Celebrating the first Ameriad of the modern era, I declare open the Americ Games of Los Angeles.
This is an article from the Aug. 13, 1984 issue
As the band plays our national anthem, the theme from Picnic, let's go to the victory stand, where the medals for Large Boor Freestyle Jingoism are being awarded. Who will the judges pick for the gold? Southern Californian fans? The American Broadcasting Company? The Los Angeles Americ Organizing Committee (LAAOC)?
If there's a warrant out for Bobby Knight in Puerto Rico, if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, why is anybody from the U.S. walking around free in L.A.?
Oh, what we've done to the Olympics. The Soviets & Co. perverted them by not coming, but it seems we've done as much violence to them by our presence. God only knows what the 2.5 billion people around the globe who are watching the Games will think of a vain America, so bountiful and strong, with every advantage, including the home court, reveling in the role of Goliath, gracelessly trumpeting its own good fortune while rudely dismissing its guests. At best, we've been dreadful hosts; at worst, we've revealed ourselves as bullies—of our friendly competition and of an ideal—because in these Americ Games there has been no room for those who failed, or for those poor, huddled masses of athletes who dared come from foreign lands. Sadly, the one sustaining vision of these Games is of swimmer Rick Carey, the sulky American backstroker, pouting because, though he had won a gold medal, he didn't set a world record.
The foreigners probably were being more kindly toward us than we deserved, although some competitors who had been in Moscow in '80 maintained that the state-controlled press there was fairer to outsiders than the capitalistic press here. Monique Berlioux, the director of the International Olympic Committee, was more direct. Speaking of the ill-mannered fans, the booboisie of the bleachers, she snapped, "They are like children." And, she added, "We have in French a word for this—chauvinistes." And then she went on to criticize ABC.
In this she had plenty of company, most especially including her boss, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who wrote a letter of complaint, protesting the network's tasteless flag-waving. Still, although ABC (Always Be Cheerleaders) must accept a large measure of obloquy for its part in sabotaging the Olympic spirit, it certainly wasn't the only culprit. Among the national publications, for example, USA Today was positively orgiastic in its us-ism, saluting what it called America's "supportmanship" with a display of saber rattling not seen since Hearst took us to war against Spain.
The Los Angeles press wasn't so narrow as it was pious. The overlong halftime show that passed for an opening ceremony was solemnized locally as some kind of patriotic eucharist: "We saw America at its best at the Coliseum yesterday," intoned the Times; "L.A. remakes the Olympics in its own image," revealed the Herald Examiner. The show thus successfully completed a process whereby Southern Californians, and many other Americans, were made to believe that the Olympics were really some kind of ancient U.S. institution that good taxpayers should support (the code word always employed). When the Olympic torch was carried into L.A., for example, veterans groups lined the streets, selling American flags. Good grief, given this sort of thing, an argument can be made that ABC wasn't so guilty of trying to manipulate us as it was of having been manipulated itself.
Right out of the box, it was America, first and only. Foreign athletes came to be dismissed as foils, necessary evils such as Joe Louis's Bums of the Month or the Harlem Globetrotters' Washington Generals. You want foreigners? Go down to Disneyland and see It's A Small World. There we got foreigners. One night, at the volleyball competition, the P.A. announcer said he had a medal result. It was in some cycling event. The gold, he said, went to an American, and he gave the cyclist's name. Cheers! U!S!A! U!S!A! The bronze also went to an American, and he gave the name. Cheers! U!S!A! U!S!A! He didn't even mention the silver medalist's name. Foreigner. At the gymnastics, when the teams would enter, a melody would be played for each nation: bullfight stuff for the Spaniards, shogun stuff for the Japanese, and so on. For the American women they played, if you can believe this—When the Saints Go Marching In. Saints! And when the canonized little dolls had the audacity to lose to some foreigners, ABC cut away before another country's anthem could sully our ears. From the first day, the fans were primed and ready; and they didn't have to take their cues from ABC or anybody else. Rodgers and Hammerstein advised us that you have to be taught to hate, but, as we learned in L.A., gloating comes instinctively.
Why? Almost from the first there was speculation that this was some sort of delayed, misplaced defensive reaction to the national travails of Vietnam and Watergate. But, for goodness' sake, they were a decade or more ago. More prosaically, it must not be forgotten that some Olympic sports are dreadful spectator events. ABC never gets enough credit for picking and snacking so skillfully through this often unsavory smorgasbord and making home viewers think all Olympic competitions are exciting. But for those who bought tickets and found themselves quickly bored, acting like Berlioux's rude children, hollering U!S!A!, U!S!A!, ignoring our guests and distracting them were the only ways to pass the time.
On television, for the world, these were a nation's Olympics, but on the scene, in so many ways, they belonged strictly to Southern California. Seventy-five percent of the tickets were sold to locals, so when you factor in the few foreigners who dressed up the place—Hollywood extras—you're left with probably 80% or 90% of the chanting chauvinistes coming from greater L.A. And for many of them, what were the Olympics but another new franchise in town: the L.A. Raiders, Clippers, Lazers, Olympians. This everyday hometown spirit is all the more understandable when you remember that, unlike other Olympics, these Games were being held largely at old familiar sites, with local kids playing. More than 40% of the U.S. team—240 of its 597 members—came from a single state. If California had entered as a nation—now there's a thought—it would have had more competitors than all but five countries.
