SI Vault
The Golden State
Richard Hoffer
July 22, 1992
Unfurl the state flag, strike up the state hymn and join the author, an adopted son, in lauding California's Olympic deeds
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 22, 1992

The Golden State

Unfurl the state flag, strike up the state hymn and join the author, an adopted son, in lauding California's Olympic deeds

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Seoul '88 What If...?

Gold Medals


Soviet Union



East Germany



United States






South Korea



West Germany











Because we had vision, because we had ambition, because we were unfettered by tradition or guilt—because the steel towns were dead and we couldn't sit in dark rooms and watch the soap operas all day—we went west. There were millions of us. We just kept going and going until we got to the water, and, our wandering finally arrested, we piled on top of one another at the continent's edge. This, roughly, is how we populated California. We just kept going and going until we couldn't go any farther.

By now there are almost 30 million of us, and, it's true, some of us are what you might call misfits. The kind of person who stares goggle-eyed at the Rose Parade on television and is then moved to throw his belongings into the back of his Pinto probably wasn't going to be of much benefit to Detroit anyway. Same for the guy who hurtles cross-country, lands at Venice Beach—where he espies his first chain-saw juggler—and, all on his own, reinvents the state motto (Eureka!). You don't need him back in Altoona.

But cull the misfits, lunkheads, serial killers and creators of sitcoms from this bunch, and what have you got? All right, cull out-of-work aerospace engineers and aerobics instructors, and what have you got? Better cull those surfers while you're at it. And now what have you got? You've got yourself an Olympic team, that's what you've got.

You can say what you want about California, where one out of five families owns a hot tub and two out of three men hardly ever wear neckties, but you can't say we don't play-hard-because-life-is-short out here. We've been just-doing-it for years. We're every sneaker commercial you've ever seen. If California were a country? Well, Ronald Reagan would have been king. But more to the point, the U.S. had 36 gold medals in the 1988 Olympics, and spinning off California's share of that total (and allocating team and relay golds on a proportional basis), we would have placed fourth in golds in those Games. The rest of the U.S.—49 states, plus D.C., to our one—edges us out. California gold, 15; east-of-the-Colorado-River, a severely diminished 21. Why do you think it is called the Golden State?

Of the 611 U.S. athletes in Seoul, 168 were from California. That's more than one out of every four athletes. Sixty-one of those Californians brought home medals in 23 individual events and 17 in team or relay events. And things won't be much different at the Barcelona Games; with a few slots to be filled, 140 of the 592 U.S. athletes hail from California. Memo to Detroit and Cincinnati: Keep up the good work with your cars and soap, but otherwise pack it in.

When we all moved west until we couldn't go farther, that was the real Olympic movement in this country. A state that encouraged play at every turn was a virtual Olympic sponsor, and bright people recognized this. A young man named Peter Daland was coaching swimmers in Philadelphia back in 1956 when he felt the tidal tug of the Pacific. He left to coach at the L.A. Athletic Club that year and was hired at USC in '57. "My friends thought it was unthinkable," he says. "Leave Philly? But I had seen the future of swimming, and it was California." Daland retired from USC this year, having produced 58 Olympians.

Indeed, the future of almost everything has been in California. Teenager Bill Toomey left New Canaan, Conn., in 1957 and stumbled through this strange culture with his eyes as big as dinner plates. "First thing I see?" he recalls. "A health-food store. I had never heard of such a thing." Toomey won a gold medal in the decathlon in 1968. By now New Canaan probably has its own health-food store, but it is still without a decent decathlete. When it comes to California (and everybody does), it's catch-up all the way.

Now, we know what you're saying. California is a huge state and should be hugely represented in the Olympics. But c'mon. Is California really five times more populous than New York? Well, we had nearly five times as many athletes (168 to New York's 36) at Seoul. The ratio in Barcelona will be roughly the same, 140 to 28. But, hey, New York, you've still got Cats and Phantom of the Opera. So definitely keep that up. If it's recycled British musicals you want, New York will always be the place to go. But never mind New York. Even though it had a fifth of the California force, it was still in second place in '88. This time around New York has dropped to fourth (Florida is third, with 41), and Texas, with 43, has assumed second place. The rest of the country is much, much more sparsely represented. California had more Olympic athletes in Seoul than the next five states combined.

We know what else you're saying. The Olympics are rigged. Yes, that's partly true. Until cutting-horse competitions replace water polo in the Olympics, California will continue to lead Montana (one '92 Olympian). Until synchronized swimming is replaced by white-water rafting (and we feel strongly that it should be, by the way), California will always lead Idaho (one). And let's say that the logging competition we sometimes see on ESPN, in which men in plaid shirts assault timber with enormous chain saws, becomes an Olympic event. Why, Oregon (12 this year) would surely come to the fore. Yes, it is true, the things we do in California are mostly Olympic sports, and the things you do are jobs. Some of these Olympic things we even do by accident. Throw a ball into a pool, let your kid bat it around with the neighborhood kids, and, what do you know, you're developing an Olympian! For goodness' sakes, did you know there is now, starting this year, an Olympic badminton team? Out here you go on a picnic, and soon you're having a Barcelona qualifier and you don't even realize it.

Some sports, we admit, are more Californian than others. We can't help that. In men's volleyball, for example, you will probably not be shocked to learn that all 12 members of the 1992 Olympic team are from California. "Well, we do have a beach here," explains Santa Barbara native Doug Partie, a member of the U.S.'s also all-Californian (naturally) 1988 gold medal team, who is on the '92 team as well. "And the sport kind of does fit the California life-style." In case you have never been to Southern California, sunsets must ordinarily be viewed through netting. There's always some family having an Olympic festival after lunch.

Continue Story
1 2 3