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A FLAMING OLYMPIAN MESS

June 26, 1978
June 26, 1978

Table of Contents
June 26, 1978

U.S. Open
Flaming Mess
Kurt Thomas
Baseball
Harness Racing
Soccer
  • Washington's Paul Cannell may be a Diplomat but he's not very tactful on the field and has been sat down once by the league for piling up too many penalty points

Rowing
Skateboarding
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A FLAMING OLYMPIAN MESS

Los Angeles' chance to host the 1984 Summer Games is in danger. But as some politicians try to douse all remaining hopes, a band of Angelenos may yet salvage the day

By William Oscar Johnson

Not so many weeks ago it seemed the only thing that might stop Los Angeles from hosting the Summer Olympic Games of 1984 would be a catastrophe—earthquake, tidal wave, an invasion of giant ants, some unthinkable cataclysm that perhaps lay even beyond the imaginations of Lucas, Kubrick and Spielberg combined. Nothing so dramatic came to pass. Yet as recently as early last week the Olympic flame was weak and flickering in L.A., dangerously near being snuffed out.

This is an article from the June 26, 1978 issue Original Layout

Still, not even a respectable mud slide could be blamed. The kind of demi-disaster that chilled—and all but killed—Los Angeles' hopes for 1984 was far less spectacular. Measured on a Richter scale, it would peak out no higher than the point on a politician's head. Indeed, the forces that combined against the first U.S.-hosted Summer Games in 52 years are barely forces at all, for they consist of an accumulation of circumstance and coincidence, of miscalculation and bad manners, of bruised egos and organized crepehangings.

Nevertheless, Mayor Tom Bradley, his city's once optimistic leading proponent of the Games, reflected a siege mentality when he spoke of the situation last week: "We could say to hell with it and abandon the Games completely, but I think there have been too many people involved, too much effort expended, too many months of too many lives given to this effort for me to play the demagogue for short-term political advantage and walk away from this bid. We'll stick it out."

Anton Calleia, one of Bradley's top city hall assistants and his budget director, has also been the project manager of the Olympic bid. He spoke of it in resignation and sorrow: "I am paid to be an optimistic man, but in this matter I am most pessimistic. The bid is in trouble. What began as a wooing exercise from the City of Los Angeles toward the International Olympic Committee has turned into an adversary relationship. And now the whole issue has become a political football at city hall, too. The situation has polarized both here and at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, and all I see is conflict, constant conflict."

What exactly happened to turn the City of Angels into the City of Angst? It is not easy to say, for the battle is still joined and much of what is happening is drowned out by the shrill bleats of politicians seeking preferment and power. In all this confusion at least one thing is certain: never have politics been played harder than they have been in the infighting over Los Angeles' bid for the Games of '84. The stakes range from East-West international prestige to prizes in mano a mano contests among petty bureaucrats. The participants include city councilmen who want to be mayor, a mayor who may want to be governor, a governor who may want to be President.

Some got into this game of Games for no other reason than that they are politicians. David Wolper, the movie producer and an Olympic proponent deeply involved in the Los Angeles bid, explained this phenomenon recently. "Most city hall politicians don't have things to do that get them into the newspapers," he said. "They deal with issues like fire prevention and garbage collection, and it's very hard to get your name in the paper or your face on TV when all you have to talk about is firemen and garbage cans. So whenever something glamorous like the Olympic Games comes along, city politicians are going to make it into an issue because anything is better than firemen and garbage cans."

For others, whether or not L.A. gets the Olympics is a more momentous matter. The U.S. Olympic Committee is attempting to maintain at least the image of authority over the Los Angeles crowd while the IOC struggles to retain at least a facsimile of absolute power over a dwindling and steadily less viable international Olympic structure. And in the wings stand the eager politicians of Munich and Montreal who will use whatever clout they have with the IOC to get the Games for themselves if L.A. loses out or bows out.

Since so much of the current mess is political, it follows that illusion has replaced reality to a great extent. Rhetoric and bombast emphasize what seems to be instead of what is. To uncover reality, one must go back to the beginning.

Foremost among the reasons that made the L.A. bid for the Games seem so invulnerable was the fact that it was the only one. Once Los Angeles, with its glittering AAA municipal credit rating, had wrestled the right to represent the U.S. in the bidding from bankruptcy-threatened New York, suddenly there was no one else to compete with. As of last November's deadline, no other city had even filed an application with the IOC.

In retrospect, the advantage of that particular "reality" may have been but the first illusion. John C. Argue, who has chaired the local boosters' group, the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games (SCCOG), for six years, says, "It would have been better if many cities had bid. In fact, I think it proved to be a tragedy that we were alone, because it made it seem as if we were buying a bad deal full of trouble."

