Because we had vision, because we had ambition, because we were unfettered by tradition or guilt—because the steel towns were dead and we couldn't sit in dark rooms and watch the soap operas all day—we went west. There were millions of us. We just kept going and going until we got to the water, and, our wandering finally arrested, we piled on top of one another at the continent's edge. This, roughly, is how we populated California. We just kept going and going until we couldn't go any farther.
By now there are almost 30 million of us, and, it's true, some of us are what you might call misfits. The kind of person who stares goggle-eyed at the Rose Parade on television and is then moved to throw his belongings into the back of his Pinto probably wasn't going to be of much benefit to Detroit anyway. Same for the guy who hurtles cross-country, lands at Venice Beach—where he espies his first chain-saw juggler—and, all on his own, reinvents the state motto (Eureka!). You don't need him back in Altoona.
But cull the misfits, lunkheads, serial killers and creators of sitcoms from this bunch, and what have you got? All right, cull out-of-work aerospace engineers and aerobics instructors, and what have you got? Better cull those surfers while you're at it. And now what have you got? You've got yourself an Olympic team, that's what you've got.
You can say what you want about California, where one out of five families owns a hot tub and two out of three men hardly ever wear neckties, but you can't say we don't play-hard-because-life-is-short out here. We've been just-doing-it for years. We're every sneaker commercial you've ever seen. If California were a country? Well, Ronald Reagan would have been king. But more to the point, the U.S. had 36 gold medals in the 1988 Olympics, and spinning off California's share of that total (and allocating team and relay golds on a proportional basis), we would have placed fourth in golds in those Games. The rest of the U.S.—49 states, plus D.C., to our one—edges us out. California gold, 15; east-of-the-Colorado-River, a severely diminished 21. Why do you think it is called the Golden State?
Of the 611 U.S. athletes in Seoul, 168 were from California. That's more than one out of every four athletes. Sixty-one of those Californians brought home medals in 23 individual events and 17 in team or relay events. And things won't be much different at the Barcelona Games; with a few slots to be filled, 140 of the 592 U.S. athletes hail from California. Memo to Detroit and Cincinnati: Keep up the good work with your cars and soap, but otherwise pack it in.
When we all moved west until we couldn't go farther, that was the real Olympic movement in this country. A state that encouraged play at every turn was a virtual Olympic sponsor, and bright people recognized this. A young man named Peter Daland was coaching swimmers in Philadelphia back in 1956 when he felt the tidal tug of the Pacific. He left to coach at the L.A. Athletic Club that year and was hired at USC in '57. "My friends thought it was unthinkable," he says. "Leave Philly? But I had seen the future of swimming, and it was California." Daland retired from USC this year, having produced 58 Olympians.
Indeed, the future of almost everything has been in California. Teenager Bill Toomey left New Canaan, Conn., in 1957 and stumbled through this strange culture with his eyes as big as dinner plates. "First thing I see?" he recalls. "A health-food store. I had never heard of such a thing." Toomey won a gold medal in the decathlon in 1968. By now New Canaan probably has its own health-food store, but it is still without a decent decathlete. When it comes to California (and everybody does), it's catch-up all the way.
Now, we know what you're saying. California is a huge state and should be hugely represented in the Olympics. But c'mon. Is California really five times more populous than New York? Well, we had nearly five times as many athletes (168 to New York's 36) at Seoul. The ratio in Barcelona will be roughly the same, 140 to 28. But, hey, New York, you've still got Cats and Phantom of the Opera. So definitely keep that up. If it's recycled British musicals you want, New York will always be the place to go. But never mind New York. Even though it had a fifth of the California force, it was still in second place in '88. This time around New York has dropped to fourth (Florida is third, with 41), and Texas, with 43, has assumed second place. The rest of the country is much, much more sparsely represented. California had more Olympic athletes in Seoul than the next five states combined.
