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Jim Murray

Paul Ziffren: Man Behind the Windfall

December 11, 1987|Jim Murray

In 1978, when Los Angeles got the '84 Olympics, they were the sick man of sports. Nobody wanted them.

Baron de Coubertin's nice idea was about to be carried out with a sheet over its face.

Horrible political assassinations in Munich and cost overruns in Montreal that threatened municipal economic ruin had made the Games a luxury no one could afford.

They were widely perceived as the play toy of the rich and infamous anyway.

Avery Brundage, when he was president of the International Olympic Committee, or even when he had a loud voice in its conduct of affairs, never trusted democracies. Avery liked places where the trains ran on time and the ordinary people knew their place.

He played a large role in keeping the '36 Olympics in Hitler's Germany. Avery's idea of the ideal host for the Olympics was Nero. Or Napoleon. Avery got uneasy where the leadership didn't wear monocles.

But L.A. had saved the Olympic movement before. In 1932, the world was in the grip of the Great Depression. Nations could not afford to send teams, to house them, feed them or transport them. So, L.A. built the first Olympic Village, the first communal kitchens. The L.A. organizers subsidized travel expenses, for instance, buying coffee from Brazil so its team could book passage to California.

But among those cities that didn't want the '84 Games was, shockingly, Los Angeles. Those watchdogs of the public exchequer, those guardians of the common weal, the politicians and the sportscasters, raised such a hue and cry that the Olympics came into focus pelted with grapefruit and rotten eggs.

The do-badders passed an ordinance forbidding the expenditure of any public money on any Olympic project.

Now, everyone knows that the private sector came to the rescue of the Olympics in what came to be U.S. business' finest hour.

Everyone knows the saga of Peter Ueberroth and how the canny ex-travel agent stepped in and masterfully steered the Games through to a successful conclusion through such a massive barrage of setbacks and negativism that it seemed for a time he would go down in history as the modern Custer.

What few people know is the role Paul Ziffren played in holding the Los Angeles Games together.

Ziffren is a man for whom the term power broker was invented. Everyone knows him but the public.

A politico high in the councils of the Democratic Party--he's a longtime member of the executive board of the Democratic National Committee--a kingmaker, deal maker, he got a reputation as a man who could go unruffled through the worst political or economic catastrophes, a man who never got rattled or angry or raised his voice in his life, a backstage manager who let others take the curtain calls.

He came aboard the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee early on and was named chairman the same day Ueberroth was chosen as president.

The committee was facing shot and shell from City Hall to Congress to the White House--President Carter, who was later to offer Nairobi a subsidy if it would stage "alternate" games in 1980, flatly refused L.A. any federal aid whatsoever. But when some members objected to Ueberroth's election on the grounds, "We need a political animal in there!" the answer came back, "We already got one--Ziffren."

If a camel is a horse made by a committee, the LAOOC was a dromedary.

International Olympic rules provide that the host city of any Games must be financially responsible for the conduct of the Games, and L.A.'s action in spurning financial responsibility seemed to forfeit L.A.'s eligibility.

Ziffren hit on the idea of taking in the United States Olympic Committee as a partner, sharing in revenues and fiscal guarantee. It was a gesture, no more, since the USOC was broke, but it saved not only the Olympics but the USOC. To date, the USOC has a windfall of more than $95 million from the '84 Games.

What Ziffren and Ueberroth knew--and what Brundage and previous host organizations never tumbled to--was that they had a once-in-a-lifetime event that the whole world paid attention to and as such it was its own gold mine. U.S. business could put on as good a Games as a Hitler, a Mikado or any Soviet despot any old day--with a little help from Madison Avenue and Hollywood.

It was Ziffren's idea to stage an all-volunteer Olympics. "I knew from politics that people will work for a cause as hard or harder than they will for money," he says.

It is Ziffren's view that the Soviet defection, at first seen as a body blow at the U.S. Olympics, finally made the Games the success they were.

"No one could have foreseen the patriotic fervor they evoked," he says. "I think the single event that put the Olympics over the top--it was a stroke of show business genius--was the torch relay. It made the Olympics ours. The whole country closed ranks."

If Peter Ueberroth was the father of the L.A. Olympics, Ziffren was the godfather. Ueberroth is now the commissioner of baseball, but Paul Ziffren is still minding the store, on the cleanup crew as chairman of the Amateur Athletic Foundation, which is administering disbursement of the surplus funds the Olympics drew.

It is a surplus Ziffren predicted the Games would draw at a time when the rest of the community, if not the world, was direly predicting deficits. It is only fitting that one of the legacies the Games left Los Angeles, a sports resource center at the Amateur Athletic Foundation, should be named after the man without whom there wouldn't have been any surplus nor, likely, any Games to get them from.

Before there was a Mr. U, there was a Mr. Z. He should get his medal, too. And, next summer, he will. The Paul Ziffren Sports Resource Center is under construction at the AAF headquarters.

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