So while the Olympics were cast as this huge civic trial—the whole world is watching—they also were, practically speaking, no more than a block party. So vast is this summer camp of a city that you could drive for minutes, even an hour or more, and never have the slightest awareness that the Games existed. And then blending into the L.A. scene was all the more facilitated by the efficiency with which they were run. Why, if Peter V. Ueberroth is really this capable, go out and buy the first baseball franchise you can. And the volunteers: They were as unfailingly helpful as they were well scrubbed. The glorious colors—the banners, the kiosks and booths, even the trash cans and hot-dog napkins—were happily original, all Toyland confetti, in light and airy shades all their own. We get enough of red-white-and-blue everywhere else, don't we? Gridlock? Not even a "moderate but moving." The weather was magnificent, the smog a friendly tourist attraction that knew its place. The cops rounded up something like 1,000 hookers. Why, there wasn't even much honest commerce. The business at hotels, rent-a-car counters and taxi stands was variously estimated to be off by 20% to 40%. The tourists stayed Back-east, and the locals were glued to Channel 7. "I hear business is off a little," a man said to Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. "Off!?!" the distressed rodent rasped in a gruff voice. "Hey, we've got to be down 50 percent." Even salons on Rodeo Drive shuttered early. But then these are the same people who pick up in the seventh inning of a tight Dodger game to beat the traffic.
Southern Californians are really more like an ethnic group. But our Southern California-Americans are different from other countries' ethnics because they weren't necessarily born Southern Californian, the way Armenians are born Armenian and Croats are born Croats. And that, as a class, makes them awfully proud and insufferably smug. Here's a place that even trumped God; it transformed a desert with pipes and the climate with exhaust. It has become the genuine mano a mano rival of New York—and, despite its Olympic xenophobia, wonderfully international—but it remains embarrassingly parochial in so many respects. The difference is this: New York is a wise guy that won't suffer fools; Los Angeles is a spoiled kid that won't tolerate weaklings.
Of course, there's nothing wrong about cheering for the home team. Why, in '80 the Russians sometimes were downright cruel, hooting at a Polish pole vaulter as he sought to concentrate. But the Olympics aren't the Lakers vs. the Nuggets or USC vs. Oregon State. The deck is stacked here. The U.S. has more money and more facilities and more coaches and more healthy kids. Plus, its chief opposition stayed away.
The athletic resources of this rich land are so deep that, in effect, ABC itself has won a score of medals for us. Events like gymnastics, cycling, volleyball and water polo were "foreign sports" until ABC started hyping them. Now, just like that, we all but rule them—and usually with Southern California kids. Peter Buehning is a doctor from New Jersey and president of the U.S. Team Handball Federation. As Sweden was beating the U.S., Buehning exulted that ABC had at last given his sport a few precious minutes of exposure. "ABC can change this game in America," he said, and do you doubt him? If we really wanted to go after a team handball medal in '88 at Seoul, we could win one. We'd hire a foreign coach, stock a team with natural athletes from Encino and El Segundo, and then overpower the smaller nations where team handball may have been a way of life for generations. O.K. But then don't turn around and cheer for our success at the expense of these good losers.
On Wednesday, the American women's volleyball team had dropped the first two games to Brazil, and a defeat in one more game would almost certainly mean that the years much of the team had spent together, through the 1980 boycott, would be wasted. The fans, as usual, were chanting U!S!A!, U!S!A!, a spiteful catechism that, if you heard Communists reciting the same sort of thing on May Day, you'd hoot at as the mindless mouthings of totalitarian sheep. It was so grating that a handful of foreigners present began to chant B!R!A!, B!R!A! (for Brazil) in retaliation.
But then, in the third game, Paula Weishoff, from up the freeway in Torrance, 6'1", willowy and animated and cute—you can be 6'1" and cute—her little ponytail flying, her mouth agape with joy, began to take command. She's only 22, the youngest regular on the squad; she never experienced the pain of missing '80. But she was the one who carried her older teammates along. They won the next two games and led in the finale, and now the crowd was beside itself as the gallant Brazilians regrouped and went up 12-9. They held the serve, three points from victory. The spectators screamed, imploring the Americans—and yet it was spontaneous, genuine in a way that the Brazilians said afterward offended them not at all. Because now the fans were cheering for a home team instead of the home country, and that's allowed under any athletic charter, even the sanctimonious Olympic one.
And the U.S. stirred again and began to roll, and by the time Weishoff spiked its sixth straight point for 15-12, game and match, there was bedlam. Weishoff was dashing all around, hugging and kissing, and it was some time before the coach, Arie Selinger, could pull her aside and say simply, "You won it." She is from Southern California, a second-generation TV Olympian; he was in a concentration camp as a child. He has been an American for only five years. In other words, Selinger was once a foreigner. "The Brazilians were wonderful," he made a point of saying after the match. But by then the crowd in Long Beach had itself lustily cheered the losers, the non-Americans.
Those fans perhaps understood then that we Americans aren't necessarily better, only that we possess more resources, more opportunity. And when we do win, it's for all of us—competitors, fans, newsmen—all Americans—to have the sense and grace to say: We haven't beaten you in the Olympics; we've merely shown you what is possible when anyone is as big and as blessed as we are.