by David Simon
One hundred years ago today, a meeting took place which would change the history of both Los Angeles and the Olympic Games.
LA skyline as seen from Venice (ATR)
It’s well known that in a few years Los Angeles will become a three-time Olympic host (1932, 1984, 2028). Not so well known is the story of how L.A.’s Olympic history got started.
In 1919 the First World War had just ended. In the aftermath Los Angeles was seeking a way to attract both visitors and economic development. The details are outlined in the “Official Report of the Games of the Xth Olympiad” published in 1933 by the organizers of the first Los Angeles Games.
According to the report, “In the year 1919 there was formed in Los Angeles, at the instance of the publishers of the daily newspapers of the city, the California Fiestas Association, for the purpose of reviving the old Spanish fiestas typical of the history and atmosphere of our State and City.”
The Association did not limit its thinking to fiestas in the traditional sense. The report goes on, “For several years there had been a growing consciousness in local sports circles of the possibility of holding the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. At a meeting of the California Fiestas Association held November 26, 1919, Maximilian F. Ihmen, one of the directors, presented the suggestion that later resulted in the first formal application by the City of Los Angeles to the International Olympic Committee for the award of the Games.”
“The then President of the Association, William May Garland, had planned to sojourn with his family in Europe in the summer of 1920.” He agreed to add the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium to his itinerary and to present Los Angeles’ credentials to the IOC.
Consider for a moment what it meant for someone from Los Angeles to “sojourn” in Europe in 1920. A minimum of 10 days of travel was required in each direction. A train to the east coast took several days and would have been followed by an ocean crossing lasting five or six days more. Mr. Garland, a successful real estate developer, was able to afford such a trip at a time when few people could.
Garland carried with him official invitations from the City and County of Los Angeles. Upon his arrival in Antwerp he was politely received. There are different versions of exactly what was said by the members of the IOC when he finished his presentation. According to one account the first question was “Where is Los Angeles?” Garland supposedly had to point it out on a map.
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will be a part of a third Olympics in 2028 (ATR)
As further evidence that Los Angeles was not yet world-renowned, another account had the first question as, “Is Los Angeles near Hollywood?” The movie industry was already a calling card.
In response to a different question, Garland had to say no when asked if the city had in place a stadium capable of hosting the Games. He had architect’s plans to show but ground had not yet been broken. The IOC told him that the 1924 Games had been awarded to Paris, with Amsterdam likely to host in 1928. but if Garland could return with proof of a completed stadium, Los Angeles’ invitation would be given every consideration for future hosting.
With that as motivation, upon returning home Garland led the effort to build the stadium. Commissioned in 1921 as a tribute to World War I veterans, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum opened in the spring of 1923 after just 16 months of construction. In that same year Garland, by then a member of the IOC, traveled to Rome to attend the group’s annual meeting and brought photos as proof of the stadium’s existence.
This resulted in L.A. being awarded the 1932 Games, which went on to be extraordinarily successful. Despite taking place in the middle of the Depression, they were widely hailed as the best ever held up to that time.
Helms, the former self-proclaimed official 1932 Olympic bakery, is now repurposed as a shopping center. (ATR)
Significantly, the 1932 Games left a local legacy by inspiring a generation of Angelenos. Many longed to bring the Games back one day, and to that end in 1939 Garland and another community leader, Paul Helms of Helms Bakery, founded the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games. The SCCOG proceeded to turn bidding for the Olympics into a Los Angeles tradition. Beginning with a bid for the 1948 Games, SCCOG partnered with the City on 10 consecutive Olympic bids, nine of which were unsuccessful but the last of which was the winning bid for the 1984 Games.
The leaders of the 1984 bid—civic leader John C. Argue and then-Mayor Tom Bradley—both drew inspiration from 1932. Bradley spoke often about being awestruck by the competition as a 14-year-old, climbing over a Coliseum fence to get in because he couldn’t afford a ticket. Argue was too young to have attended but his father was an Olympian and he grew up hearing stories about the Games.
The 1984 Games went on to be an overwhelming organizational success and, as in 1932, were considered the best of their era. Games President Peter Ueberroth created a new financial model which has been copied around the world. Using existing facilities wherever possible and tapping unprecedented levels of support from television rights and sponsorships, the Games received no tax revenues yet generated a surplus of more than $230 million (in 1984 dollars). A portion of that surplus endowed the LA84 Foundation, which every year since has allocated millions of dollars to fund youth sports programs throughout the Los Angeles area.
LA2028 chair Casey Wasserman giving IOC CoComm a tour of Coliseum earlier this year. (IOC)
As in ’32, the second Los Angeles Games inspired another new generation. Among them were the leaders of the successful 2028 bid, business leader Casey Wasserman and Mayor Eric Garcetti, each of whom formed indelible memories from attending 1984 Olympic events with family members when they were growing up. As in 1984, their 2028 plan relies on the use of existing facilities and private financing. The 2028 Games have a chance to be the best Games yet.
In retrospect, all three Los Angeles Games can trace their origins to 1919. The history of both Los Angeles and the modern Olympics might be very different if that fateful 1919 meeting had not taken place, or if Mr. Garland had been unable to travel to Europe.
Instead, the Olympics are part of Los Angeles’ civic DNA. Consider:
*Since 1945 every Mayor of Los Angeles has supported at least one Olympic bid during his tenure.
*The IOC’s membership has included a Los Angeles resident for 80 of the last 100 years, including current IOC Vice President Anita DeFrantz.
*The Games arguably have been the most significant events in the City’s history, and Los Angeles holds a special place in IOC history.
It all began a century ago. Here’s to the efforts and the foresight of the long-ago leadership of the California Fiestas Association.
David Simon is a past President of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games and the Los Angeles Sports Council.
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