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When the Olympics and L.A. Youth Sports Changed Forever

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Posted Mondays, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.
Law: Proposition N
Year: 1978
Jurisdiction: City of Los Angeles
Nominated by: Wayne Wilson

On July 26, some ten thousand athletes from more than 200 nations will gather in London for the Opening Ceremonies of the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad.

During the sixteen days that follow, billions of people on the planet are expected to watch online or on television at least some portion of the Summer Olympics and then the subsequent Paralympics.

If you're planning on being one of those interested billions, or if you're heading over to London to swap pins, buy pints and watch athletes go all citius, altius, fortius, then you might want to keep in mind that if not for a Los Angeles law from the late 1970s, then the Olympics might not exist in its current, wildly popular form.

And, while you're in the throes of that quadrennial fever, you might also take note that without this same L.A. law, then for 27 years and counting, everyday Los Angeles youth sports and after-school programs and public athletic facilities -- and various Olympic athletes themselves -- likely wouldn't be what they are today.

"It was called Proposition N," Wayne Wilson says of this Law That Shaped L.A. -- in this case, an amendment to the city Charter passed in a landslide by voters in November 1978. "And basically, what it said was, this city could not spend public monies on the Olympic Games that it did not get reimbursed for."

Wilson is the vice president of communications and education of the LA84 Foundation*. The non-profit organization -- previously known as the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles -- was created for the public's benefit in 1985 thanks to Prop N, and continues to operate on Adams Boulevard out of the Britt House mansion and a modern library extension.

How? Thanks to an historic $232.5 million financial surplus from the 1984 Summer Games.

Gymnastics sensation Mary Lou Retton earned a perfect 10 score after this vault at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Photo by Anne Knudsen, photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Gymnastics sensation Mary Lou Retton earned a perfect 10 score after this vault at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Photo by Anne Knudsen, photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Per advance agreement, forty percent of that surplus -- $93 million or so -- went to launch what would become LA84.

"To date, we have invested more than $200 million in Southern California sports," Wilson says of LA84. "We've made grants to more than 1,100 youth sports organizations. We've impacted more than 2.5 million kids. We've trained more than 60,000 youth sports coaches. We've developed the best sports library in the world and we've developed an extensive website which is used by scholars all over the world."

LA84's endowment has grown with time and the organization's grantmaking has left an ongoing legacy that includes rehabilitation or construction of more than 100 sports facilities in Southern California, Wilson says.

Examples include the refurbishment of the 1932 Olympic Swim Stadium in Exposition Park (pictured below) the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center and partial funding for nineteen Dodgers Dreamfields youth league diamonds.

The other sixty percent of the '84 surplus went to the United States Olympic Committee and the various national governing bodies (NGBs) that oversee various sports.

That translates into money that went to supporting and funding training for a generation of elite amateur athletes. In many cases, that again means a direct Los Angeles area benefit as the region is home to past and present Olympians galore ranging from Venus and Serena Williams to Allyson Felix to so many others.

How did all this happen? And how has the Olympic movement changed since? Prop N's fiscal mandate meant that, unlike previous Olympics, the host city and host nation wouldn't be on the hook if the games went into the red.

This was a very real concern at the time, in part because of the era's greater taxpayer mood that led to passage of California's Proposition 13 and arguably the election of President Ronald Reagan. (Please see this Laws That Shaped L.A. column and this one, as well.)

Running a civic Olympic debt was also of concern because the International Olympic Committee had previously required a commitment of civic fiscal backing. And because the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, which had agreed to such backing, had lost an estimated $1.5 billion dollars.

Sam the Eagle, mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Photo by Paul Chinn, photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Sam the Eagle, mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Photo by Paul Chinn, photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

That balance sheet woe helped send that beautiful city kitty-corner across the continent from L.A. into a financial spiral. Not to mention saddling the city with the brutalist concrete and artificial turf white elephant known as Olympic Stadium. (Related: Au Revoir, Les Expos.)

The Olympics of the 1970s also had much, much bigger problems than the above. The Games previous to Montreal -- Munich, in 1972 -- featured unprecedented, unparalleled, unfathomable horrors.

Nine Israeli athletes were mass-murdered after being kidnapped by terrorists. The Games continued during and following the massacre.

With the murders of 1972 and the financial woes of 1976 so recent, when the bidding for the '84 Games came around, only a trio of cities were interested in hosting. They were: New York, L.A. and Tehran.

The latter dropped out as the Iranian Revolution approached. New York was bested by L.A. in U.S. Olympic Committee deliberations and only one city per country is forwarded for consideration to the International Olympic Committee.

