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The Branding of the Olympics

Thirty years ago, Los Angeles transformed the Games into a corporate vessel. It hasn’t been the same since.

Tom Bradley liked to tell the story of how he watched the 1932 Olympics through the fence of Los Angeles’s Memorial Coliseum. He was 14 at the time, and the pageantry and spectacle of it all offered a welcome reprieve from the uncertain world around him. There was no Great Depression, no future, no worries — just these races he could still recall in startling detail nearly 50 years later. He could never have imagined that an African American might one day be mayor of this growing city and that it would be him. It could never have occurred to him that this moment of pure astonishment would become part of a story he would tell over and over — a story that would change the Games forever.

Nobody wanted the 1984 Summer Olympics.1 But the success of those Games revitalized the possibilities of such global spectacles. We take it for granted nowadays that hosting big, expensive, and complicated events like the Olympics or World Cup is a desirable thing for cities and nations. They have become ways of announcing a regime’s makeover or burnishing a national brand; at the very least, politicians and developers invoke hosting duties as an official mandate to raze like hell. In the late 1970s, though, the Olympics weren’t seen as profitable or peaceful. Violence had marred the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. The 1976 Montreal Games overran their budget so drastically that the debts weren’t paid off until 2006. When it came time in 1978 to find a host for the 1984 Games, the only cities that expressed interest were Tehran — which withdrew before making a formal bid — and Los Angeles.

Taxpayers and city officials balked at Bradley’s proposal to bring the Games to L.A., especially as tales of Montreal’s financial woes began to circulate. But Bradley used that unwillingness to his advantage, agreeing that taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of the Games and floating the possibility instead that they be staged without any direct public funding. The city’s existing facilities were sufficient, and corporate sponsors could pay for whatever else needed to be built. The rest of the operating budget would come from ticket sales, television, merchandising, and licensing.

Besides the initial Games in 1896, no Olympics had been underwritten entirely by private money. And other than the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and 1948 Games in London, no Olympics had ever reported a profit.2 In 1980, Peter Ueberroth, who had been appointed to head the L.A. Olympic committee, explained to the New York Times that these Games would be the first “free-enterprise, private-sector Olympics, with no taxpayer money.”

If you look back at the reporting leading up to the L.A. Games, there’s a sense of bemusement that feels quaint to the modern fan, accustomed as we are to logos and tie-ins everywhere — back then, the question was why a sporting event could possibly need an official gasoline, fruit juice, or traveler’s check. Sponsorship was a novel concept at a time when brand recognition was largely the domain of newspaper and radio ads or TV commercials. In 1984, the Chicago Tribune asked, “What motivates them to spend marketing dollars underwriting the Olympics — a short-lived, one-time event — rather than channeling them into more traditional avenues? Is it simply the right to call themselves ‘official’ sponsors of the Olympics? Does it boost employee morale? Or does it satisfy the ego of some corporate executives?

“Does sponsoring the Olympics actually sell more hamburgers, more airplane seats or more candy?”

This wasn’t really what was at stake, though. The reason the L.A. Games would become a model for future Olympics was Ueberroth’s shrewd grasp of how marketing was evolving. The businesses that bought in realized that what they were buying was intangible, and that the new normal would be as much about brand recognition as units sold. Whereas sponsorship opportunities had previously been cheap and open to all, the planning committee created a system of exclusivity — McDonald’s and Burger King couldn’t both join the so-called “golden circle” of Olympic supporters; they bid to see who would become the official burger of the Games. McDonald’s won, thus earning it the right to finance and name the McDonald’s Olympic Swim Stadium. (It also gave away a ridiculous number of Big Macs.) As an executive from Mars remarked, linking candy bars to the Olympics might create a new chain of associations within the consumer imagination: “We’re trying to get people to think of candy as a permissible snack rather than an indulgent food.”

