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Peter Ueberroth's L.A. Olympics: Bigger, better, richer

Everything about the 1984 Games smacked of success, from the competition to the profits, and it all traces back to the man who ran them.

July 18, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Woven into the fabric of every sport is the concept of the underdog. Twenty-five years ago, a man who may have had more broken noses than goals in his sport of water polo was the ultimate underdog.

Peter Ueberroth had come out of nowhere and onto the front pages. Los Angeles had acquired the 1984 Olympics and had chosen him to run them.

City pride was at stake. National and international interests were at stake.

The Olympics seemed relatively innocent then. Mom and dad could gather the children around TV sets for 16 glorious days and nights and root with unabashed joy. Nobody talked much about drugs helping performances. These Games were unburdened with the excessive marketing and sales pitches of today. The Dream Team wasn't even a fantasy yet.

Ueberroth was 42 when he was chosen in 1979. Few knew of him.

Six years later, after having directed an Olympics of unprecedented financial, athletic and aesthetic success and becoming an international figure, he found himself face to face with a dose of perspective at a convenience store in Laguna Beach.

"I had been out on a boat, writing my book on the Olympics," Ueberroth recalled this week. "I was working hard on it because I didn't want [former Times reporter] Ken Reich's book to come out first and be the only history. He didn't know all the things I did.

"I just got home when I got a call from Amy Quinn."

Quinn had been his Olympic press secretary.

"She said I should go get a Time magazine, because I was on the cover, they had made me Time magazine Person of the Year. I didn't really believe her. I thought some mistake had been made.

"I got in the car and drove down Pacific Coast Highway to a Circle K. I was in shorts, and unshaven. I went to the newsstand and there it was. It wasn't a picture of me, but a caricature.

"They had seven copies and so I grabbed all seven and went to the cashier. The guy said I can't have all seven, that he has customers who reserve copies. I said, 'What if I can prove to you that my picture is on the cover? Then, can I have all seven?'

"He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he said sure, but he'd have to see an ID."

Ueberroth got his seven copies. They represented an honor usually reserved for kings, presidents or ayatollahs, an honor now bestowed on a water polo player from San Jose State, who had never quite made an Olympics, but who ran one like nobody before or since.

The 28th of July will be the 25th anniversary of the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics. Tonight, an event co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Sports Council and the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games will be held on the floor of the Coliseum, and Ueberroth will be among the guests.

He will see old friends, most with whom he has stayed in close touch, and will enjoy the David Wolper influence on an Olympic-themed show.

"David was my commissioner of ceremonies in '84," Ueberroth said. "After the opening, which came off so perfectly, I sent a message around to the commissioners of all the other sports. It said: 'David Wolper won his gold medal tonight. Now it's your turn.' "

Wolper had been instrumental in choosing Ueberroth. Once the SCCOG had acquired the Games from the International Olympic Committee, leaders John Argue and Paul Ziffren headed a committee of 22 that would search out and vote on an operational chief of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. First person to get 12 votes would be the choice.

Some names were put forth. Others were found by a search firm that attempted to cull the field to candidates in their 40s who had built a business and had some past experience in sports.

"My name got spit out of a computer," Ueberroth said.

Along with Argue, Ziffren and Mayor Tom Bradley, Wolper, a Hollywood producer, was on the committee. So was 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson.

Ueberroth, by then president of a booming company named First Travel, with more than 200 offices worldwide, thought little of his candidacy. He had dealt with Wolper over a volleyball project, knew Johnson had taught his brother's children in Sunday school, but felt he was much less plugged in than other candidates. Nor was he even sure he'd accept, if offered.

When the voting was to begin, Ueberroth told his wife, Ginny, to go ahead with a planned ski trip with two of their four children.

"No reason to stay," Ueberroth said. "I wasn't even giving it much thought."

He was in his office in Van Nuys when he got a call from Reich, The Times' Olympic reporter.

"He told me I was the choice, that he had polled the voters," Ueberroth said. "I told him he must be mistaken."

Shortly, he got a call from the committee. Reich was not mistaken. After many ballots, and after Wolper and Johnson had changed their vote to him, Ueberroth had slowly gained traction with the committee. After he got the 12th vote, they made it unanimous.

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