Looking back at images of the 1984 Olympics, you wouldn't think that it was designed at a cut price. Huge orange scaffolds featuring teal and silver-colored spheres towered above venues. Rows of yellow gazebos sat atop purple and mint green columns. Sonotubes all over California lined streets, sporting locations, entry gates: some circled with simple, contrasting hoops; others splattered with baby blue and vibrant orange, Pollock-style; others adorned with brightly colored stars or pastel pictograms, a twist on Games previous. This was Olympic psychedelia, a gleeful '80s aesthetic which underlined the complementary power of sport, culture and art.
While Mexico's designs in 1968 had pushed the boat out, the eclectic postmodernism of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics raised the mast, demonstrating what could be done with a coherent color palette and the unifying power of design. It would revitalize a bedraggled Olympic movement too.
Los Angeles' 1984 Olympic Committee primarily aimed for the Games to make money. While the '32 Games were constrained by the global economic climate, the '84 edition was constrained by the Olympic and international climate of the time. The world was in the depths of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan was president and the 1980 Moscow Olympics had been boycotted by American athletes due to politics. In many ways, the 1984 Olympics were a President's dream; a large-scale event which could export an image of American glory to a world of baying viewers. Reagan kicked off the Games with a speech; they were the first Games in history to be opened by a world leader.
The financially disastrous Montreal (1976) and Moscow (1980) Games were all too recent reminders for possible hosts of the financial consequences of a poorly-managed Games. Tehran, the only other potential host for '84, dropped out of contention due to the Iranian Revolution, leaving L.A. unopposed. After the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott by the US, the USSR led a boycott which threatened to take the gleam off the Games, while L.A. itself was facing rising unemployment, widespread drug use, violent crime, aggressive policing, racial tensions and economic inequality.
Organizing committee president Peter Ueberroth wrote in the Committee's First Official Report (1980) that L.A. was aiming to construct an Olympics which "will serve as a prototype and encourage other cities to seek to host future Olympiads." While in '32 the Olympics were used by L.A., in '84, the relationship between host city and world was more mutually beneficial, though L.A.'s aims of revamp were much the same. It had a reputation as a sprawling, polluted city which lacked civic cohesion.
While just two cities bid for the 1988 Olympics in 1981 due to the financial pitfalls of the Olympics over the years, in 1986, six cities would submit bids for the 1992 iteration of the Games, such was the success of the '84 Olympics. They would make a profit of over $250 million with a chunk of that being put towards the establishment of the non-profit LA84 Foundation. However, while the Foundation claims to have put the proceeds towards youth sport, it's unclear how much of the profits went there due to the Foundation's opacity. A large chunk of the profit, as it tends to do, also went back to the IOC.
In order to turn a profit, the '84 Games were the first to be privately funded. They were revolutionary in terms of sponsorships and broadcast revenue, raking in $250 million from a deal with ABC. The commercialization wasn't subtle; Coca-Cola was the Games' official drink, FujiFilm was the "Official Film" (you know, for analog cameras) and McDonald's had a famous backfire. They lost a lot of money as they tried to cash in by offering a Big Mac, Coke or fries every time the US landed atop the podium. The US had a successful Olympics, and some McDonald's outlets ran out of burgers.
A City De-Sprawled by Design
L.A. had undergone drastic change since 1932. The city's population had tripled from just over 1 million people in '32 to about 3.2 million in 1984. Infrastructural changes had been wrung throughout the city and the state in the '60s and '70s, resulting in a much more dispersed Olympics than 1932's offering; only two new permanent structures were constructed for the '84 Games due to the prevalence of sporting infrastructure throughout Southern California and the Games' focus on financial prudence.
L.A. was exceptionally blessed when it came to sporting structures and had a range of venues which made it suited to a cut-price Games. From the iconic structures of the Rose Bowl and Memorial Coliseum, to several college stadiums; a regional park was even used.
Venues extended from Lake Casitas (canoeing, rowing) nearly 100 miles west of L.A. city to Coto de Caza (modern pentathlon) in Orange County and beyond; Harvard Stadium in Boston and the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis even hosted Groups A and B of the soccer tournament, ensuring some East Coast involvement. This was an Olympics designed to appeal; locally, nationally, internationally and financially.
The architects and designers charged with crafting the Games' visuals — Jon Jerde (JERDE), Deborah Sussman and Paul Prezja (SP&Co) — were faced with two major obstacles. Firstly, the scarcity of new constructions due to the Games' focus on a financially sustainable Olympics (it was also the first privately financed Games). Secondly, the stark distances between venues caused by L.A.'s continued urban sprawl since the '30s, which could potentially have created disparity in the Games' tone and messaging.
To overcome such issues, Jerde, Sussman and Prezja came up with a "kit of parts" design; a guiding design philosophy — an Olympic brand — made up of tents, banners, scaffolds and anything else architects could get their hands on, which was to be implemented at every Games venue.
In November 1982, the Design Coordination Guidelines were drawn up. They stated that "Everything associated with the Games must have a fresh, festive look to it that conveys the temporal qualities of the event. The whole city should look like (sic) a wonderfully colorful invasion of butterflies has descended upon it." The invasion was perfect for the small screen, too, fittingly for the first games to become a truly global television event. Prezja says that some sets and structures were placed strategically, according to where they would look best on television.
This design philosophy was defined by a set of iconography and pictograms that bore resemblance to each other without looking the same, "Jon Jerde's idea was that we would design these — as he called them — environments, and then we just tweak them all to look a bit different, so that's what we started doing in the design of tents," Paul Prezja explains; common tents such as hospital tents and concession tents that would be used throughout the Olympics were to have the same design all over the Games.
"We put together a fold out sheet and said, 'Here's where we're going'" Prezja says, "so everybody involved, all the architects that were brought in alongside us [about 27 of them], knew what to aim for." Many of them were working side by side, in the same building for a year or so before the Games, and it's perhaps this physical closeness that helped the designers ensure creative consistency throughout Olympic venues.
The mission was completely different from 1932's fairly centralized one. The previous Games had little impact, Prezja explains, "We researched '32, but we couldn't even find the Olympic site — the big thing for us was Mexico '68, because they did some very big and interesting things — using color a lot, for example."
It was this use of color amplified that made LA '84 a veritably visual experience. Not only did the colors transform L.A. county into a cohesive experience shared by spectators and athletes alike, it also changed the game for the Olympics that followed. The color scheme was termed "Festive Federalism" by Sussman; it incorporated bold use of magentas, yellows, aquas and oranges as base colors, giving classically patriotic designs a modern restoration, as well as incorporating the very well-received pictograms from the 1976 Munich Games.
Lingering remnants of the Panama-California Expo were there, too. The colors selected had ties to the SoCal region. Magenta and yellow are associated with the Pacific Rim, Asia and Latin America, while aqua is Greek and Mediterranean, a strong counterpoint to the warmer colors. If L.A. was a cultural melting pot, then so too was the Games' palette.
These striking colors, not traditionally associated with the Olympics, were chosen due to the sheer size of Los Angeles. "This thing was spread all over…you had to make something that would stand out and draw the venues together" Prezja outlines, "and locally, people told us that this was the first time Los Angeles was a unified whole, and it was, in a sense." L.A., which was so abundantly blessed with a sense of space, was finally given a unifying sense of place to complement it.