Another highly appealing reality at the time was the official insistence that L.A.'s Olympics would be a "Spartan Games," run on a low budget in facilities that had been built years ago—the Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, the Forum, etc. A rough—and perhaps somewhat questionable—estimate of expenses and revenues put together last year by Olympic proponents indicated that capital costs for new construction for the Games would be no more than $33,500,000, a pittance. The only new facilities would be a swimming stadium ($15 million), a rowing channel ($3 million) and a temporary velodrome ($500,000). The refurbishing of existing facilities would cost another $15 million. Overall expenditures would be $183 million. The figures seem optimistic to the point of being dreams—but the fact remains that L.A. cannot possibly come close to the terrifying $900 million deficit run up by the mad builders of Montreal in 1976. At the same time, Los Angeles' Olympic optimists are quick to point out that if one subtracts from that deficit the monumental spending for capital construction in Montreal (some of which is being regularly used today by professional teams), the Montreal Olympics actually profited by $126 million—from revenues brought in by everything from stamps and coins to tickets, programs and concessions. The Los Angeles projection for income is fairly conservative: $184,250,000, including such items as $74 million from ticket sales (at an average price of $14.50 per ticket), $10 million from licensing rights, $750,000 from concession income and half a million from program sales. This would leave a profit of slightly over $1 million, without adding money that could be forthcoming from stamp, coin and medal promotions, which the President's Commission on Olympic Sports estimated at a whopping $500 million.

No federal money was included in these early estimates. But it is assumed that a good deal of it will be forthcoming if L.A. gets the Summer Games. California Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a leading Olympic advocate on Capitol Hill says, "The government has appropriated $58 million for the Lake Placid [Winter] Games in 1980 and $12 million for the Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico in 1979. Certainly there will be a sizable amount available for a Summer Olympics in Los Angeles." The California Congressional delegation has been inclined to support the Olympics in L.A., and two weeks ago California Senator Alan Cranston, a former quarter-miler at Stanford, wrote President Carter asking for strong White House backing in getting the Federal Government to provide for security measures at the Games, which otherwise would be a costly expenditure. Here, of course, we enter politics again. Thus far the anti-frills Carter Administration has not been as outspokenly pro-Olympics as that of Gerald Ford and, should there be a contest between austerity-conscious California Governor Jerry Brown and President Carter to outfrugal each other in real or imagined conflict over the Democratic Presidential nomination, the Olympic support could become an issue. Sooner or later, too, there will arise the question of U.S. prestige vs. Russian prestige in the matter of holding—or not holding—an Olympic Games.

There certainly will be some federal money available—and there certainly will be some television money, too. The question is how much? In the rough estimate produced last fall, a profit from television of $66 million was added into the revenues. That would be after the IOC had taken its one-third cut. "I'll eat my hat if we don't get twice that," says John Argue.

Whatever the bottom line after all these estimates, no one in Los Angeles favors hosting the Olympics if there is any risk that it will result in a deficit for the city treasury. A private poll taken last fall to determine if there was grass-roots support for the Games revealed that 80.9% of the people approved if they could be held without spending any city money. That figure plunged to 35% if the Games might result in a deficit. This is indicative of a new worldwide attitude toward the Olympics—a switch from the universal view of a few years ago that the Games were a grand acquisition for any city and any nation.

Nevertheless, one final reality appeared to bulwark L.A.'s bid—in all the world there may be no city more oriented toward sport. Every game and contest seems to flourish in its sunshine, a matchless ambience for world competition that turned the 1932 Games into an oddly idyllic affair that earned a $1 million profit despite the fact that it was held in the darkest Depression year of them all.

Somehow all these factors were so beautifully interlocked that it should have been impossible for L.A. to lose the Olympics. And yet....

The whole fabric began to show flaws early in the winter of 1978. First there was the matter of a number of questionnaires from the IOC and the sports federations, which every municipal applicant for an Olympic bid must fill out. The IOC is used to answers that are verbose, and most applicant cities fairly wallow in the baroque prose of diplomacy. The approach of the L.A. people was the reverse. They replied in terse, no-nonsense terms, declaring their intention to retain control of everything that happened in their Olympics pertaining to finances, including the negotiation and acceptance of TV contracts, as well as all costs and designs of facilities to be constructed or refurbished. "All final decisions," L.A. told the IOC, "must be reserved to the local organizing committee pursuant to contractual agreements." Period.