We know what else you're saying. The Olympics are rigged. Yes, that's partly true. Until cutting-horse competitions replace water polo in the Olympics, California will continue to lead Montana (one '92 Olympian). Until synchronized swimming is replaced by white-water rafting (and we feel strongly that it should be, by the way), California will always lead Idaho (one). And let's say that the logging competition we sometimes see on ESPN, in which men in plaid shirts assault timber with enormous chain saws, becomes an Olympic event. Why, Oregon (12 this year) would surely come to the fore. Yes, it is true, the things we do in California are mostly Olympic sports, and the things you do are jobs. Some of these Olympic things we even do by accident. Throw a ball into a pool, let your kid bat it around with the neighborhood kids, and, what do you know, you're developing an Olympian! For goodness' sakes, did you know there is now, starting this year, an Olympic badminton team? Out here you go on a picnic, and soon you're having a Barcelona qualifier and you don't even realize it.
Some sports, we admit, are more Californian than others. We can't help that. In men's volleyball, for example, you will probably not be shocked to learn that all 12 members of the 1992 Olympic team are from California. "Well, we do have a beach here," explains Santa Barbara native Doug Partie, a member of the U.S.'s also all-Californian (naturally) 1988 gold medal team, who is on the '92 team as well. "And the sport kind of does fit the California life-style." In case you have never been to Southern California, sunsets must ordinarily be viewed through netting. There's always some family having an Olympic festival after lunch.
Why didn't this happen elsewhere? If sand and sunshine were all that mattered, wouldn't Florida have had a volleyball player or two? The difference—besides the fact that a disproportionate number of those suntanned bodies in Florida are on the far side of 65—is that in California, when we find something we like to do, we institutionalize it, make it part of the curriculum. Partie, for example, didn't get into volleyball at Goleta Beach, near Santa Barbara, but rather in high school when he joined the team. In fact, in most beach cities a high school volleyball star like Karch Kiraly, another Santa Barbaran and the '88 team captain, is accorded the same renown that a high school basketball star is in Indiana. If we happened to enjoy sawing through logs with dangerous equipment (and we don't really care for that type of thing), you can bet we would have league play at the junior high level and there would be 14-year-old lettermen named Stumpy.
Same idea with water polo, in which 12 of the 13 players from 1988's silver medal team were from California; the 13th was from Hawaii, a suburb of California. For Barcelona the numbers are the same. We found something we could fool around with in the backyard pool—everybody here has a backyard pool, just accept that fact—and we made a big-time sport out of it. One of the stars of the U.S. water polo team, Terry Schroeder, who will be competing in his third Olympics, came upon the sport just that way. His dad strung a net across the family pool in Santa Barbara. Burned out from competitive swimming by the age of 10, Terry found something that was strictly fun. And, wouldn't you know, there was a high school water polo team he could join.
Here's one more sport that is more Californian than you would think it ought to be: yachting. In 1988, of the nine Americans who brought home medals in five events, six were Californians. In Barcelona six out of 21 members of the yachting team will be from here. It's true, California has a little bit of coastline, but when you think yachting, don't you think Nantucket or Puget Sound? You shouldn't. You should think San Francisco Bay and Long Beach. The reason? Wind. In the spring and summer we've got it and you don't (Florida has it in the winter months). California simply has more racing days a year than just about anywhere else. We've got wind, we've got sunshine on a cloudy day....
But take away these sports, which for technical or meteorological reasons will always favor Californians, and the Olympic experience is still very much a West Coast phenomenon. Swimming and track and field, which account for most of the Olympic headlines, are as Californian as a drive-by shooting. Mark Spitz, Bruce Jenner, Florence Griffith Joyner, Janet Evans, Sammy Lee, Edwin Moses, John Naber, Greg Louganis, Bill Toomey, Pat McCormick, Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson—all are Californians, and all are Sullivan Award winners as the nation's outstanding amateur athletes.
Climate is obviously a factor, although this is not the only warm-weather state. The sunny skies and balmy breezes we enjoy turn everything except Olympic politics into an outdoor sport. This means, in a word, access. Facilities, whether pools or basketball courts, are cheaper to construct alfresco, so there are more of them to serve and develop more athletes. Naber, who won four gold medals in the 1976 Olympics, says, "Here was a fun thing I could do 11 months of the year. If the pool was empty four months, cold another four, and just right for only four months of the year, I don't think I'd have been a swimmer."
But in the case of swimming, the crucial factor isn't just climate. There was a free-enterprise angle employed by some shrewd and talented swim coaches in the late '50s that worked to develop all the talent in the state intensely. In the 1960s and '70s California produced as many as half of the top swimmers in the world, and as Daland notes, there was a kind of commercial scam at the heart of all that concentrated excellence. This, of course, is as Californian as beach-blanket bingo. The type of people who come here—call them misfits if you want—just happen to see opportunity at every turn.
