Documenting and Preserving L.A.'s Olympic History

Map detailing sporting venues for the 1932 Olympics. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

As Southern Californians tune into the infamously delayed coverage of London's 2012 Olympic games, many will inevitably think back to the Los Angeles games of 1984, and a few may even remember the games' first appearance here in 1932. Though short-lived, Los Angeles' two turns in the Olympic spotlight loom large in Southern California's history.

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Los Angeles hosted the 1932 games amid the Great Depression. Difficult economic times may have dampened enthusiasm for the games, but Southern California's well-oiled booster machine nonetheless saw an opportunity to expand long-standing promotional efforts to a global scale. Drawing on the resources of the Hollywood film industry, Los Angeles turned the Olympics into a glitzy entertainment extravaganza.


The 1932 games left several tangible reminders. L.A.'s largest sporting venue, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was enlarged to 105,000 seats and temporarily renamed Olympic Stadium, and L.A.'s Tenth Street forever became Olympic Boulevard. They also left their mark on Olympic history by introducing the concept of an Olympic village for visiting athletes.

When Los Angeles hosted the games again in 1984, it introduced another innovation to the Olympic tradition: corporate sponsorship. Envisioned as a way to mitigate costs, sponsorship deals actually helped the 1984 games turn a profit. The McDonald's Olympic Swim Stadium on the University of Southern California campus -- built with financing from the fast food giant -- is just one reminder of the games' corporate relationships.

In both cases, communities across Southern California hosted sporting competitions and other related events. Long Beach's Alamitos Bay was home to the 1932 rowing events, for instance, while the suburban Orange County community of Mission Viejo hosted cycling races in 1984.

Today, Southern Californians can re-experience the 1932 and 1984 Olympic games through the region's photographic archives, which document the events and Los Angeles' role as host city. Selected images contributed by L.A. as Subject member institutions appear below. You can also tour Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics on Historypin through the photograph collections of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive, and several other L.A. as Subject members have previously featured their own materials from L.A.'s past Olympics in such publications such as the Huffington Post and Westways.

In addition to satisfying the nostalgic appetite of Southern Californians, archival materials related to the 1932 and 1984 Olympics also inform the work of contemporary regional planners, sports broadcasters, Olympic organizing committees, and prospective host cities.

Founded with surplus funds from the 1984 games, the LA84 Foundation, which supports youth sports throughout Southern California, is home to the nation's largest sports research library. Through roughly 60,000 images, the LA84 Foundation Sports Library's photo collection documents in detail L.A.'s transformation during the 1984 Olympics. Its archival collections include contracts signed by the games' organizing committee and transcripts of interviews that Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Reich conducted during his extensive coverage of the 1984 games.

The library's collections also include the official reports from every Olympic games of the modern era, from Athens in 1896 to Vancouver in 2010. These bulky documents, which the library has digitized and made freely available online, include everything from the results of athletic competitions to detailed accounts of each organizing committee's activities. As such, said LA84 Foundation vice president Wayne Wilson, they are the "definitive primary record of the games."

With the official reports and a full run of the International Olympic Committee's house organ, currently titled Olympic Review, the library is one of the most comprehensive sources of information about past Olympic games.

"We've had over the years, numerous organizing committees use the materials," Wilson said. "We've had cities that are considering doing bids use the materials."

The library's collections have even helped inform television coverage of the ongoing games in London.

"I know for a fact that at NBC, their researchers have downloaded the official repots and the used them in their coverage both prior to and during the games," Wilson explained.

Other archival collections related to L.A.'s Olympic games also serve as an important historical record and professional resource. UCLA's Young Research Library is home to 1,637 boxes of records from the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Smaller collections are preserved at the Cal State Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections, the Pasadena Museum of History, and the USC Libraries. And at the Metro Library, according to librarian Kenn Bicknell, traffic planning documents from the 1984 Olympics helped officials plan for another event that raised fears of a crippled transportation system: July 2011's Carmageddon.

The following images represent a small sampling of the Olympic history preserved in the region's photographic archives. Discover even more through the L.A. as Subject member institutions who contributed to this post:


1932 Olympics

Promotional photo for the 1932 Olympic Games. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Prior to the 1932 games, 29,000 seats were added to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Courtesy of the Occidental College Archives.

Tickets to various events held during the 1932 Olympics. Photograph by Harry Scheibel; courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (Pasadena Star-News Collection).

Downtown Los Angeles decorated as the Olympic City in 1932. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

The participation of Hollywood celebrities like actor and filmmaker Douglas Fairbanks, pictured here with Japanese swimmers, helped make the 1932 Olympics a success. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

Pacific Coast Highway hosted the cycling road race in 1932 Olympics. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

In 1932, the Auto Club posted signs to major Olympic venues as an aid to motorists. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Aerial view of the 1932 Olympic Village in the Baldwin Hills. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

View inside the 1932 Olympic Village in the Baldwin Hills. Courtesy of the Occidental College Archives.

Another view of the Olympic Village in Baldwin Hills. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Olympic lacrosse match inside the Coliseum. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Takeichi Nishi, pictured here in 1932 in Rustic Canyon, won the gold medal in show jumping in the 1932 Olympics. Courtesy of the Palisades Historical Image Collection, Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

Olympic rowing competition in Long Beach's Marine Stadium. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

1984 Olympics

Opening ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

Opening ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

In 1984, the National Park Service staffed information booths at L.A.'s Olympic villages. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area archives, National Park Service.

Road cycling team trail on the Artesia (91) Freeway. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

Pasadena's Rose Bowl hosted the 1984 Olympic soccer games. In this photo, fans cheer on the U.S. team, which lost 1-0 to Italy. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (Pasadena Star-News Collection).

UCLA hosted tennis competitions during the 1984 Olympics. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

USC served as one of the city's Olympic villages. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.

Ronald McDonald, Tommy Trojan, and Sam the Olympic eagle joined USC athletes in dedicating the McDonald's Swim Stadium. Courtesy of the David L. Wolper Center, USC Libraries.

The CSU Dominguez Hills campus hosted the Olympic cycling velodrome. It was demolished in 2003 to make way for the Home Depot Center, a soccer stadium. Courtesy of the California State University Dominguez Hills Photograph Collection, CSUDH Archives.

Crowds packed the Olympic velodrome stands to watch the cycling competitions. Courtesy of the California State University Dominguez Hills Photograph Collection, CSUDH Archives.

Pepperdine University's Raleigh Runnels Memorial Pool hosted water polo competitions during the 1984 Olympics. In this photo, players and coaches shout encouragements to the U.S. team, which eventually won silver in the event. Courtesy of the Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives.

The Century City shopping mall decorated for the 1984 Olympics. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

Read more L.A. as Subject posts here at KCET.org, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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