- Historic Sites
The Olympics That Almost Wasn’t
In 1984 Los Angeles will once again play host to the Summer Olympics. It’s got to be easier that the first time. That was just fifty years ago, when, in the teeth of the Great Depression, a group of local boosters boldly set about planning
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
During the week of July 11 to 18, business exploded. Thirty-five thousand seats were sold in one seventy-twohour period. Between July 25 to 30, $310,000 came rolling in. “It was like a whirlwind, it happened so fast,” remembers Arnold Eddy, a businessman who was a LAOC official in 1932. “Nowhere I know of have so many folks decided to turn out for something at the last minute. The great rush didn’t come until we were right down to the wire, in the last eighteen days. We couldn’t understand what had happened to the town—even now I’m not sure—but Olympic fever caught on and we needed extra police to control the mobs. With everyone so broke, it was amazing to see them shoving money at us, fighting to get in. The fact is that we didn’t sell out the Coliseum until just hours before the show began, which is about as close as you can shave it. But, by George, it was sold! And what a relief that was.”
Interest had grown in the East, and special Olympics-bound trains rolled westward. Al Jolson ordered two hundred seats for friends. Sensing a hit, movie stars—Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford—volunteered to entertain the visitors; merchants, awake at last, strung the streets with five thousand foreign flags. The Hollywood Bowl entered the act with a gala civic musical at giveaway prices, in recognition of hard times. Sweden and India, the first teams to arrive, were met with brass bands and overwhelmed with hospitality. In one of the crudest years of the Depression, a whole city responded so fully that Count de Baillet-Latour, in the Comité seat of honor, shook his head at the sight of the largest arena on earth, packed to the brim. “Formidable, incredible,” he said. Two days earlier, on July 28, American soldiers using tear gas had routed a “Bonus Army” of World War I vets marching in Washington. There were many casualties.
One hundred and five thousand people filled Memorial Coliseum on opening day, with another fifteen thousand turned away—by far the largest audience in Olympic history. Forty nations and 2,050 athletes, officials, and trainers paraded, and the Organizing Committee, sparing no expense, presented a white-robed chorus of fifteen hundred singing “Hymne Olympique,” coveys of white doves, three hundred musicians, and a ten-gun cannonade. The United States squad of 357 marched wearing berets (they’d swapped hats with the French to kick off the brotherhood theme). Attendance held up in record style for all sixteen days of play, averaging sixty-five thousand in the main plant alone, with close to one million watching the crosstown marathon. Among the emerging heroes and heroines were America’s track sensation Mildred (“Babe”) Didrikson, miler Luigi Beccali of Italy, Ireland’s Pat O’Callaghan, and Argentina’s Juan Zabala, marathoner. For the first time, an audience saw victors suitably and regally crowned: the victors’ podium was invented by the LAOC and has been used at all subsequent Olympics.
Performances were brilliant, with an unprecedented thirty-three new Olympic records set and sixteen world marks broken. Technically, artistically, soulfully, the “doomed” show surpassed any ever seen and to this day is considered a model of how the hallowed Greek holiday should be celebrated. The most notable success of all was Zack Farmer’s village. Two thousand young athletes went happily arm-in-arm, conversing by sign language, and experiencing something new to most—the absence of class distinction and racial conflict. Twenty-three athletes of noble lineage—lords, counts, baronets, princes—slept and ate in the village alongside bricklayers, tradesmen, and farmers. The system worked so well that the LAOC was mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize.
For Billy and his associates, it was a glittering triumph. Garland’s sculptured image appears today on a Coliseum wall, a tribute to the boosters in straw hats—shaken and scared, tempted to surrender, but hanging on when all seemed lost. No doubt Los Angeles couldn’t afford such a blowoff ; no doubt it contrasted sorely with the common plight. But the Games had brought thrills and a needed élan ; they were a significant and enduring social laboratory and forged a new sense of solidarity in an undefined boomtown. More than nine hundred reporters, who came from every continent to cover the event, described the scenic and agricultural splendors of Los Angeles. The city’s present mayor, Tom Bradley, ranks the Olympiad as an important municipal turning point and led the movement to return the pageant for a second time to the United States and to his city. The campaign has succeeded, and fifty-two years later, in 1984, Games XXIII will be concentrated in the same sports park, the Coliseum. Garland’s ghost may hover about. It was Garland who once asked England’s young Lord David Burghley what he got out of taking part in the Games. Burghley, a 400-meter hurdler known as ” ‘is ‘urdling ‘ighness,” replied, “I met all of the people here and all were equal. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. ” Nor would it be forgotten by those who dug far down for the price of admission.