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An Olympic Mystery at Occidental College

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Living in a dorm building shouldn't be a challenge. But at Stearns Hall at Occidental College, the hallways are sloped and turn in disorienting ways. Floor levels don't match up on different wings of the building. The tiny rooms have brick walls painted white, with a bizarre small window that looks out onto the wall of another wing. It takes a few tries to find the right path towards the exit as you wander aimlessly through the maze-like structure.

Stearns Hall under construction
Stearns Hall under construction

For many Oxy students, Stearns Hall remains a mystery. Legend has it that Stearns was built with the sole purpose to house the Russian Olympic team for the 1984 Games held in Los Angeles. What other explanation could there be for the construction of such a bizarre building? It would be a perfect place to disrupt the psyche of our nation's sworn Cold War enemies.

Occidental College is known to have many other unsolved mysteries, including the underground tunnels connecting various buildings, hidden rooms in the Mary Norton Clapp Library, and unabashedly contentious squirrels. But the possibility of the 1984 Russian Olympic team staying in Stearns was quite possibly more than just a rumor.

In fact, this urban myth gains even more credibility when one learns that Stearns Hall was one of two new structures that the college commissioned in 1980 along with the Bill Henry Track, a state of the art track field that was used as a training facility at the '84 Olympic games. Furthermore, notes show that many area schools including Loyola Marymount University, Pepperdine University, Mount St Mary's College, University of Southern California, and of course Occidental College, all participated in the Campus Housing Program set up by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to provide accommodations to members of the Olympic family.

It turns out that Occidental College rented out 1,007 beds across campus to Olympic athletes and officials. Interestingly, documents containing the information about who rented out which rooms (and in which dorms) are confidential, and part of the President's notes.

People who know their history remember to add a specific detail to the urban legend when they recount it. Twelve weeks before the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, the USSR announced that they would be boycotting the event. They blamed the commercialization of the games and a lack of security measures. They accused the United States of using the games "for political purposes" and "stirring up anti-Soviet propaganda," and of having a "cavalier attitude to security of Russian athletes".

You could say that as a result of this political move, Occidental College ended up having to put students in the dorm instead of the Russian athletes for whom it was intended. Perhaps this was the case, but because of the confidentiality of the documents, there's no saying where they were supposed to stay on their trip to Los Angeles.

Although a member of the 1984 Olympic Russian team has (probably) never walked the peculiar halls of Stearns, there's no saying that they weren't ever supposed to.

Wendy Abbot, who was not a member of the Russian Olympic Team, by Stearns Hall not long after its completion.
Wendy Abbot, who was not a member of the Russian Olympic Team, by Stearns Hall not long after its completion.

Photos Courtesy Occidental College Special Collections

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