This flew in the face of all that the IOC has come to believe about itself and about the quadrennial spectacle it bestows on some lucky city. Lord Killanin, a usually genial pipe smoker with an affable manner, cracked back with uncharacteristic sharpness: "All the needs of the IOC, the international federations and the USOC shall be met by the city...and the IOC is the final authority over the Games." And to cut off all further debate on the question of money he reminded L.A. that the national Olympic Committee and the city chosen must "assume complete financial responsibility for the Games." Period.

European journalists, as accustomed as the IOC to the more florid language of less independent applicants, quickly labeled the L.A. document "belligerent" and "arrogant." In hindsight, John Argue says, "It was terse, let's say, and it could have been stated in nicer language." And, as luck—and city hall politics—would have it, Argue recalls, those replies to the questionnaires were drafted in the office of L.A.'s chief administrative officer, C. Erwin Piper, an outspoken official who, as a matter of political philosophy, believes that not a dime should be spent for any project that is not fully under control of city bureaus. Piper had also consistently disputed the expenditure figures of the pro-Olympics forces, insisting that the Games would cost many millions more than anticipated. Thus, the political struggles inside city hall were introduced directly into the negotiations between the city and the IOC.

There was to be more of this in the drafting of another important missive to the IOC, the long and detailed contract that the city presented as the sole legal document of agreement between the two bodies concerning the Games. The work on this paper was done in the office of Burt Pines, the city attorney, and what came out was a piece of lengthy (25 pages) legalese written in the precise, detailed style of U.S. contractual agreements rather than in the less specific language of European contracts to which the IOC is accustomed. "The city attorney's contract was written like a marriage arrangement that had the divorce agreement drawn up ahead of time," says Anton Calleia. "It demanded: 'Give the city the Games,' but the city refuses to take any responsibility for them."

To some observers, this aggressive flavor seemed to have been created almost purposely to irritate the IOC and hurt the city's chances. A few city hall insiders saw the heavy-handed language as being an extension of the political rivalry between Mayor Bradley and Attorney Pines. At the time the contract was drafted, Pines was involved in a rugged primary campaign for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general. His opponent (and the ultimate winner) was the popular Congresswoman Burke, who had the full support of Mayor Bradley.

Be that as it may, the brusqueness of these official communications to the IOC did, in fact, set a sharply negative tone for further dealings. John Ferraro, a strapping former USC All-America tackle who is president of the city council, thinks that perhaps the misunderstandings could have been avoided if the city had sent emissaries to talk with IOC representatives and soothe ruffled feelings. "Maybe we were too frugal," says Ferraro. "Maybe we should have sent someone to Lausanne to talk about the answers to the questionnaires. The same with the contract. But we were too frugal to do even that."

On the other hand, Argue, who is an attorney himself, maintains that the straightforward, candid style was best. "Lake Placid played the game differently than we did, so did Moscow, and so did Sarajevo [the Yugoslav city chosen to hold the '84 Winter Games]. They all signed whatever it was the IOC put in front of them and figured they'd work it all out later. And they did work it all out with a minimum of problems, as far as I know. But we weren't in a position to do that due to the political climate in L.A. And even if we had been, that is not a businesslike way to handle it. We wanted a contract that meant what it said. We wanted sound legal language that both sides understood precisely."

Instead of a firm working agreement, what had been established between Los Angeles and the IOC was a very spiky relationship. The parties met face to face twice; the first time at Mexico City in April, when delegations from the city and the IOC met to discuss disagreements on who would control the Olympic purse strings and how. Rule 21 in the Olympic Charter states that all revenue is to be paid first to the IOC, which then disburses it to the host city and other parties. In Mexico City, the IOC agreed to waive this requirement. It also gave L.A. the right to negotiate a television agreement with one-third of the rights money going, as usual, to the IOC. It seemed as if things were progressing favorably—particularly because the IOC had already waived its normal requirement that an Olympic Village be constructed and, instead, agreed that college dormitories could be so used.

All this added up to sizable compromises by the IOC. "The Olympic skeptics around here have called the IOC unreasonable," Mayor Bradley said last week. "But, believe me, they have tried and they have been most reasonable."

The next meeting was to take place in mid-May in Athens when the full 85-member assembly of the IOC would convene to put a final stamp of approval, disapproval—or whatever—on the Los Angeles bid for '84. But in the meantime, a new and negative influence in California began to exert more and more pressure on the fortunes of the Games. This was the anti-tax rebellion, gathering a head of power that would detonate in a statewide election on June 6 when Proposition 13 would pass by an astonishing, top-heavy vote. Passage would cause a rollback of property taxes that would slash some $7 billion from the revenues of municipalities across the state.

