The Olympics That Almost Wasn’t


Closed sessions of Garland’s blue-ribbon planning council were held at City Hall, where members winced at the news and sent their general secretary, Zack J. Farmer, to Berlin for the Olympic Congress in 1930. Farmer was received by President Paul von Hindenburg. Although Germany waded in debt, Hindenburg promised to earmark a sum assuring full participation at Los Angeles—more than one hundred and fifty of his finest musclemen. Within months Adolf Hitler, climbing toward power, led a Reichstag attack against friendly competition and kicked out the appropriation. Now it looked as if the Vaterland , home of great wrestlers, weight lifters, and fencers, was lost—a loss that might set a trend toward more dropouts.

California old-timers compared the dismal winter of 1931 to the 1880s, when the crash in land values ruined many pioneers, and now protestors appeared in the state capital of Sacramento carrying signs: GROCERIES NOT GAMES ! and OLYMPICS ARE OUTRAGEOUS ! Two hundred armed officers guarded the state’s borders, turning back the wandering, hungry “Okie-Arky army. ” Critics called California’s governor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph an affable do-nothing. Pressured to end the frivolous sporting carnival to be, he said, “These games are an impossible venture. What do they want, riots?” But Rolph stopped short of asking for a cancellation, aware of the electoral weight carried by the big-league businessmen under Garland. Garland’s policy was to avoid clashes. He only commented that a million-dollar state bond issue to bankroll the production had been OK’d by taxpayers in 1928, well before the crunch came, and, anyway, that what the area needed was a rousing, blues-chasing, big party showing how stout the public’s spirit remained. The Games were slated to open on July 30. An order for two million tickets was issued, and work began on the most dramatic of Olympic torches, one that would flame 107 feet above stadium level. More was spent on a special peat-clay cycling track, a lagoon for rowing, a monstrous scoreboard, and three hundred Teletype machines for the press.


In the history of what Baron de Coubertin devoutly spoke of as religio athletae , preliminary stages of the Olympics had often been controversial. Influential Athenians opposed the first revived Games in 1896, objecting to the cost. Between 1898 and 1900, the Union des Sports Athlétiques of France and Coubertin fought for “rights” to the Paris Games. Four years later Louisiana Purchase Exposition sponsors in St. Louis converted the Games into a shabby sideshow for their World’s Fair, and in Stockholm in 1912 nationalistic squabbling marred the meet. Yet for wild charges and suspense, nothing had quite matched conditions in the self-styled paradise by the Santa Monica Mountains as 1931 ended. Among the popular California social-reform crusades drawing mobs to tent meetings were “Technocracy” and “Plenty for All.” One evening while the Technocrats were busy blasting poverty and wasteful spending, a member cried, “They’re big sports, all right! Bringing Germans and Japs to town! Down with their damned circus!” By moonlight a raiding party identified as Technocrats and Plentyites smashed windows of shops displaying Olympic pennants and streamers and burned many of them. Luckily for the promoters the uprising occurred beyond city limits and could be dismissed as trouble from outsiders unable to imagine the glory or the income due from visitors converging for the supershow.

With the opening ceremony just six months away, committeemen worked with nerves on edge, aware that a hex, or something worse, hung over them. A friendly Comité International inspection team, arriving to check the arena facilities, was expected to praise the new construction. But it stepped into a sizzling heat wave. With the temperature at 103, the inspectors complained that athletes from cold climates would suffer dizziness, spasms, and nosebleeds. That made headlines. Across the world, coaches and trainers cabled the Comité’s headquarters in Switzerland, swearing they wouldn’t risk their stars. While wrestling with all that, the Los Angeles Organizing Committee (LAOC) had another visitor: Avery Brundage, the burly, often truculent president of the American Olympic Association. Brundage outlined Olympic protocol and declared that his association would make such appointments as the frock-coated greeters of VIPs at the Games and the stadium public-address announcers. Billy Garland recoiled and snapped, “The hell you will, sir! This is entirely our affair.” Brundage stormed off and took the issue to his predecessor as American Olympic boss, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. One of the surviving members of the LAOC of 1932, eighty-two-year-old Gwynn Wilson, recalls what happened next: “MacArthur showed up for four days, sizing us up, and then went away. We had trouble enough without losing local control and didn’t budge an inch.” What MacArthur recommended isn’t known, but Brundage appealed to Coubertin and Count de Baillet-Latour, who finally settled the power battle by telling the LAOC, “Proceed as you wish. Our prayers are with you. ”