A Conversation with David Davis on LA84

1984 Opening Olympic Ceremonies at LA Coliseum (Photo by Dean Musgrove)

In 1984, the summer Olympic Games came back to Los Angeles. In One Golden Moment: The 1984 Olympics Through the Photographic Lens of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, David Davis has curated 150 of the most remarkable photos from that tournament. This Wednesday, Photo Friends and the Los Angeles Public Library will host a lecture to celebrate this new book and the photo archive that made it possible. We spoke to the author about how it all came together, the legacy of the ’84 Olympics, and what the city should and should not do if they win their bid for 2024 Games.

What do you remember about the ’84 Olympic Games in Los Angeles—the life, the energy, the experience of it all at that moment in time? 

I had just graduated from college in upstate New York, and my parents took me to L.A. and the Olympics as a graduation present. Pretty sweet, eh?

We stayed in dorm rooms at Claremont College, and drove in for several days worth of track and field events at the Coliseum. On one of those days, Jack Nicholson and a crew sat down in front of us in the cheap seats (really, concrete benches). No one bugged him. He just watched the events with binoculars and swilled beer.

Because of the boycott by the U.S.S.R. and the other Eastern Bloc nations, this turned into an all-American lovefest. I don’t recall when or where the chant of “USA! USA!” was first popularized, but it became the incessant, jingoistic soundtrack to the 1984 Olympics.

Outside the Coliseum were bustling crowds of people. Everyone wanted to take a picture in front of Robert Graham’s nude sculptures. And, pin-trading! Man, that was practically an Olympic event all along Figueroa.

Afterwards, my parents dropped me off in the middle of Westwood, and I started “life.” I moved to L.A. permanently in 1986.

One Golden Moment is a great photographic time capsule. An amateur Michael Jordan in his Olympic #9 jersey, Zola Budd barefoot on the running track, and especially the pomp and circumstance of the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies. What’s your favorite moment from the book?

So many, really. I love the images of Joan Benoit winning the first women’s marathon at the Olympics. She was fearless, and her victory represented a long-awaited milestone in sports. I also love Paul Chinn’s photo of Evelyn Ashford and Jeanette Bolden embracing after the 100-meter final. You’d think from her expression that Ashford had lost; in fact, she won the race. Bolden took fourth, which is of course the worst possible place to finish at the Olympics. I can’t help but mention the photo of a character I’ve dubbed “Pin Man,” with the USA hat, the oversized shades, and all these pins he’s collected on his vest. He is the uber-fan.

Mary LouRetton emerged as an Olympic sensation. Just 16, she scored two perfects 10s and became the first U.S. woman to win the individual all-around. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)
Mary LouRetton emerged as an Olympic sensation. Just 16, she scored two perfect 10s and became the first U.S. woman to win the individual all-around. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)

There are 13,000 images from these games in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner archive. How did this project come together? How were those photos narrowed down for publication here?

I’d gone through the collection in the early aughts, when I curated a sports photography exhibition at Central Library and wrote a companion book (published by Angel City Press), so I had a pretty good idea about what was there. We’d already digitized a good number of images from the 1984 Olympics, so this was as much a process of augmenting. For instance, as we were organizing the book, Pat Summit passed away. As a tribute of sorts, we included two photos of her.

Originally, we were planning to include photos from the 1932 Olympics in the book. But the sheer breadth of quality photos from 1984 changed our minds. So, we decided to focus solely on 1984.

We had to leave out some gems from the book (although many of them will be digitized for the website). They haunt my dreams.

According to David Goldblatt’s The Games, the success of the ’84 Olympics “unleashed and underwrote all manner of unsustainable loss-making Olympic monuments.” As still the only Olympics to turn a profit, part of that success was Los Angeles’ vast size and pre-existing infrastructure, and part was the burgeoning corporatization of the Games themselves. Looking at Rio now, what kind of legacy do you see from ’84 to 2016?

I haven’t read David Goldblatt’s latest book, although I plan to. (The Ball is Round, his history of soccer, is a masterwork.) Los Angeles changed the structural paradigm of the Olympics because the profits of the 1984 Olympics—what Peter Ueberroth likes to call its “surplus”—totaled over $230 million. At the time, the IOC was not flush. Basically, the IOC usurped the business model that Ueberroth and his staff implemented, including negotiating mega-TV deals, signing a limited number of corporate sponsors to very lucrative deals, charging high ticket prices, and using legions of volunteers.

The corporatization of the Games is definitely one of its legacies outside of the sports realm. Where nearly every other Olympic host city has veered from the Los Angeles model is construction, including gaudy venues and massive civic projects. L.A. avoided this; they were the “Spartan Games.”

Greg Louganis dominated the diving competition, winning the gold medal in the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)
Greg Louganis dominated the diving competition, winning the gold medal in the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)

Los Angeles is once again planning to bid for an Olympic Games (in 2024), in what would be the city’s and the Coliseum’s third turn at hosting. What lessons from ’84 do you hope the city leaders take to heart for this one?

I tried to be succinct with my other answers, so please permit me to go longer here.

Take a lesson from Peter Ueberroth’s blueprint and do not build “white elephant” venues, athlete villages, or media centers. This is the element that’s gotten so many other host cities in deep financial trouble. Thankfully, by 2024, L.A. will have pretty much everything in place structurally. Think about all the venues that have been built and/or refurbished since 1984: Staples Center, the Honda Center in Anaheim, StubHub Center in Carson, the Galen Center at USC, Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, and the Rose Bowl. The Coliseum will be refurbished by 2019 (at an estimated cost of $270 million, paid for by USC), and the new football stadium in Inglewood will have opened.

Related: Do not attach grandiose civic projects to the Olympic bid. Keep it simple and Spartan.

Revive the Arts Festival. This was a huge success in 1984 and energized artists and audiences throughout Southern California in photography, murals, dance, theater, music, performance art, fine art.

Put aside a supply of inexpensive tickets to every event—including the marquee events—so that youth and others can have the chance to experience the Olympics.

Bring back the tug-of-war. This event was last contested at the 1920 Olympics, and I think it’d be a big draw, both live and on TV. Wouldn’t you pay to see Russia versus the U.S. in tug-of-war? Hold it on Venice Beach.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, leave behind a true legacy. The Amateur Athletic Foundation in the West Adams area (now known as the LA84 Foundation) was formed from the profits (or, surplus) of the 1984 Olympics. This non-profit continues to support youth sports throughout Southern California, an effort that supports many kids who might not otherwise be able to access quality sports facilities or after-school programs.

Sharon Hedrick, won the 800-meter women's race. Two demonstration wheelchair races were held at the Coliseum, the first time that events for adaptive athletes were held in conjunction with the Summer Olympics. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)
Sharon Hedrick won the 800-meter women’s race. Two demonstration wheelchair races were held at the Coliseum, the first time that events for adaptive athletes were held in conjunction with the summer Olympics. (Photo by Anne Knudsen)

 

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