the personal intervention of President Barack Obama, whose international popularity was thought to make Chicago a slam-dunk to host the 2016 games, couldn’t even get the city out of the preliminary round.
The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh later wrote that it was over before it started, the IOC’s way of embarrassing the U.S. Olympic Committee for refusing to give up a larger share of TV money to poorer member nations.
Obama walked unknowingly into a hard-nosed financial negotiation between the new worldwide leader in capitalism and its U.S. representative, which had taught it the game.
Survival of the fittest, it’s a bitch.
AP / Mikhail Metzel
The head of a Russian apparel company holds up the mascot of the Russian Olympic team as Dmitry Chernyshenko, chief organizer of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, looks on.