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The Olympics That Almost Wasn’t

July 2024
14min read

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

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.

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. ”


Freakish warm weather and a hostile Avery Brundage were two matters; the Congress of the United States was another. Government aid—fiscal, moral, or both—was needed to backstop expenses and give Uncle Sam’s blessing to a shaky project. Congress offered nothing, however, not even after the LAOC formally invited President Herbert Hoover to preside at the opening ceremony. For thirty-six years it had been unbroken tradition that heads of state or royal consorts did the honors, and from King George I of Greece to Gustaf of Sweden to President Gaston Doumergue of France and beyond, no lapse in this matter of pomp and prestige had been known. Hoover’s answer was, “I will be unable to attend because of the press of duties.” With the Depression tormenting him, Hoover couldn’t spare the time, but in refusing to appear he seemed to be censuring a carnival some claimed would cost $2 million. Hoover reportedly told friends, “It’s a crazy thing. And it takes some gall to expect me to be part of it.” Some newspapers saw the President’s absence as an outright slap in the face.

On the international front there was a frightening silence. Less than five months before the Games were to begin, not one nation had said positively it would attend, and it appeared that California was moving toward a disaster. The Winter Olympic Games of ‘s32 were held at Lake Placid, New York, with a turnout of only seventeen countries (St. Moritz in 1928 had drawn twenty-six teams) and without big crowds. Meanwhile, Japanese troops had invaded Manchuria, creating the puppet state of Manchukuo. This aggression was widely condemned, but Japan blandly requested an Olympic entry blank for Manchukuo. The captured territory had no official credentials whatever, and, badly as the LAOC needed bodies, it was obliged to reject the crude bid. Furious Tokyo sportslords threatened to prevent their vaunted swimmers, pole vaulters, and horsemen from crossing the sea.

On March 1 Billy Garland and Zack Farmer, still outwardly buoyant and confident, were in San Francisco trying to drum up trade. The best they could do was unload a few packets of tickets to convention agencies and American Legion posts; they wrote off the Bay Area and caught a Southern Pacific express home. There they doggedly forged ahead, hiring ticket clerks, planning press accommodations, reserving a fleet of buses for team transport, and polishing up a second vast stadium, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, for what their publicity bulletins insisted would be droves of customers. Sticking to that belief wasn’t easy with “Hoovervilles”—clusters of crate-wood shacks thrown up in arroyos and on hillsides—dotting the city’s outskirts.

Heading into April crippling new setbacks left the LAOC staggering, and its members considered a step, unheard of in peacetime, of calling off the Games. The Comité International’s track-and-field federation, cracking down on amateurs who took illegal payoffs, banned Paavo Nurmi, the fabled “Flying Finn” and defending Olympic 10,000-meter champion, along with Jules Ladoumegue of France, world record holder in the mile run. Two of Los Angeles’s top drawing cards were gone. When Garland asked Coubertin, “How could you do this to us?” the nobleman sternly reminded Billy that the Games were never canceled, “whatever may be the adverse circumstances. ”


In Amsterdam, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye of the Comité dealt another blow: smaller European states were not gaining political support for the trip. “I am desolated,” said the baron. So was the LAOC’s ticket department. Handsomely engraved tickets priced at a low one to three dollars were a drug on the market. Less than fifteen thousand had been sold by early May and, for lack of action, the Coliseum sales force went on half-time shifts. The man on the street wasn’t buying.

Since the autumn of 1931, when the risk to their reputations had become clear, many of the sponsors had lost enthusiasm; they favored admitting a mistake and cutting their losses. According to later disclosures, about half the sponsors wanted to quit. The showdown came at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where Garland, his face pale, and Times publisher Harry Chandler attacked the “cold f eeters. ” Tempers flared; a recess was called. While the defectors waited, Chandler phoned the technical expert Bill Henry in New York and asked him to hurry home. Henry, a persuasive, admired newspaperman, spoke feelingly of “keeping our sacred word,” of not welshing as Americans, even if only a handful of guests showed up. Henry’s words made the difference. The decision was to hang on. The hope, according to one critic, was that the patron saint of the Games—Zeus—would perform a miracle.

