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The Ring Leader

Ueberroth, the man given credit for not only energizing the 1984 L.A. Games but also saving the Olympic movement, still doesn't shy away from a different vision

July 25, 2004|Kenneth Reich | Special to The Times

Twenty-five years after he was hired to direct the committee that put on the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Peter V. Ueberroth has been summoned again to rescue a struggling entity in the Olympic movement, the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Ueberroth, 66, is mellower than the driven young man who intimidated and inspired his own staff and successfully confronted a host of dubious outsiders to bring about the most profitable Olympics in history, with a $232.5-million surplus.

As volunteer chairman of the USOC, he brings with him not only vast Olympic experience but also the respect and hopes of Olympic organizers throughout the world, who realize how vital the USOC is to assuring good competitions in Athens.

Although he doesn't mention it often now, Ueberroth reluctantly endorsed President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games at the time.

These days, he has a different view.

Addressing a dinner in Long Beach kicking off the U.S. Olympic swimming trials earlier this month, he said he now recognizes that "boycotts don't do any good."

Rather, he said, the athletes who go to Athens will serve as "links of peace."

As chairman of the USOC board, Ueberroth will be an ardent supporter of New York City's bid for the 2012 Games. The city is a finalist in the competition, which will be decided in 2005.

As president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, Ueberroth adopted Draconian methods to bring about success, subjecting the staff to frequent tests, firing or transferring any inept staffers and facing down those who demanded any extravagance.

"It was unusual. There were not normal practices, not normal business practices," he said later. "It wasn't a time for kindness, to take the time and help people through problems, and people had to be moved aside and shunted. And all that happened. But the result worked."

Since then, in the words of his frequent partner, former United Airlines Chief Executive Richard Ferris, Ueberroth has "thought outside the box" and exhibited "a very inquiring mind," while raising fewer hackles than he did at the LAOOC.

He has always been free with practical advice. Three of his frequent advisories to friends over the years have been: "Don't let anything stand as a bar between you and your daughters. Don't run up unpaid balances on your credit cards. And travel in comfort."

When he stepped down as commissioner of baseball, his personal worth was not much more than $10 million -- the amount he reaped when he sold First Travel years earlier. In the 15 years since, his fortune has climbed to about $100 million, mainly through partnerships and wise investments.

Often, he has acted with scant publicity. Few outside the hotel business know that between 1993 and 2000, Ueberroth and his partners assembled a hotel kingdom numbering 1,250 properties before selling out to the Hilton chain.

Ueberroth now sits on the Hilton board of directors, as he does on the boards of Coca Cola and the Irvine Co.

In 1999, Ueberroth and more than 100 partners paid a reported $820 million to Japanese interests to acquire the Pebble Beach Golf Links and other properties on the Monterey peninsula.

This includes not only the 161-room Lodge at Pebble Beach but the 269-room Inn at Spanish Bay, the 24-room Casa Palmero, several golf courses, the Beach and Tennis Club, the 17-Mile-Drive and the Del Monte Forest.

Joining Ueberroth as the key partners in this venture were Ferris, Arnold Palmer and Clint Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel. Many other limited partners put up $2 million each.

Now, Ueberroth said, the Pebble Beach group has proposed developing some additional land on the Monterey Peninsula, while also promising in perpetuity to preserve all its remaining pristine holdings as open space.

Of the Pebble Beach acquisition, he said, "It's given me the most satisfaction of any. It's not the biggest transaction in which I've been involved, but I am proud to be able to permanently protect such a valued part of California life."

Altogether, Ueberroth said his Newport Beach-based Contrarian Group has invested in about 20 companies, selling its holdings in only a couple.

Less successful was Ueberroth's abortive bid for governor of California in last year's recall campaign. He bowed out and returned all $5 million to outside contributors when it appeared he was not making much headway against the front-runner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was elected, unseating the incumbent governor, Gray Davis.

"My view about it, I was never meant to be a politician and I guess I am fulfilling that prophecy, " Ueberroth said. "But when I saw a three-year, one-term opportunity to try to fix an institution called California and then get out, I couldn't pass it up."

This and other abortive political moves put on display Ueberroth's lack of comfort with press coverage.

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