3 January, 2021
Los Angeles 1932 Opening Ceremony
Los Angeles 1932 Opening Ceremony

Lit up by the performances of Carl Lewis, Los Angeles 1984 remains fresh in the memory, thanks to some unforgettable sporting moments and the legacy it left behind. The sole candidate to stage the Olympic Summer Games 1984, the “City of Angels” was confirmed as host city at the 80th IOC Session on May 18, 1978, becoming just the third city to stage the modern Olympic Games twice, after Paris (1900, 1924 and 2024) and London (1908, 1948 and 2012).

The Games of the XXIII Olympiad and commonly known as Los Angeles 1984 was held from July 28 to August 12, 1984, mainly in Los Angeles, California, United States. It marked the second time that Los Angeles had hosted the Games, the first being in 1932. California was the home state of the incumbent United States President, Ronald Reagan, who officially opened the Games.

The emblem of the 1984 Games, known as “Stars in Motion,” featured red, white and blue stars arranged horizontally and struck through with alternating streaks, and the official mascot was “Sam the Olympic Eagle.” These were the first Summer Olympic Games under the IOC presidency of Juan Antonio Samaranch.

The Californian city’s second Olympic Games were the first to be organized without state funding since the inaugural Games of the modern era in 1896. The Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC), under the guidance of Peter Ueberroth, was therefore obliged to make use of existing facilities and secure financial support from the private sector.

The Games of the XXIII Olympiad took place four years after the United States-led boycott of Moscow 1980. A record number of 140 countries sent delegations to Los Angeles 1984. And the atmosphere at the Opening Ceremony was distinctly festive, to the extent that the athletes broke ranks and started dancing with each other, a practice usually reserved for closing ceremonies.

The 1984 Summer Olympics are widely considered to be the most financially successful modern Olympic Games, serving as an example of how to run the model Olympics. As a result of low construction costs, coupled with a reliance on private corporate funding, the 1984 Games generated a profit of USD 223 million, setting a benchmark for future Games.

Torch Relay

The 1984 Olympic Torch Relay began in New York City and ended in Los Angeles, traversing 33 states and the District of Columbia. Unlike later torch relays, the torch was continuously carried by runners on foot. The route covered more than 15,000 km and involved 3,636 runners. Noted athlete O. J. Simpson was among the runners, carrying the torch up the California Incline in Santa Monica.

Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Jesse Owens, carried the torch into the Coliseum, completed a lap around the track, and then handed it off to the final runner, Rafer Johnson, winner of the decathlon at the 1960 Summer Olympics. With the torch, he touched off the flame which passed through a specially designed flammable Olympic logo, igniting all five rings. Johnson became the first person of African descent to light the cauldron in Olympic history.

John Williams composed the theme for the Olympiad, “Olympic Fanfare and Theme.” This piece won a Grammy for Williams and became one of the most well-known musical themes of the Olympic Games, along with Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream”; the latter is sometimes attached to the beginning of Olympic Fanfare and Theme. Etta James performed “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the Opening Ceremony. Lionel Richie performed a 9-minute version of his hit single “All Night Long” at the closing ceremonies. The United States Army Band formed the Olympic rings to start the opening ceremony.

Female Sport Gains Ground

Los Angeles 1984 featured a total of 6,829 athletes (1,566 women and 5,263 men) competing in 221 events across 21 sports. It was at these Games that women’s sport began to make its presence genuinely felt on the programme, with the exclusively female disciplines of rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming making their Olympic debuts, along with women’s shooting and road cycling and the women’s 400m hurdles and marathon. Windsurfing was also added to the sailing events. Meanwhile, tennis returned to the Olympic fold after a 60-year absence, albeit as a demonstration sport, alongside another US favourite, baseball.

Just as in 1932, the majestic Memorial Coliseum was the focal point, providing the venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the athletics events. Having been converted into a velodrome for Los Angeles’ first Olympic Games, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena was once again redeployed, this time for the men’s football tournament.

In fact, only two new venues were built for the 1984 Games: the Olympic Swim Stadium at the University of Southern California (USC), which was used for used for the diving, swimming and synchronized swimming events; and the Olympic Velodrome situated on the campus of California State University at Dominguez Hills, for the track cycling competition.