General Secretary Zack Farmer, a gutsy forty-year-old, was not one to depend upon saints. In 1930 he had presented the Olympic Congress in Berlin with a revolutionary plan to house all athletes and attendants in a common village. Traditionally the nations had lived apart, trained secretly, broken no bread together, and mingled only in competition. Farmer found this sad and asked for a “spiritual assembly” where brotherhood could flower through close daily association. To many of the Congress, sharing one space was collectivism; they met the plan with mockery and hostility. Farmer wrote in his memoirs, “Some were afraid … open racial clashes were predicted … the idea was shot full of danger, no doubt about that. ” But the secretary continued to push his “Dream Village,” and suddenly in late spring, only ninety days before the opening gun, it met an encouraging response. The British, Danes, and Swedes said they’d compete, and explained why: a cost-cutting, unified camp would enable their California hosts to offer housing, meals, and local transport for two dollars per person per day. The promoters had also guaranteed to bring them to America at charges they could afford. How was this possible? “First we found that a cooperative village could support a two-dollar fee, ” explained Zack Farmer. “Then we told the Transatlantic Steamship Conference that they were sailing with empty cabins in the Depression and made a deal. ” The deal provided a 20 percent fare reduction on off-season rates for all comers, matched by U.S. railroads in cross-country travel (one hundred dollars roundtrip, New York to the Coast). Total overhead for faraway countries would average five hundred dollars per man, far under the normal two thousand dollars. Various federations had doubted that such a saving was possible but, shown the proof, changed their attitude. Japan, abruptly reversing itself after the Manchukuo incident, said it was coming and with a splash. It named no fewer than 203 athletes and, for good luck, threw in a paper-kite-flying team of boys and girls. Argentina had failed to raise travel money, tried again, succeeded, and signed up sixty participants. Cuba hit on the shrewd method of loading its team’s ship with sugar and tobacco and then auctioning the cargo at ports en route, thus subsidizing its boxers and runners. Still, half a dozen sign-ups with time running out amounted to little.

Then from Vienna came sensational news. Prince Ferdinand von und zu Liechtenstein declared, “We Austrians will hold the faith and go, even if I must pay the cost myself. Immortal Olympia must prevail!” Challenged by the prince, European pride was stirred, and France and Italy entered a combined 196 contestants. In the Reichstag, Hitler’s campaign against fraternizing came under attack, and a flickering chance remained that Germany would join. Good things were happening to the LAOC so quickly that hope revived and Billy Garland, the intrepid gambler, rushed construction of a 250-acre, decorative “village of the universe” that would house two thousand on a mesa near the Coliseum. Economists bit their lips. The “village” boasted kitchens, lounges, barbershop, post office, Greek theater, saunas, wireless center—even valets. It cost $400,000.

Signs were changing, but Americans still were not backing their own champions. The fund-raising drive lagged everywhere—and the Los Angeles public remained as coldly uninterested as ever. Ticket manager J. F. Mackenzie looked out his Coliseum window at fewer buyers than you’d find at a small college football game. Mackenzie wondered if Avery Brundage might not be right in his latest speculation from Chicago: “I wonder if this will be the first of the series to play mostly to a crowd of newspapermen.” (In Garland’s later years—he died in 1948 at age eighty-two—he spoke of haunted nights, of a nightmare of Vice-Président Charles Curtis, named by Hoover as his stand-in, opening the festivities to ten thousand kids, some pensioners, and the LAOC’s creditors.)

Something rather Zeus-like, however, was looking out for the party givers at zero hour. Governor Jim Rolph at last stopped complaining. In June the funding of America’s team suddenly picked up, and within weeks most of the needed $350,000 was banked. President von Hindenburg circumvented Hitler and, on the two-dollar-per-day, all-you-can-eat plan, named a 125-man German contingent. Mexico signed up fifty athletes. Finland forty. India and South Africa added thirty-six. Along came the Australians, Swiss, Dutch, Spanish, Greeks, Canadians, Hungarians, Uruguayans, and New Zealanders. The Brazilian team, taking its clue from Cuba, stored fifty thousand bags of coffee aboard a freighter and started north, peddling beans as it went. As the entry list reached thirty nations, with such world champions as hammer thrower Dr. Patrick O’Callaghan of Ireland, broad jumper Chuhei Nambu of Japan, and swimmer Clarence (“Buster…) Crabbe of the United States to be on display, townspeople awoke and the first ticket queues formed. The lines grew daily, from dozens to hundreds to many hundreds. Idled clerks were returned to work and midway in the last-ditch month of July they were swamped by fans.

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.

The 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles

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