The 1932 Olympic Games: When the Gods Smiled on Los Angeles

Excerpt from The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt. Copyright ©2016 by Tobaccoathletic Limited. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Just two days before the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles games, Major George Patton was massing his tanks and cavalry on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, preparing to disperse by force the marchers of the Bonus Army—desperate First World War veterans and their supporters who had gathered in the capital demanding an early payment of their military pensions. Later on in the evening, they would be chased from their pitiful camps in Hooverville, the slum city on the mud flats south of the White House. The Great Depression, now in its fourth year, had reduced the US government to tear-gassing its own veterans. Yet, undeterred by financial difficulties and prophets of doom, the alliance of developers, boosters, advertisers and media men that made up the organizing committee had brought the Olympic show to town. Now it would blow Hoover, the east coast and the miseries of the Depression off the front pages.

Reporting from downtown on the opening day of the games, the New York Times thought it, “The biggest migration to California since the gold rush.” In actual fact, deterred by distance and depression, less than 1,500 athletes had come to the games, considerably fewer than there had been at Amsterdam; but, what Los Angeles lacked in sheer headcount, it made up for with hyperbole, set-dressing and shows. Pershing Square, at the heart of downtown, was decked out in Olympic bunting and red, white and blue Americana. Hotel and apartment-block lobbies sported Olympic shields. May’s department stores on Broadway, anticipating a flood of foreign visitors, hired interpreters to walk their haberdashery and ladies’-wear floors, a flag indicating the interpreter’s mother tongue stuck to their back. Everywhere, souvenirs and cheap Olympic memorabilia—matchboxes, key rings, pins and flags—were for sale on the streets. More upmarket shoppers could choose from Olympic-themed Chinese crafts and costume jewelry in Olympic colors. The Biltmore Hotel, the city’s most exclusive, was full to overflowing with sports administrators, businessmen and journalists, and would host nine international sporting conferences over the next fortnight. Edward “Spike” O’Donnell, a notorious Chicago bootlegger and gangster, told the Los Angeles Times he was in town “to attend the Olympic Games and go to church.” Sigfrid Edström, the arch-conservative Swedish president of the International Amateur Athletics Federation and the Swedish General Electric Corporation, mixed Olympic duty with business. The IOC executive met in the high white deco tower of LA’s City Hall. Later in the evening, Standard Oil’s gigantic neon sign illuminated the Californian night, embellished by the Olympic rings.

Reflecting back on the games, the official report was sanctimonious: “Not a single note of commercialism was allowed to permeate the consummation of the task.” Presumably none of the report’s authors saw the Standard Oil sign or managed to catch the 200 teenagers in white jackets and white gloves handing out Coca-Cola at the Olympic park. Perhaps they were too busy looking at the huge Coca-Cola billboards supporting the games all over the city. Coke was not alone. In fact, Los Angeles was, in conception and execution, the Olympic Games most directly shaped by the forces of commerce and money. It would take the rest of the Olympic movement fifty years to catch up. There were coordinated national advertising campaigns with an Olympic theme for Kellogg’s Pep Bran Flakes, Weiss binoculars, and the first generation of supermarkets, like Safeway and Piggly Wiggly. Union 76 Petroleum exhorted its customers to “Select your gasoline by the Olympic Motto”—a rather convoluted way of saying their gas was higher, faster and stronger. Nisley, the shoe manufacturer, put out a range of “Olympic winners.” In one of the first examples of guerrilla marketing at the Olympics, Harry Johannes of the Ben-Hur tea company inveigled his way into the village, rounded up the Indian hockey team in their official turbans and took photographs of them holding his tea bags. Amongst local businesses, Helms’ Bakery in Culver City was amongst the most enthusiastic, signing up as the official baked-goods supplier to the 1932 games. But Paul Helms, the sharp-eyed owner, had, before the IOC could say, “Intellectual property,” copyrighted the Olympic rings and motto in every state in America. The IOC were powerless to stop him doing whatever he wanted, though all he actually did was brand his aerated industrial bread as Olympic bread and sell it from delivery trucks to the new housewives of suburban, palm-lined Los Angeles.

The planting of palm trees on Los Angeles’ newly laid-out avenues had begun in the mid-1920s—a piece of smart real-estate window-dressing—but it had received a massive boost from the Olympics. Over the previous couple of years, the arboreal trim of languid palms that has become one of the city’s most notable ciphers was laid down; over 100,000 trees, on 150 miles of boulevard, much of it part of an unemployment relief program. It was, in part, the promise of a small plot in this littoral paradise that had seen Los Angeles become the fifth-largest city in America—and, within a generation, second only to New York—and the Olympics was an opportunity to embellish that notion. Game and Gossip, a glossy monthly which showcased the new Californian affluence of athletic hedonism and glamour, was typical of the boosters. Its Olympic issue hailed the “Southland” as the world’s new playground and touted its latest casual fashions and sportswear.

There was a distinctly Hellenic quality to that vision of California and, for a sheer technicolor rendition, you can’t beat the words of the official report: “The gods smiled on Los Angeles. Into the endless azure vault of the heavens, the sun, a golden ball, pushed slowly and majestically as if the great Zeus himself was riding in his shining chariot from his home on Mount Olympus.”

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