The athletes were accommodated in style at one of three Olympic Villages, sited on university campuses: the USC, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Santa Barbara. As well as offering every conceivable amenity, each of the Villages also boasted first-rate training facilities.

A Memorable Start

Held at the Memorial Coliseum on July 28, 1984, the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XXIII Olympiad was a memorable occasion. Among its many highlights was the appearance of rocket man Bill Suitor flying through the air in a jet pack. The packed stands played their part by providing a colourful backdrop, with spectators holding up placards to create mosaics of the national flags of all the participating countries, while Lionel Richie performed his hit song All Night Long.

US President Ronald Reagan declared the Games open and the Olympic Torch Relay reached its conclusion, with the legendary Jesse Owens entering the stadium with the Torch in his hand and completing a lap before passing it on to Rafer Johnson, who had been the United States’ flag bearer at Rome 1960, where he won decathlon gold.

After jogging up the flight of stairs installed beneath the central arch of the peristyle, Johnson lit the five Olympic rings positioned on the front of the stadium’s impressive main archway. The flame then made its way up to the impressive torch-shaped Olympic cauldron, built for the 1932 Games, which would burn brightly for the next 16 days.

Carl Lewis, the Brightest Star

Already an icon of world athletics by the time the Los Angeles 1984 got under way, the 23-year Carl Lewis cemented that status by winning four gold medals, equalling Jesse Owens’ Berlin 1936 rich haul. Lewis began by winning the 100m on August 4, in a time of 9.99 sec; two days later, on August 6, he jumped 8.54m with his first attempt to win long jump gold. On August 8, he added the 200m gold, secured in an Olympic-record time of 19.80 sec. He then completed his golden quadruple by running the anchor leg in the 4x100m relay final, helping to set a new world record of 37.83 with team-mates Sam Grady, Ron Brown and Calvin Smith.

Making their debut on the Olympic stage, the People’s Republic of China won their first ever gold medal courtesy of Xu Haifeng, who collected the gold in the men’s 50m pistol. However, it was gymnast Li Ning who emerged as China’s undisputed superstar in Los Angeles 1984. He made six trips to the podium in all, picking up gold in the floor, rings and pommel horse, silver in the team all-around and vault, and bronze in the individual all-around. Ning’s compatriots would never forget his achievements, and he was granted the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron at Beijing 2008, an act he performed after memorably running around the rim of the Olympic Stadium, suspended by wires. Li Ning earned the nickname “Prince of Gymnasts” in China.

Back on the track, Sebastian Coe, who would later chair the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games London 2012 and head up the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), became the first and only man to-date to win successive Olympic 1,500m titles. Just as he had done at Moscow 1980, Coe also won silver in the 800m; he was pipped to the line by Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz, who went unbeaten at the distance that season and who remains the only Brazilian to have landed an Olympic track gold. Another British athlete to claim the limelight was Daley Thompson, the decathlon world record holder, who retained the title he had won in Moscow four years earlier. Also making a return to the top of the podium was the USA’s Ed Moses, who won the men’s 400m hurdle gold for the second time in his career, the first having come at Montreal 1976.

Nawal El Moutawakel won the inaugural Olympic women’s 400m hurdles final, leading from start to finish to become the first Moroccan athlete and the first woman from a Muslim nation to claim an Olympic gold. Three days later, her compatriot Said Aouita brought more joy to Morocco by winning the men’s 5,000m. Elsewhere on the track, the USA’s Valerie Brisco-Hooks completed a rare 200m and 400m double before adding a third gold in the 4x100m relay, while fellow American Joan Benoit won the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon. Carlos Lopes, from Portugal, won the Marathon at the age of 37, with a time of 2:09:21, an Olympic record that stood for 24 years. It was the first gold medal ever for Portugal.

Gymnastic, Swimming, Diving

Another athlete who got the home crowds cheering was the irrepressible 16-year-old gymnast Mary-Lou Retton, who won five medals in total: the United States first ever gold in the women’s individual all-around, silvers in the team all-around and the vault, and bronzes in the uneven bars and the floor. Mary Lou also became the first gymnast outside Eastern Europe to win the gymnastics all-around competition. In men’s gymnastics, the American team won the Gold Medal.

