The Olympics That Almost Wasn’t

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March 1925. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, president of the Comité International Olympique, in a confidential letter from Paris to William May Garland, president of the California Olympiad committee: “In case of Holland failing to fulfill her engagements … in the IX Olympiad … would Los Angeles be willing or not to take up 1928 instead of 1932? An answer must be given immediately. Therefore we beg that you shall consult without delay upon receiving this letter with the mayor of Los Angeles and the organizing committee. … You can telegraph if you like.… Yes or No .”

The “Garland Group”—some three dozen industrialists, oil-field developers, tourism promoters, and assorted businessmen—discussed the matter. There was disagreement, but Garland’s view prevailed, and within a week he sent a polite no-thanks reply: he sympathized with the plight of the Comité International, but America would not be rushed on such an important matter. Nineteen thirty-two it was to be.

Garland and his associates thought, of course, that they were playing it safe. California was booming as never before, its sunshine, moviemaking, beaches, and real estate already becoming the stuff of myth. A giant Coliseum, built with the Olympics in mind, had been completed in 1923, and all other facilities were at least in the planning stage. Garland’s prestigious group included the movie tycoon Louis B. Mayer, Mayor John Porter, and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry “Sell ‘em Sunshine” Chandler. “I’ll give you a $10,000 donation tomorrow,” said one aspiring merchant to the officials, “to be on that board.” What could go wrong?

What went wrong was the Depression. During three years of struggle and chaos it looked as though America’s first Olympics was headed for total disaster.

The stock market collapsed, and by 1930 unemployment in the Golden State reached seven hundred thousand, with close to three hundred and fifty thousand of the workless located in Los Angeles and adjacent Orange County. Soup kitchens handled lineups on the main streets of Broadway, Spring, and Figueroa, some of them only blocks from the looming Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park. Mayor Porter ordered a drastic $5.3 million reduction in the city budget. Cutbacks of thirty thousand Hollywood movie-industry jobs and of aviation, oil, and mercantile payrolls increased the pinch. Things slipped further, and the area reached new highs in suicides (seventy-nine off one bridge alone), arson for profit, and seizure of property by the tax collector.

Publicly the Olympic backers showed no alarm. Billy Garland began a series of shuttle trips to Europe, signifying that interest in sport remained strong and that he was busy coordinating it. In November of 1929 Garland was in Rome to meet with Pope Pius XI and Italy’s premier, Benito Mussolini. The Pope praised the amity furthered by the Games. As for Mussolini, Garland remarked to newsmen, “I told him he resembled Napoleon, and he seemed pleased.” In Portugal roving ambassador Garland visited a puzzled state secretary who inquired, “Just where is your state?” Garland unfurled a map of California’s 158,693 square miles, with his town identified. “That is a very long, expensive way from here,” said the secretary, discouragingly. Returning home, perched on a Malacca cane and smoking British “Fortunate Hits” cigarettes, he was always optimistic in public, proclaiming a Europe bound to snap back. Garland promised coolly: “We’ll welcome the races of man to our beautiful, hospitable southland as never before.”

Garland wasn’t so breezy in private. An office associate once related, “Billy would stand under an oil portrait of himself in a track suit, wearing his tortoiseshell glasses, with a starter’s gun about to explode—titled Our Champ —and with tears in his eyes tell of the destruction he’d seen.” The situation he described over brandy to his fellow executive committeemen was gloom from the British Isles to the Danube, the price of mass death and an estimated $45 billion wartime loss of production. “It’s terrible,” he said. “If it wasn’t for three hundred thousand Americans over there, none of the better hotels could stay open.” He honestly felt things would pick up, but at London’s Claridge’s Hotel he’d sat through a melancholy meeting with tiny Baron de Coubertin and his colleague Count de Baillet-Latour. “For your 1932 ambitions, it now does not look so certain,” they warned, as if hinting that L.A. might have done better if it had grabbed the opportunity to stage the games in 1928. “Continental affairs are darkening. You should look to the giant South America and the Orient for support. ” Another ominous note was the fear expressed by foreign politicians of the reaction to sending fifty to two hundred discus-tossers and gymnasts halfway around the globe in an era of breadlines.