In fact, the Los Angeles Olympics were not directly affected by the vote, for there was no property-tax money involved in any of the proposals for funding the Games. Yet, inevitably, the fevered climate of revolt against government spending began to infect the public attitude toward the Olympics, and as a natural consequence, the attitude of the politicians. Soon there were new dissident voices at city hall.

Mayor Bradley first became angry, then frustrated, then resigned. He said, "There has been so much bombastic rhetoric, all negative, about the Games, all predicting huge deficits, all voicing pessimism and gloom. Even if we could afford the most aggressive public relations program we couldn't undermine that talk. It is repeated over and over and over. It is a product of the climate of Proposition 13, of politicians grandstanding for the public. But it is also caused by terrible reporting in the media. This isn't going to cost anyone one dime in property taxes, but no one wants to listen to that. No one will listen anymore. No one will believe me. The atmosphere has been poisoned."

Bradley blames much of the poison on reporting in the Los Angeles Times, a near-monolithic press power in the area. However, the Times editorial page has been inclined to favor an Olympics if it can be staged without fiscal liability to the city—which is precisely the mayor's position. And the Times' lead sports columnist, Jim Murray, wrote that the "paper-clip counters" were turning L.A. into a "dreary little Calvin Coolidge hide-under-the-bed town."

Where Bradley and virtually every other Olympic supporter in Los Angeles claim to find an anti-Olympics slant is in the news stories of Kenneth Reich, a veteran Times political reporter. Asked about his approach to Olympic stories, Reich predictably replied that he did not feel his reporting had been unfairly negative and pointed out that, in fact, nearly all of the media in the L.A. area had been quite unfriendly to the Games—some more so than the Times.

True enough. One talk-show host on radio station KABC (which is owned by the ABC network) has been so consistently anti-Olympics that Roone Arledge, president of news and sports for the network, told a Los Angeles acquaintance, "I tried to convince the station management to make him shut up because we want to bid on these Games. I didn't have any luck at all. He's still knocking them, and I just hope he doesn't kill them."

The air of negativism was strong in L.A. by the weekend of May 13 when a large contingent—including a bitterly anti-Olympics city councilman, Robert Ronka—began arriving in Athens to learn if the IOC would at last accept the city's bid. "Things were very cool," John Argue says. "The IOC gave the Russians a limousine to ride around town, but they made everyone from L.A. take cabs." The environment was worse than cool; it was heavy with anger, for many IOC members had just gotten their first look at the steely language of the L.A. contract as drafted by the city attorney's office. Robert J. Kane, president of the USOC, was first to meet with the IOC executive board and was told that there was no possibility that the Games would be awarded to Los Angeles.

Argue, chairman of the SCCOG, arrived a day or so later. "I was told the IOC executive committee had kicked us out," he says, "but I wanted to hear this from the horse's mouth, so I asked for a special meeting with the IOC executive group. We sat down for four hours and we went over the contract language, point by point. They had said flatly that it was not right, that it was not their style of contract, that it was unacceptable. But in that meeting when we explained the realities of the phrasing, when we spoke about the specific practicalities of what the contract meant to say—well, we found we could agree on point after point after point. When the meeting finally ended, we had only one point of disagreement: the IOC's Rule Four."

Ah, yes, Rule Four. Here is where the politicians of Los Angeles and the politicians of the IOC came to grips over a few words that seem to have far more ceremonial significance than legal force. Rule Four lays down in five fairly succinct paragraphs the lines of ownership and authority regarding the Olympics. There appears no doubt about who is in charge: "Every person or organization that plays any part whatsoever in the Olympic movement shall accept the supreme authority of the IOC and shall be bound by its Rules and submit to its jurisdiction." Flat and authoritarian, no room to wiggle out of that, is there? Well, of course there is. The most blatant recent example occurred in Montreal in 1976 when the Canadian government flagrantly ignored both Olympic custom and law by refusing to allow the Taiwanese team into the Games despite IOC "demands" that they do so.

No, IOC rules are not carved in stone, they are scarcely traced in sand. However, the IOC wants to present the appearance—the illusion—of authority. Thus, after Montreal's deficit, the IOC wrote a clause into Rule Four that said, "The NOC [National Olympic Committee] and the city chosen shall be jointly and severally responsible for all commitments entered into and shall assume complete financial responsibility for the organization of the Games."

This is a sentence grounded almost completely in the theatrics of politics to make it seem that the IOC is taking a tough stand to protect the Olympic credit rating after Montreal. A veteran of Lake Placid's dealings with the IOC over the 1980 Games says that his group had consistently found the committee willing to bend, and often break, its own rules in the face of practical demands. Another veteran observer says, "The rules of the IOC do not, in fact, accurately reflect the real-life manner in which the Games are done."

