It's almost showtime for Sochi, which may or may not have its shit together by the time the opening ceremonies start. While it's too late for Sochi to change its trajectory, perhaps the 2016 host city could jot down a few tips from what are widely considered to be the most successful Olympics ever: L.A., 1984.
In the late 1970s, hosting the Olympics was not a very desirable thing for a city to do. The games were seen as financially risky: Montreal's debt from the 1976 Summer Games totaled $1.5 billion dollars, which wasn't paid off until 2006. Denver was actually awarded the 1976 Winter Games but its voters did not approve public funding, so it went to Innsbruck, Austria. Plus, tensions were high when it came to international athletic competitions. Munich had suffered a deadly hostage crisis in 1972 and the Cold War was brewing. The 1980 games in Moscow were boycotted by the U.S. and other countries, and the U.S.S.R. and many other Eastern European boycotted the 1984 games. An early front-runner, Tehran, pulled out from the 1984 bidding process at the last minute due to social unrest.
In the end, only two cities officially bid to host the 1984 Summer Games: New York City and Los Angeles. Since the U.S. could only recommend one city for the international bid, when they decided on L.A. to represent the U.S., it became the winning city by default.
Preparing for challenges
The Olympics are essentially a high-profile opportunity for civic rebranding: A chance for a smaller city to put itself on the map or for a larger one to reinvent itself. While L.A. was by no means a tiny hamlet looking for validation, the city was certainly hoping to turn around its reputation as a smoggy, sprawling megalopolis lacking a center or any real civic pride. Detractors were quick to judge the choice of L.A. as too big, too unprepared, and too financially strapped. Plus, L.A. had already hosted the Summer Olympics once, back in 1932.
But L.A. did have one real handicap: The 1984 Summer Olympics were the first in history not to be sponsored by the government, as they still are in many countries and had previously been in the U.S.
This called for a budget-conscious Olympics, headed by local businessman Peter Ueberroth. He organized a committee that functioned more like a corporation, dubbing it LA84 and creating a board consisting of entrepreneurs and other financially savvy leaders. Accordingly, the games would be funded by unprecedented corporate sponsorships, impressive private fundraising, and, for the first time on U.S. soil, television deals. The committee sold the television rights to the broadcast to ABC for $225 million, raising a large amount of money far in advance of the games. Leave it up to the entertainment capital of the world to strike such a smart deal.
Ueberroth was named Time's Man of the Year.
L.A.'s fiscally responsible philosophy extended to its innovative architectural strategy. The building frenzy that accompanies a winning bid is often followed by a devastating post-Olympics blow, where the city is left with rotting stadiums and empty transit systems. This is most infamously illustrated in Athens, Greece; there, not only are most of the city's 2004 venues now empty and dilapidated, but it has been theorized that the egregious expenses may have actually contributed to Greece's ongoing financial crisis. Nagano, Japan, also fell into a recession after their 1998 Winter Olympics. Much of this is illustrated in The Olympic City, where Gary Hustwit and Jon Pack traveled to hosting cities to document what happens after the games leave.
Also, as we've seen in Sochi—which is building entire towns, not to mention a whole new highway and tunnel to access them—the infrastructural additions are often so ambitious that they aren't ready in time. Olympic cities rarely are. In Montreal in 1976, their Olympic stadium was not finished when the games began due to construction issues and labor strikes. Not finished, meaning: It was supposed to have roof, and it didn't—for 11 years.
Los Angeles's committee decided it would not allow any new sporting structures to be built. Instead they modified and upgraded existing venues. The opening ceremonies and track & field events were held in the Coliseum, which was built in 1932. Apartment villages for visiting athletes were repurposed as dorm rooms for nearby schools. The only new sporting venues were heavily financed by corporate sponsors and are still in use today: A velodrome built in nearby Carson; and an aquatic center in Exposition Park. (Corrections: The 1984 velodrome was actually replaced with another velodrome in 2007; the aquatic center was built on the USC campus.)
Great design saves the day
Back then, committees only had about five years from the awarding of the games to the opening ceremonies—today's host cities get almost ten years of strategizing. A design team was quickly assembled that included leadership from two prominent design firms, Jerde Partnership and Sussman/Prejza, as well as many other firms and designers, who worked together at a studio on 8th Street in downtown Los Angeles. L.A. graphic artist Robert Miles Runyan was tapped to create the ''Stars in Motion'' logo: five stars which looked as if they were racing forward.