"Prior to age-group swimming, the sport was rather small," Daland says. "But age-group swimming multiplied the sport by 10 in the middle '50s." Age-group swimming was simply a way for the local swim instructor to hang on to a cash customer. "O.K., I've taught him beginning swimming," Daland says. "Do I release him? No, I need to teach him stroke. Then do I release him? No, I need to place him in novice competition." A family takes its tot in just to be made pool-safe, and a coach is sizing him up as an annuity.
The benefit was that top coaches—Olympic-quality coaches like Sherman Chavoor, George Haines and Don Gambril, to name a few—were doing the actual teaching. Think of this: Haines's Santa Clara club produced 16 Olympians in 1968 alone. Says Daland, who was the Olympic coach for men in 1972 and for women in 1964, "We had the coaches, we had the programs, we had the swimming world by the ear." The rest of the world has done some catching up, but California is still the dominant force in swimming. In 1988 Californians accounted for nine of the U.S.'s 18 swimming medals. Only nine of the U.S.'s 40 Barcelona-bound swimmers are from the state, but they include such gold medal contenders as Matt Biondi, Evans and Summer Sanders.
The Californiazation of track and field preceded that of swimming by perhaps 10 years. Up until World War II, a lot of records were being set out here, and USC dominated the NCAA meet. But the glamour meets were still in the East. Whatever happened in the West was barely noticed.
The postwar boom, when fellows who had gotten their first sniff of California as servicemen during World War II moved back there after being discharged, brought even more talent in. A lot of the sports consciousness-raising occurred in the mid-'60s, when Jim Bush was hired to coach track at UCLA. Right away he began wondering what he could do to get a raise. It was pointed out to him that USC had beaten UCLA 34 years in a row in their annual dual meet. Perhaps he could beat USC. His second year, he did. Thus began a rivalry that lasted into the late '70s, a rivalry so intense and so well reported that Southern Californians began discussing quarter-mile times the same way New Yorkers were tossing around batting averages.
"That meet became the biggest in the nation," says Bush. "If we didn't get a world record, it would have been a bad meet. The winner of that meet usually won the nationals. It was a virtual Olympic qualifier. That stadium [UCLA's] held 12,000 people. But 20,000 would get in. It was all anybody talked about."
The dual meet has become less important, and college track power has shifted to other states. Yet the athletes still come to California to train.
"Nobody can tell you what California's like," Toomey says. "There's a uniqueness to California. Maybe it's the contribution of its heritage, how it seduced a large population into being Olympicized, how it created an importance to events that were nontraditional in most school systems." Maybe if Florida had held the Summer Olympics twice—as California did, in 1932 and '84—there would be more of a fever for it there. But there's more, says Toomey: "There's a spirit of adventure here, less inhibition, room for dreaming and for scheming. If you want things to come true, this is the place to do it. I would not have made the Olympic team if I had stayed anywhere else."
Toomey was roused by the competition, by opportunity. He was the New England long-jump champ before he came West. He arrived in Palo Alto, paid 25 cents to enter an all-comers meet and watched virtually everybody leap beyond him. Toomey learned what he was up against: a culture that was geared specifically, and unknowingly, to produce Olympians, who in turn would feed the culture and produce more Olympians. "It was an aura that Hollywood created," he says. "An idea of what's appealing to the masses. It was people who could jump higher, run faster, and were stronger and better looking." Hollywood understood this and made a fair number of Olympians into movie stars. Who knows whether, in turn, swimmer Buster Crabbe, a native Californian transformed into a movie star, or Terry Schroeder, the homegrown model for the statue outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, drew more Californians into the competitive fray?
Bigger, stronger, better. There has long been an Olympic attitude in place here. Some of us, from as far away as Detroit and Cincinnati and, yes, New Canaan, picked up on that, and we went until we could go no farther. Not all of us became Olympians, but a lot did. The sense of play that California inspires created a mighty inventory of athletes (five to your one!). As for the rest of us, we were dreamers, too. We examined the shoreline, watched all those kids on their boards, and we wondered just how difficult surfing could be. It looked like fun. In California, remember, you can do anything.
Seoul '88 What If...?