The Olympics have always been about fostering a friendly competition between countries while giving amateur athletes an opportunity to represent their countries on a world stage. During times of political turmoil, a focus on the individual triumphs of humans takes on a new meaning. Never was this more apparent than with the 1984 Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles, California.
The world was still in the grips of the Cold War. The nuclear standoff between the East (the Soviet Union and its satellites) and the West (the United States and its allies) was still a few years from breaking, and tensions were high. At this time, both the summer and winter Olympics occurred in the same year. The winter Olympics had taken place in February in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Considering it was the first Winter Olympics to be hosted by a socialist state, it had gone quite well. But there was still unrest.
The United States had boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow, mainly over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. Over 60 nations joined the boycott, leading to a very pared down Summer Olympics. Moscow was not pleased. Because the United States would be hosting the 1984 Summer Olympics, the Soviet Union used this as the perfect opportunity for retribution.
They decided to boycott the summer games, just as the U.S. had done four years prior. There was fear that this could lead to even more strained relations, or worse, all-out war. By the time the games were approaching, roughly 14 countries had joined the Soviets in boycotting. While the number may seem small, the countries who would not be attending accounted for over 50% of the medals won in the 1976 summer games. The fear of the organizers was the summer games would be a colossal bust. They had good reason to worry.
Venue by Default
Los Angeles had already hosted one Olympics in 1932 and had put up a few other unsuccessful bids to host again. However, the terror killings at the Munich 1972 games and the extreme financial debts incurred by Montreal from the 1976 games made hosting the Olympics an unattractive prospect. When it came time for the 1984 bids, only Tehran and Los Angeles had viable bids. Tehran withdrew its bid after the change in politics due to the Iranian Revolution, leaving Los Angeles alone as the single bidder for the 1984 Summer games.
Heading the bid and organizing committee was Peter Ueberroth, the man who would become the commissioner of Major League Baseball through the 1980s. He had quite the challenge ahead of him because the 1984 Olympics would be the first to be organized without state funding; existing facilities and private sector funding had to prevail. As planning continued, the committee identified 31 venues across Southern California (and a few outside of the region). Two of them (the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) had seen action in the 1932 games.
Let the Games Begin
In spite of the boycott, the 1984 Olympics saw a record 140 countries send delegations to compete in the games. During the opening ceremonies, which were unabashedly patriotic, the athletes made it clear that the political strife leading up to the games would not affect them. Sam, the Olympic Eagle, was the mascot and the logo of “Stars in Motion” consisted of red, white, and blue stars. The ceremonies were opened by President Ronald Reagan, who was especially proud that they were taking place in his home state of California.
Athletes from all countries got caught up in the excitement, and during the opening ceremonies they broke ranks and danced with each other; this is something that traditionally did not occur until the closing ceremonies when competitions were over, and the athletes could relax and let loose.
The games were notable for several reasons, one of which was the rise of women’s athletics. Both rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming made their debuts. Also, women competed in their own fields of shooting, road cycling, 400m hurdles, and the marathon to name just a few. Athletes from several countries set world records, achieved personal and professional bests and excelled in their events. However, the competition belonged to athletes from the U.S.A.
Known as “The Greatest American Diver,” Louganis earned his title with breathtakingly perfect dives. Prevented from diving in the 1980 Olympics due to the US boycott, he continued to prepare for the 1984 games, winning two gold medals in the 1982 world championships, in which he also became the first diver to receive perfect 10s from all seven judges in an international meet. By the time he arrived at the 1984 Olympics, he was primed and ready to go. His dedication and hard work paid off, and he blew the competition out of the water with record scores, earning gold medals in both springboard and platform diving.
In 1984, the Olympic games were still the realm of amateur players. However, basketball fans got a preview of what was to come when the Men’s Basketball team won the gold medal. Team members included Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin, and Patrick Ewing and the coach was the legendary Bobby Knight. The team gave fans just a taste of the greatness to come less than a decade later when the Dream Team (consisting of professional players) dominated the 1992 Olympics.
Considered one of the finest Track and Field competitors in modern times, Carl Lewis had a stellar showing at the 1984 games. He tied Jesse Owens medal count from the 1936 Olympics, winning the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump, earning four gold medals. There were many parallels drawn between Lewis and Owens, as both men competed in Olympic games that were overshadowed by threatening political regimes.
Mary Lou Retton
While there were memorable moments from several athletes, the 1984 Olympic Summer Games belonged to Mary Lou Retton. Due to her tenacity and dedication, she became the face of the games and one of the most recognizable athletes of the 20th century.
Due to the Soviet boycott of the Olympics, the Women’s Gymnastic events were up for grabs. Retton had suffered a knee injury that resulted in surgery just five weeks before the games, so her condition was doubtful at best. However, with her trademark spunk and energy, she was a fierce competitor. Trailing a Romanian gymnast with two events left, Retton scored perfect 10s in both the Floor Exercise and Vault. The latter was especially iconic due to the impact of the landing on her already tender knee.
Her perseverance paid off, however, and she became the first gymnast outside of Eastern Europe to win the gymnastics all-around competition, as well as the first American woman to win all-around go, and she still wasn’t finished. She also won a silver in team competition and the Vault, and bronze medals in the Floor Exercise and Uneven Bars events.
Due to her embodiment of the American Spirit, she was named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportswoman of the Year” award for 1984. She also appeared on the box for Wheaties cereal, becoming their first official spokesperson and starting a tradition of great athletes featured on the cereal boxes.
When It Was Over
By the time the Olympics wrapped up, all of the worries that had preceded the event were replaced with happiness, pride, and a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The U.S. earned a total of 174 medals, nearly half of which were gold. Peter Ueberroth was named Time’s “Man of the Year.” The new horn-centric Olympic Fanfare and Theme, composed by the great John Williams, made its debut and has been a part of every Olympics since. There was a tremendous financial bounce for Los Angeles and its surrounding areas.
And all of the worry about the financing? Because the construction costs were minimal and funding was primarily from the private sector, the 1984 Summer Olympics earned a 250 million profit, leading it to be a benchmark for how to run Olympics for years to come. The Soviet boycott, while possibly affecting the medal counts, could not dampen the spirit of the athletes, and it was truly a Golden Summer to remember.