For the rest of the branding, the team looked west. A palette and kit-of-parts was inspired by the textures and patterns of Pacific Rim countries, drawing colors and shapes from Mexican, Indonesian, and Japanese cultures. This featured a signature magenta shade, plus other bright colors like aqua, red, yellow and purple, which deviated boldly from the expected red, white and blue, and gave the design a truly international look.
Faced with a minuscule budget of $10 million and a ticking clock, the designers quickly realized they would have to use materials which were affordable and plentiful to design thousands of pieces from programs to signage to temporary buildings. Inspired again by the Pacific Rim, the team looked at the temporary tents and altars which were built for festivals.
Instead of hulking sculptures and tall towers which had been erected in many other cities, the team used inflatables and modified scaffolding to build simple, colorful landmarks. Signage and wayfinding was made from painted wood and Sonotubes—pretty much giant cardboard tubes like you'd find in the center of a roll of gift wrap— with a vinyl striping system. The structures were effective, inexpensive, and completely ephemeral.
Shining TV moment
As part of the lucrative TV deal that helped finance the games, LA84 would be the first games to truly become a global television event. Although many games had parts televised in some form before 1984, this broadcast would run 180 hours and be seen by the largest audience in history—not to mention very enthusiastic American fans. Knowing this, the designers focused on elements that would translate well on the small screen, with bright colors and big graphic impact. Tiny metal reflectors, like you see at car dealerships, were employed to add sparkle to buildings.
Design also helped to make Southern California's 88 cities and multiple counties—many with their own identities—feel like they were part of the same small town. With 42 venues sprinkled throughout a 305 square-mile region—some venues were 100 miles away from each other!—there was no real sense of continuity between locations (except maybe the presence of palm trees?). The branding, which was repeated in elements across the landscape, helped to knit together an incredibly large area and create an identifiable sense of place. To global audience watching from home, this was, and will always be, L.A.
But the world was also watching for another reason: To see if L.A.'s famously suburban landscape could handle it. It was by far the most spatially dispersed summer games of all time. Residents fretted about L.A.'s normally horrible traffic becoming paralyzing (remember, although there was a bus network, the games happened when L.A. was "between" rail systems—today's subways were a decade away). But the apocalyptic gridlock never happened. "Olympic fever" took hold. People stayed home, carpooled and used shuttles, and the city was miraculously navigable.
A lasting legacy
In 1979, the L.A. organizing committee had made a deal. If the games saw any profits, LA84 would give 60 percent back to the U.S. Olympic Committee and keep 40 percent for Southern California. At the end of the games, the total expenditures came in at a respectable $546 million, but even more impressive was the profit: A surplus of $232.5 million, meaning $93 million would stay in the region. This was huge. The only other games at the time which could claim to be financially successful at all were the other L.A. Olympics: The ones held in the city in 1932.
The profits were used to create an endowment called the LA84 Foundation, which funds youth sporting events, resources, and facilities throughout the area. With smart management, the endowment has grown over the years, and over $214 million has helped an estimated three million children and 1,100 organizations in Southern California. Recently, the LA84 Foundation helped raise money to pay coaches and buy equipment at LAUSD high schools after budget cuts decimated their programs.
What Los Angeles was able to do was bring some foresight to the hosting of the games by looking at what will be left for the city after the athletes, press, and spectators have gone home. Not every city to host the games since has learned this lesson, of course. But Los Angeles became a model for cities like Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996), which orchestrated both successful games and positive development which revitalized their urban cores, and not at the expense of residents. Although other Olympic cities have been profitable, it remains the most financially successful Olympic games—by far.
L.A. also helped make the Olympics something for a city to be proud of again. Striking, innovative design that captured the imagination of both its residents and a global audience made the city feel visually united. Los Angeles itself was made smaller by the experience, seeing itself not just as a city but as a region, with far-flung communities that for the first time felt like they were part of this growing swell of Southern California pride. If it could happen in L.A., it could happen anywhere.
Los Angeles is reportedly planning to bid for the 2024 games, which would make for a nice 40th anniversary celebration of its most shining moment. The bidding process begins in 2015.
Additional sources: Design Quarterly 127, 1985, published by the Walker Art Center
Images: All images via Jerde Partnership and Sussman/Prejza, except opening ceremonies via U.S. Air Force