Unfortunately, despite the progress made by John Argue, real life was not the point in Athens; many IOC members felt they had been insulted by the upstarts from Los Angeles. City Councilman Ronka had been on the phone from Athens back to radio talk shows and the press in Los Angeles, and he issued a constant stream of highly uncomplimentary remarks about the IOC and its policies, at one point labeling the group "archaic and arcane aristocrats and freeloaders." Much of this invective was duly reported to the IOC in Athens.

Thus, when the full membership of the IOC met early one morning to make its final decision on the 1984 Games, Los Angeles was again in trouble. Only the desperate intervention of a few old friends from previous bids—the city has tried to collar the last three Summer Games—managed to save L.A. from being tossed out on the spot. As a way of saving face—and the Games—at least for the time being, the IOC suggested that Los Angeles might want to investigate the possibility of getting an insurance policy that would cover the city in case of any financial losses incurred by the Games. This, of course, bordered on the ludicrous, but it did present at least another soothing illusion that a settlement might be possible. Thus, Lord Killanin announced that Los Angeles was awarded the Games—but only on a conditional basis, and that, local politics and Proposition 13 notwithstanding, a contract would have to be signed accepting some kind of financial responsibility for the Games no later than July 31.

Back in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Los Angeles, with anti-spending fever rising daily in the intensifying campaign for Proposition 13, local politicians perceived that fierce attacks on the Olympics and the IOC seemed to go down well with voters. Ronka was the first to return from Athens, and he quickly declared to all who would listen that the IOC had "whipsawed," "double-crossed" and "backstabbed" the Los Angeles contingent. Other council members joined the chorus, and City Controller Ira Reiner, known to have ambitions for higher office, announced that he and City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, long a fiscal gadfly and opponent of all manner of spending for the Olympics, were going to launch a campaign to put what amounts to an anti-Olympics referendum on the ballot next spring (the earliest it could be done).

The political winds continued to blow so hard and so hot around this issue that Mayor Bradley finally threw up his hands in early June and named a blue-ribbon citizens' committee to study the situation. "It is no longer the city government's responsibility to resolve this matter," he said. "I want this committee to explore all realistic possibilities for holding the Olympics in Los Angeles without fiscal risk to the city and, for now, I want it removed from all debate in the city council. We have to get the issue outside the atmosphere of city hall, where demagoguery and negativism and transparent political opportunism have made any kind of meaningful debate or decision impossible."

The seven-member citizens' committee was an important step back toward sanity and away from illusion. For the first time, there was true civic clout involved in the Los Angeles Olympic effort, for Bradley had selected powerful people from business and labor, both Republicans and Democrats. Moreover, it is far more perilous for an ambitious politician to attack the motives and plans of people such as these than it is to assault fellow politicians down in the trenches. As if by magic, a relative hush fell over city hall.

One member of the committee, David Wolper, defined the new conditions this way: "The city is out of it now. We'll negotiate a deal with the IOC and we'll come back and just ask the blessing of the city. That's all we need, a kind of ceremonial support. There'll be no question of a tax deficit. This is an independent committee. We don't need anyone's financial help. The day we incorporate ourselves, we could have a $200 million line of credit. This thing should never have gotten to be a political issue, but no one has really been deeply involved except the politicians—until now. I am convinced that the IOC has wanted to get this thing settled and that it wants the games in L.A. We're going to do that. It's just a matter of mechanics."

Well, of course, it is probably more than that. Early last week Monique Berlioux, the director of the IOC, proclaimed stiffly from headquarters in Lausanne, "We simply cannot take responsibility for a city we do not control. So far as we are concerned, there is nothing left to negotiate."

But there is always a little something left to negotiate. Later in the week the citizens' committee named by Bradley filed papers with the California secretary of state's office, incorporating itself (with the USOC's legal imprimatur) as the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. This gave the group the legal power to negotiate as a formal body with the IOC. It neatly removed the city government and its cacophonous crowd of opportunists from the whole affair. It opened the way for the IOC to save face without having to accommodate its rules to the city's political imperatives. What remained was for the IOC to agree that the committee of private citizens could be the responsible signer of the contract. To that end, Argue, Wolper and a couple of other blue-ribbon types flew to Montreal to meet with Monique Berlioux and other IOC representatives.

As they settled into the plush Queen Elizabeth Hotel there, suddenly the situation took on an optimistic glow again. Suddenly it seemed that, at last, logic might prevail, that the Olympics of '84 might actually be held in a place where they obviously belong.

THREE ILLUSTRATIONSJOHN HUEHNERGARTH