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Scott Ostler

'84 Games, the Good Old Days . . .

July 28, 1985|Scott Ostler

Can it be? Has it really been 16 years since Los Angeles treated the world to the last great and glorious Olympic Games?

It seems so long ago, especially now that the Olympics are extinct, pushed out of existence by the four B's--bureaucracy, boredom, bucks and bickering.

In this, the summer of the year 2000, the world is too self-important for such trivial pursuits as running and jumping and celebrating.

But 1984 was an innocent time, and the Olympics were a big deal. Sports were sportier then. This was back in the days when major league baseball was still alive, a year before it quietly died. This was back in the days when the basketball hoop was 10 feet feet above the floor, instead of 15, and 500-pound linebackers were not yet commonplace in the NFL.

Then, steroids and growth hormones were in their infancy, and games were played by people who resembled real people. Remember the stars of the '84 Olympics?

Remember Carl Lewis, who won four gold medals in the L.A. Games? There would be more glory ahead for Lewis, in '87, when he switched from conventional long jump form to the moon-jump technique developed accidentally by his pal, Michael Jackson. Lewis moon-jumped 37-7 one day in '87, but Jackson himself sailed 40-2 that same day, while wearing one sequined track shoe, and Lewis immediately retired, never having fulfilled his goal of becoming bigger than Michael Jackson.

Lewis also never really cashed in on his Olympic glory, except for a moderately successful album of old Beach Boys tunes he recorded with Willie Nelson in '86. Carl now owns a donut shop in Barstow.

However, many other stars of the '84 Games did do well, in terms of commercial exploitation of their '84 Games fame.

Mary Lou Retton, for instance. Hardly anyone today recalls that she was the sweetheart of the '84 Games as a gymnastics sensation. Now she is best remembered for her series of critically acclaimed "Gidget" movies, co-starring Arnold (Moondoggie) Schwartzenegger.

The U.S. men's gymnastics team parlayed its gold medals and popularity into a successful chain of Southern California-style drive-in "car-robics" centers ("Be a fitness star without leaving your car.").

Some of the Games' heroes merely faded away. Bobby Knight, coach of the men's basketball team, went on a recruiting trip to Switzerland in late '85 and disappeared into the Alps. Even to this day there are occasional reports of sightings of the legendary Bigmouth, wearing a tattered plaid sport coat.

The Memorial Coliseum itself, the main venue for the '84 Games, is now a crumbling relic, overgrown with weeds and ivy. Birds nest in the unlit torch that Rafer Johnson lit so dramatically to open the '84 Games. The old stadium finally closed in '92, after Al Davis moved the Raiders to St. Tropez and L.A. lost the Olympics to Las Vegas in a heated bidding war.

Seoul hosted the '88 Games, which were boycotted by 32 countries and held six months late because of internal strife in South Korea.

Bidders were scarce for the '92 Games. It came down to Las Vegas and L.A. Vegas prevailed after a casino purchased the ruins of the Roman Colosseum, shipped the pieces to the desert, and rebuilt the ancient edifice in the Ceasars Palace parking lot.

The Las Vegas Games drew decent crowds, and created some interest with demonstration sports--Keno, synchronized chorus-line kicking and lion-and-gladiator fights.

But by then, the original Olympic spirit was dying out. The Games were too big, too expensive. Commercialism had crept in, and many purists were offended by the flashing neon corporate logos most athletes wore in competition, as well as by the cash register bell that signaled the final lap in each distance race.

Moscow hosted the '96 Games, but decided at the last minute to limit participation to athletes of Soviet citizenship, thereby assuring Russia of a hefty medal haul.

This year, no country or city wanted the Games. L.A. considered taking another shot at 'em, but backed off when Peter Ueberroth declined to put aside his duties as President of the United States long enough to spearhead the planning.

So the Games are history, a memory, and the 1984 Olympics are the most fondly remembered.

At the time, skeptics doubted L.A. could pull it off. Citizens and visitors worried about smog, traffic, muggers and terrorists. Russia boycotted, scalpers scalped and the organizers got a little carried away with turning a profit.

But it turned out to be a pretty nice event. For two weeks, our fair city ran with the efficiency and spirit of Springsteenland (then known as Disneyland). A lot of spectators and athletes had a lot of fun and a lot of thrills.

For two weeks that summer, L.A. was a party. Colorful banners hung in the streets. The Coliseum neighborhood became a rickety but fascinating shopping bazaar, where you could trade pins and buy t-shirts and tacos. Exposition Park was dressed up to look like a storybook land.

That scene will never be duplicated. The world has grown too complex--too sophisticated, yet too barbaric--for such simple games.

But back in '84, the time was right. Those were the good old days.

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