The USA also excelled in the pool, where their women won each one of the freestyle, butterfly, medley and relay events. The most decorated male swimmer of the Games, however, was Germany’s Michael Gross, the winner of 200m freestyle and 100m butterfly gold, and silvers in the 200m butterfly and the 4x200m freestyle relay. Victor Davis of Canada set a new world record in winning the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke in swimming. Meanwhile, home-grown diving legend Greg Louganis completed a 3m springboard/10m platform double with plenty to spare. Synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics debuted in Los Angeles as Olympic events, as did wind surfing.

Rowing, Basketball, Archery

In rowing, Steve Redgrave of Great Britain won his first title in rowing of the record five he would go on to win in five Olympic competitions. Future Dream Team members Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Chris Mullin were on the team that won the gold medal in basketball with a 96-65 defeat of Spain in the final. The 1984 US men’s Olympic basketball team was coached by Indiana Hoosiers head coach Bobby Knight.

New Zealand archer Neroli Fairhall made Olympic history by becoming the first paraplegic Olympian at any Olympic Games, coming 35th in the Women’s individual event.

Soccer, Weightlifting, Cycling

France won the Olympic association football (soccer) tournament, defeating Brazil 2–0 in the final. Olympic football was unexpectedly played before massive crowds throughout America, with several sell-outs at the 100,000+ seat Rose Bowl. This interest eventually led to the US hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

The Soviet-led boycott affected weightlifting more than any other sport: 94 of the world’s top 100 ranked lifters were absent, as were 29 of the 30 medalists from the recent world championships. Success of the Eastern Bloc countries might be explained by state-run doping programs that had been developed there. Connie Carpenter-Phinney of the United States became the first woman to win an Olympic cycling event when she won the women’s individual road race.

Legacy of Los Angeles 1984

Born on September 2, 1937, the very same day that Pierre de Coubertin died, LAOOC chair Ueberroth introduced an ambitious and innovative sponsorship programme for the Games, coming up with a model of product category exclusivity that ultimately inspired the creation of the IOC’s Olympic Partner (TOP) programme.

Decorated with the Olympic Order, Ueberroth was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year”. Meanwhile, the sizeable profit generated by the 1984 Games was used to fund the launch of the LA84 Foundation, which to this day continues to promote and advocate sports participation in Southern California and commissions research on the impact it has on the lives of the local population. The Foundation also boasts one of the world’s largest sports library collections.

Many of the sites used at Los Angeles 1984 will be reused when the city hosts the Games again in 2028, including the Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Bowl (both of which will be featuring at their third Games), while the UCLA campus will host the Olympic Village. As was the case in 1932 and 1984, only a small number of new venues will need to be built. Intertwined with its sporting history, the Olympic history of Los Angeles continues to unfold, ensuring that its two previous editions of the Games remain firmly in the collective memory and providing a solid framework for the future legacy of the Games

Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games

Despite taking place against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Los Angeles 1932 proved to be a huge success and established a number of benchmarks that helped shape future editions of the Olympic Games.

“The time had truly come to bestow recognition upon the sporting youth of the United States for the effort they have made since Athens and for their ever-brilliant and numerous contributions to Games past,” wrote Pierre de Coubertin in his Olympic Memoirs. “It was for these three reasons that the members of the IOC unanimously elected Los Angeles the host city of the X Olympiad.”

The Memorial Coliseum

One of the most of illustrious of all Olympic buildings, the Memorial Coliseum was commissioned in 1921 and completed two years later. By the time of the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1932, the stadium’s capacity had been increased to over 105,000 thanks to the addition of upper tiers of seating. Renamed the Olympic Stadium, it was the venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the athletics, equestrian, gymnastics and field hockey events.

Standing 32 metres high, its signature torch-shaped Olympic cauldron was installed atop the central arch of the peristyle and housed the Olympic flame that would burn throughout the two weeks of competition. Having also been the main venue at Los Angeles 1984, the Memorial Coliseum will in 2028 become the first stadium in the world to host the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events at three separate Olympic Games.

Final Medal Count

The United States topped the medal count for the first time since 1968, winning a record 83 gold medals and surpassing the Soviet Union’s total of 80 gold medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics. The United States accounted for 174 medals – 83 gold; 61 silver; 30 bronze. Romania came second with 53 total medals – 20 gold; 16 silver; 17 bronze. In third position was West Germany with 59 total medals – 17 gold; 19 silver; 23 bronze.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)