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PETER H. KING

Passing of the Torch

May 01, 1996|PETER H. KING

Last weekend the Olympic torch passed through Los Angeles, Atlanta-bound. In a sense, the event marked the last, faint hurrah of the 1984 Olympics. Peter Ueberroth participated in the ceremony outside the Coliseum, along with Rafer Johnson, the newly infamous statues of headless nudes and other familiar friends from the Los Angeles Games. It seemed like a swell moment.

For myself, however--and, I suspect, for many people who lived in Los Angeles during 1984--the departure of the Olympic flame for another American city produced a twinge of melancholy, and maybe envy. We don't have to imagine what might happen at the opposite end of the route.

The 1984 Games literally were my ticket to Los Angeles. I was summoned from The Times' Orange County operation to join reporters covering the Olympic buildup. For a year or more we wrote grimly about freeways, certain to be paralyzed by Olympic traffic. We wrote about hotels, which obviously would be overrun by 2 million tourists, and also about international terrorists and afternoon smog and ticket scalpers and bankruptcy, the seemingly inescapable bottom line.

We developed battle plans and contingencies. We studied blueprints of the dormitories, anticipating where Carlos might direct his hooded assassins. We drove side streets, exploring escape routes for when the dreaded "Black Friday" broke the back of Southern California infrastructure. We were briefed on how to respond when the blimps collided over the Coliseum. And when at last we donned our war paint and trooped off to the opening ceremonies, we were prepared for anything--except for what happened.

*

What happened was something wonderful. The Olympics were fun. It was that simple. Who would have imagined? The Olympics were the Rocket Man and 84 pianists plinking "Rhapsody in Blue" on baby grands. They were Mary Lou Retton and bright, "festive federalism" banners. They were wide-open freeways: Many commuters stayed home to watch Olympic television; other motorists were frightened away by doomsday forecasts. There was plenty of room at the inns. The terrorists stayed home, along with the Soviet athletes. The Games made a gob of money, available even today for athletic youngsters.

They also gave the city something more important than surplus revenues, something it had lacked before. They gave it a sense of itself. As corny as it now sounds--given the spasms of ugliness that would follow--the Olympics more than anything felt like a celebration of Los Angeles, a celebration of a city of people from . . . everywhere, spread across the basin but, in a larger sense, neighbors.

Nowhere was this more evident than along the torch relay. As it looped across Greater Los Angeles, a needle stitching together an urban quilt, it provided people with a sense--to quote Harry Usher, general manager of the 1984 Games--"that they live in an integrated region, that they don't live in Huntington Park, or Downey, or Tarzana, or Santa Monica. And the walls that they built both literally and figuratively, and the walls that their own cities have built politically, are not as real as they imagined."

Usher went on to say he didn't know how long it would last. The answer, unfortunately, was not long enough. The flame of the Olympics, as everybody knows too well, would be replaced by other, fiercer fires. It was telling that, in the hours after the Rodney King riots, the city felt compelled to reenlist Peter Ueberroth in an effort to mend its ugly rips. Please, went the unstated plea, make it 1984 all over again. Well, he tried.

*

Now it is late Monday afternoon outside the Coliseum. It is hot and sticky with a stiff breeze up. Only a few tourists mill about, snapping pictures of the statues that the Atlantans had fretted might offend Television America. Portable plastic chairs are stacked about, leftovers from the torch ceremony.

A young man dressed in jeans and T-shirt moves with his kid brother to the locked gate, peers inside the vast, empty stadium and softly whistles. The little one, in a USC Trojans cap, tugs at his sleeve, pointing to the huge caldron mounted above the archway. Where is the flame? the boy wants to know.

"They don't keep it lit all the time," the older brother explains. "But it was lit in 1984. I saw it. I stood right here outside the gate. The dude"--he means Rafer Johnson--"ran right up the steps, fft, fft, fft, just like that, and lit it up. I was right here."

He speaks with a tone of possessiveness, proud co-owner of a moment when, once upon a time, a city of people came together and laughed and cheered and accomplished something supposedly far beyond its reach. This all might seem impossible today, in Los Angeles 1996. And yet it did happen, once.

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