This left Los Angeles, all alone, like Carl Lewis sprinting towards victory. The city -- home of the 1932 Games -- would soon enough become the third place to host the Summer Games twice. (Paris and London, now getting its third chance, were the first two to double.)

If nothing else, as LA84's Wilson and others point out, this solo position gave Los Angeles leverage. The city, led by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, took advantage of that position to let the IOC know that L.A. would not pay for cost overruns. The IOC awarded L.A. the Games provisionally, and ultimately caved in and awarded them definitively.

"This ordinance is the kind of tough no-nonsense limit that would remove much of the doubt and suspicion about the city's ability to host the games without assuming a huge debt," Bradley told Kenneth Reich of the Los Angeles Times in February 1978, after the Mayor and City Council member Bob Ronka agreed upon text for Prop N.

"I am hopeful it will be adopted, not only to protect our taxpayers, but also to let the International Olympic Committee and others know where we stand," Bradley added.

Rafer Johnson, inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, running the final leg with Olympic Torch. Johnson is a member of the LA84 Board of Directors. Photo by Anne Knudsen, photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library


Much has been written during the decades since about how the privately-run Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and its president, Peter V. Ueberroth, commercialized or privatized the '84 Olympics.

LA84's Wilson points out that while the Games being organized by a private group was an L.A. innovation, corporate involvement was hardly invented by Ueberroth and his colleagues.

Wilson says that the IOC's house news publication has featured advertisements since the late 19th or early 20th century; and that if his memory serves, advertising inside Olympic stadiums dates back to the 1924 Games.

"Prior to '84, there was plenty of commercialization of the Olympic Games," Wilson says. "Montreal and Moscow [the 1980 host city] actually had more sponsors and official supplies than Los Angeles did."

Wilson says that what Ueberroth et. al. did was "created product exclusivity." This meant that instead of multiple automobile companies, there would be a sole such category sponsor. This comprehensive history of the '84 Games notes that the always-heated Pepsi-Coke soft drink rivalry led to a $12 million exclusive cola sponsorship.

(The history doesn't speak to the appropriateness -- then or since -- of using the Olympics to promote soda consumption. We should also point out here this thesis, about the '80 and '84 Games as Cold War proxies, as well as Dave Zirin's recent essay connecting the L.A. Olympics with the L.A. Riots. And this piece about how the Games showed that smog could be combated.)

"Long story short," Wilson says, referring here to finances, "the Games were very successful. The Committee devised a number of ways to limit spending and maximize revenue."

And again, this was thanks to Prop N. "This amendment really imposed the discipline on the Organization Committee," Wilson says. "There was just no way that they could spend more than it could raise."

The L.A. Games' mandate to stay financially in the black - and its success in doing so - led to a range of other far-reaching international and business consequences beyond the programs and facilities created through LA84.

For example: The ideas of city sports council flourished, Wilson says. "Prior to the '84 Games, there probably weren't more than a dozen cities in the U.S. that had a sports council or some public-private entity devoted to bringing major events to town," Wilson says. "Within ten years after the '84 Games, there were more than 200 of these around the country."

Why does this matter? Because the idea of major sporting event as broader economic catalyst for tourism, employment, real estate, investment and otherwise started to spread. (One study pegged the Games as having a $2.5 billion positive impact on Los Angeles.)

"Whether that's an entirely valid hypothesis is a matter of debate," Wilson says, "but that's certainly the impression that was left by the Games."

In the Southland, the Games were quickly followed by the region landing the likes of the 1994 Men's World Cup Finals; the 1983, 1987 and 1993 Super Bowls; and the 1999 Women's World Cup Finals. There would seem to be a straight line from the '84 Olympics to these events.

And speaking of straight lines, the ray from Prop N to LA84 to ongoing benefits today is as clear as the thick black lane markers at the bottom of a pool and as bright as the famous smiles of '84 gold medalist such as Lewis and the gymnast Mary Lou Retton.

And the good news? That line, that Olympic legacy, just keeps extending.

LA84, for instance, is currently funding an after-school sports program for every interested LAUSD student. LA84, Wilson says, pays for the program's coaches, organized practices, intramural competitions and city-wide tournaments.

The non-profit -- which regularly produces and funds various white papers and studies -- also is backing research that will track the academic and behavioral progress as well as connectedness of the after-school sports program's participants.

"The Foundation is intended to exist in perpetuity," Wilson says. "So whatever grantmaking, whatever investment we make in Southern California, is something that will continue."​


To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page

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