1984 World Series

This isn’t to forget the Games themselves. Future apparel mogul Li Ning winning six medals and becoming the most famous man in China. Mary Lou Retton’s impending ubiquity. Zola Budd and her idol Mary Decker. British decathlete Daley Thompson trolling Carl Lewis by wearing his “Is the World’s 2nd Greatest Athlete Gay?” T-shirt. Lionel Richie’s nine-minute rendition of “All Night Long.” L.A.’s showy majesty was also notable given America’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games — this was a spectacle for Cold War hearts and minds. In turn, Eastern Bloc nations refused to compete in 1984.3

My family had moved to Southern California just before the Olympics, which only served to make this new place seem even more blessed and magical than before. One day my grandfather took me a few blocks from our cul-de-sac to a slope where the road race would pass by. We stood and waited, and I remember my normally mellow grandfather shouting encouragement in the general direction of an Asian cyclist who blurred by. “Korean,” he laughed. “Close enough!”4 And isn’t this ambivalent close-enoughness the essence of the Olympic spirit? Every two years we triangulate some temporary allegiance and try to feel some type of way about what happens or doesn’t. It’s a kind of momentary universalism that makes the Olympics seem unique and special.

Everything that surrounds those moments: That’s a different kind of allegiance. When a local executive named Rodney Rood wrote the L.A. Times on behalf of the city’s bid in 1977, he imagined Los Angeles could give the increasingly politicized Olympics a “new look.” They would revive the “spirit of the original Olympiad” by showcasing the city’s modern glamour and astonishing diversity. The Olympics didn’t rebrand L.A. — in the last years of the Cold War, the world already knew to regard Southern California as some kind of perpetually sunny, free-market wonderland. The Games raised the profile of Ueberroth — he would become commissioner of baseball in 1984 — and a portion of the profits endowed a series of local youth initiatives that thrive to this day. Come fall, students at USC and UCLA moved back into the Olympic Village — their dorms — and the Games’ massive army of citizen “volunteers” returned to their normal gigs.5

L.A. was exceptional, but its splendor and profits soon became regarded as the model for a new, more modern approach to thinking about these global spectacles. It was the first aggressively branded Games and, at a basic level, it was a new way of making money: the first Games with a sponsored torch relay, a Disney mascot, every surface available for your ad here. There is no longer a shortage of hopeful host cities or sponsors, and on this side of history, that seems natural.

It was also a statement of arrival, a celebration of a way of life: Los Angeles, the apex of American possibility, beamed into a record number of homes worldwide. Why wouldn’t other cities, regimes, politicians want to do the same — to turn the world’s eye toward their beliefs, creeds, and triumphs? For many, however, the Olympics or World Cup have become an excuse to redraw boundaries and remake the nation. Massive protests around government spending have tempered enthusiasm for this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. The hyper-modernization of Beijing in the 2000s and the instant transformation of Sochi from lower-tier coastal city to eager global tourism hub seem more a show of political and economic will than a celebration of some vague “Olympic spirit.” Today, inviting the world to partake in these global spectacles carries the awful prestige of making the world bend to your laws, most notably the antigay measures in place in Russia and 2022 World Cup host Qatar. It’s a way for nations to rebrand and legitimize themselves — on their own terms.

Los Angeles wasn’t the first or most egregious example of this. But at a time when the Olympics movement was flagging, it succeeded by selling the world on the American way of thinking about sports and business. It was the best version of what we had to offer. During the pre-Olympics push, Mayor Bradley empowered Police Chief Daryl Gates to detain massive numbers of African American youth suspected of gang activity, which only exacerbated tensions between the privileged and the poor. In less than a decade, the videotaped beating of Rodney King would scramble the carefully managed image of melting-pot L.A. (When Bradley sought someone to lead the effort to rebuild L.A. in 1992, he called on a familiar figure: Ueberroth.)

As Daley Thompson took a victory lap after winning the gold, he wore a sweater that read “Thanks America for a good Games and a great time.” On the back was a question about how one-sided the press had been: “But what about the TV coverage?” L.A. was, at the time, the most profitable and corporatized Olympics ever — yet the possibilities had just been glimpsed. The Olympics had always draped itself in utopian visions of a more peaceful world. But to survive, it had to become more like the world around it.

Filed Under: 2014 Winter Olympics, Olympics, Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, Mary Lou Retton, Peter Ueberroth, Daley Thompson, Hua Hsu

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Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is finishing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

Archive @ huahsu