The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were a memorable touchstone in the middle of my childhood. I was ten at the time and fortunate enough to attend three different sports: baseball, basketball, and archery. Triggered by the recent World Cup in Brazil and the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles Olympics, impressions from the 1984 games remain relevant to me as an Angeleno and world citizen. This week L.A. Letters connects the dots between the World Cup in Brazil, celebration capitalism, and the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Olympics.
Before discussing the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a few ideas from Dave Zirin's new book, "Brazil's Dance with the Devil," are important to consider. Brazil, as most know, is not only hosting the World Cup now, but also hosting the forthcoming 2016 Olympic Games. Zirin is a noted sports journalist that spent a lot of time in Brazil over the last few years researching the influence of athletic mega-events like the World Cup. His interdisciplinary work travels from the favelas of Rio De Janeiro to the reinvention of the Maracana Stadium, "otherwise known as the 'Sistine Chapel of international football.'"
Zirin notes how in 1999, the celebrated stadium "had a capacity of roughly 175,000, although total crowds could reach near 200,000 when people jammed themselves into the standing-room-only open seating on the top level." Over the last two decades the stadium was reconfigured for modern standards, which is to say turned into a shopping mall-like contemporary American arena. Zirin writes, "In 2000 the number of seats was reduced to 125,000. In 2005, it was reconfigured to seat 85,000, at a cost of two hundred million dollars, to get Brazil ready for the Pan American Games. Now, as epicenter of the World Cup Finals and the Olympic Games, it will seat only 75,000 and will also include a shopping center." He also describes the backlash to the billions of dollars that were invested into constructing new stadiums rather than new schools and hospitals.
Zirin notes how the people of Brazil "want FIFA-quality schools" and "FIFA-quality hospitals," rather than "FIFA-quality stadiums." He meticulously describes the underbelly of how "Global mega-events like the World Cup and Olympics have become incredibly effective tools for reorganizing an economy on neoliberal grounds. It is not that these events are not profitable. It is a question of who sees the money and who pay the price."
Zirin continues to connect this idea to a concept he calls, "celebration capitalism." The concept is self-explanatory -- where a city uses a mega-event for a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent the city for spectacle and the world stage. In addition to detailing Brazilian development, he also exposes other "sporting shock doctrines" from recent Olympic and World Cup sites like Athens, Beijing, Vancouver, South Africa, and London. The more I read his excellent account, the more I expected to read something about the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. After finishing his great work there was no mention of the Los Angeles Games, but I began reminiscing and thinking back to that era.
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were one of the only Olympics to ever turn a profit. Longer accounts have been written in other places, about the games in L.A. being a "budget-conscious Olympics" and how the city used the games to rebrand itself. One of the main ways is that they used older, available infrastructure, like the Memorial Coliseum for the Opening Ceremonies and major television moments. Constructed in the Roaring Twenties, the Coliseum had already been used for close to 60 years by the time of the 1984 Games, hosting generations of college and professional football games; the 1932 Olympics were also held in the Coliseum. Two of the events I attended were held in older arenas: the Forum and Dodger Stadium. Only two new permanent venues were constructed for the 1984 Games, unlike recent games in other sites.
In 1984 I played Little League Baseball and collected baseball cards. Much more of a diehard sports fan then, than I am now, I was excited to attend the Gold Medal game for the United States in Baseball at Dodger Stadium. We were sitting right on the lowest row of the balcony on the third deck behind home plate. The first time I ever experienced "the wave" in a stadium was during this game; we thought it was quite thrilling at the time. I also remember seeing Mark McGwire bat for the first time. Japan ended up winning the long game.
My mom and stepdad did their best to get us tickets to as many of the events as they could. Many sold out very quickly. When gymnastics and some of the other high profile events were immediately sold out, I remember my mom joking that only Brooke Shields could get those tickets.
We also saw Men's Basketball at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood. Our seats were not quite the nose bleeds, but we were nowhere near Jack Nicholson. I remember the United States won by over 60 points and there were lots of dunks and mind-blowing finger rolls and layups. The Forum was built during the 1960s and not quite two decades old at the time. The same is true about Dodger Stadium. Built in 1962, it was only 22 years old for the 1984 games.
We also saw Archery in El Dorado Park in Long Beach because it was just up the street from my grandparent's house. I only remember that it was in the late afternoon and watching arrows fly over the long field of grass with the bulls-eye on the end. Most of all there was a palpable excitement in the air for those few weeks.
Over the years I learned that the Biltmore Hotel, in the time just before the 1984 Games, had switched their main lobby from the eastside of the hotel to the westside because Skid Row and Pershing Square were to the east. I remember the build-up to the 1984 Games was even bigger than "Carmageddon" or "Y2K." Though I was only 10 at the time, I was aware and very tuned into current events in Los Angeles. I remember there was great fear about the traffic and hushed whispers of possible violence, but in the end the games went quite smooth.
In retrospect, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics ended up being one of the greatest times of the 1980s. The use of L.A.'s existing infrastructure helped keep the costs down, and it is one of the major reasons the Games were successful and even turned a profit. I'm sure there are some skeletons in the closet I am unaware of, but nonetheless the 1984 Olympics will always remain a high point in the city's history and one in my own memory as well.
Deep in the midst of Ronald Reagan and the pop culture world of Michael Jackson, M-TV, Madonna, Prince and all the rest, the 1984 Games were an exciting time showcasing Los Angeles and its vibrant multicultural spirit. Breakdancing and hip hop culture were coming to rise and for a short while the city seemed to unite behind the spirit of the games. Mike Davis has written in the past about Los Angeles and "'corporate multiculturalism,' an attitude that patronizes imported diversity while ignoring its own backyard." Mega-events like the Olympics and the World Cup frequently employ corporate multiculturalism in their opening ceremonies and media presentations. Dave Zirin's incisive commentary on contemporary Brazil and the World Cup made me reflect on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the policies enacted here. Though Los Angeles history has had its share of corruption, the 1984 Olympics remains a defining and unassailable moment in the city's legacy. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics will always be a definitive touchstone in the topography of L.A. Letters.