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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

L.A. Should Let Olympic Torch Burn Elsewhere

September 15, 2000|Mike Downey

There are those who ask if Los Angeles is destined ever to be host city to the Summer Olympics again. My answer rarely varies: "I hope not." There is too great a downside, too much anxiety, too much expenditure, too much upheaval of everyday routine, too much risk of something going terribly wrong to make it worth L.A.'s taking another gamble of that magnitude.

Yet somebody's a cinch to broach the subject, because it won't be that long a time before a North American metropolis is sought to bid for a Games, probably the one scheduled for 2012. Greece is already sprucing up for 2004's boys and girls of summer, and 2008 still has too much calendar proximity to the atrocities of Atlanta to bring Olympians back our way too soon. Beijing is a better bet.

At least the bidding process will be monitored more closely next time, now that Juan Antonio Samaranch, international man of mystery, and his minions have had their methods examined. It's nice to know that if our fair city does make a bid, we won't have to put some Olympic committee member's grandson through UCLA, or grease his niece with a three-picture development deal at Universal.

If the reward of inviting an Olympic Games (and all its attendant chaos) to one's backyard is to attain certification as one of the globe's great cities, then L.A. would seem to have little to prove. Would more tourists migrate here because of TV's blimp views of our skyline, in between shots of gymnasts tumbling in nondescript gyms? Would we not stand to lose more than to gain, given our recent penchant for attracting lawbreaking screwballs to celebrations and conventions?

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Sydney's five-ring circus, which commences today--or yesterday, or tomorrow, or whatever the hell day today is in Australia--is the first Olympic Games in 20 years that I am not attending in person. I must confess to feeling a terribly misplaced person today (yesterday/tomorrow), stranded here in front of a television set, at NBC's complete mercy, 8,000 miles off course.

I'll miss the cavalcade of gladiators marching into the arena, outfitted in costumes that flatter some and embarrass others. Apart from island inhabitants in native garb--Tonga togs, I tend to unfairly label them all--and Mongolian wrestlers in yak hides, one is apt to see Americans of all ages and ancestry on parade in 10-gallon Stetsons and denim, like yippie-ki-yay cowhands, or in straw hats and candy-striped polyester, like an infantry of barbershop quartets.

For many, the indelible memories of Olympics past stem from the performances, the superhuman efforts, the human errors. These could include visions of Spitz splashing, Lewis sprinting, Mary Lou vaulting and somersaulting, Clay and Sugar Ray jabbing and jabbering, Hamill and Hamilton skating and figure-eighting, and young guys whose 15 minutes of fame came from 60 minutes of slapping pucks.

For me, though, the Olympic opening ceremony was often superior to anything that followed. Possibly this was another example of having to be there. Can television capture its essence? Don't ask me. I can't remember the last time I saw one of these things on TV.

I do remember plodding through the snow of Sarajevo to the stadium, walking past a cinema that was showing a double feature of two impressive physical specimens, Arnold Schwarzenegger as a barbarian and the 1956 version of "Moby Dick" being the other. One could only assume that, this being 1984, the second feature wasn't just getting to Yugoslavia for the first time.

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The closing ceremony in Los Angeles that year was more memorable than the opener--the 88 pianos, for example, and Lionel Ritchie seeming to sing "All Night Long" all night long. As for the 1984 Games themselves, the Russians didn't come, ostensibly for political reasons, but more likely because they feared our basketball coach, Bobby Knight.

I recall a child rolling a hoop across a grass field in Seoul, highlighting a high-tech opening ceremony with its simplicity. Now here we are, a mere 12 years later, and North and South Korean athletes will march into Sydney side by side. Maybe that cute kid with the hoop will be among them.

Moments such as these are to be savored, whether eyewitnessed or seen at a distance of 8,000 miles on a TV tape-delay. It makes me think I should reconsider about Los Angeles steering clear of being the host city. By 2012, I'll probably be sorry if I'm here and the Olympics are anywhere else.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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