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It was the eve of another International Olympic Committee meeting, this one in Sarajevo last month as the Winter Games were about to begin. For the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, which was preparing to report—for the fifth time—to the IOC on how the arrangements for this summer's L.A. Games, which begin July 28, were progressing, there were, it appeared, problems piled upon complications heaped upon aggravations.
For one, Greek Olympic and government leaders were up in arms over the LAOOC's plans to sell, at $3,000 a kilometer, the right to take part in the relay that would carry the Olympic torch across America. Even though proceeds of the relay are earmarked for youth charities, the Greeks were saying that the "sacred" Olympic flame, of which they are the keepers, shouldn't be used for fund raising, no matter how worthy the cause. Nikos Filaretos, secretary-general of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, stated flatly that if LAOOC president Peter V. Ueberroth wanted the torch lit in Olympia, site of the ancient Games, he would have to come over and light it himself.
And an assortment of Western European journalists who are influential in shaping the public image of the Olympics were crying in anguish over the expected high cost of everything in L.A. The journalists were joined in protest by the members of the IOC press commission, which has some say in the arrangements offered the thousands of reporters covering the Games. With the dollar extraordinarily high against most European currencies and the LAOOC planning to charge record prices for press services, the journalists were saying that the L.A. Olympics would end up as a gigantic rip-off and a glaring example of American commercialism.
In another minicrisis, the Soviets, who have long been critical of the L.A. preparations, appeared to be dragging their heels on signing a contract for Eastern European and U.S.S.R. telecasts of the Summer Games because of a Winter Olympics press-accreditation controversy involving Radio Free Europe.
In the days that followed, Ueberroth was able to disarm most of the critics with another one of his engaging performances. The LAOOC report to the IOC was well received. The Soviets signed the TV contract after the IOC executive board decided not to accredit Radio Free Europe in Sarajevo. Even the complaining journalists piped down a bit. At least, they were friendly at Ueberroth's press conferences. The torch-relay question remained unresolved, but the IOC backed Los Angeles' plans, and last week the Greeks moved to compromise.
All of which demonstrated once again that staging a modern Olympics is a monumental challenge. Although the Los Angeles organizers haven't had anything devastating happen to them yet and though they seem on top of most incipient difficulties, they can't help but be aware of recent history.
After all, there hasn't been a really trouble-free Summer Olympics since the Tokyo Games of 1964. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics were marred by a massacre of demonstrating students and by the protests of U.S. black athletes. The 1972 Munich Games were shattered when Palestinian terrorists invaded the athletes' village and 11 Israelis were killed. In 1976, in Montreal, 30 countries, most of them African, boycotted the Olympics, protesting South Africa's racial policies, and the Canadian government blatantly violated IOC rules when it banned Taiwan's team to placate the People's Republic of China. The 1980 Moscow Games were disrupted when the Carter Administration organized a 62-nation boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The more than 1,000 employees of the LAOOC know this history well, and they're aware that putting on the Games will be a test of their ingenuity—and luck. The committee's executives, especially Ueberroth and his deputy, general manager Harry L. Usher, tend to be defensive and nervous about every adverse occurrence. They live in a state of frequent private agitation, despite their genial public calm. This isn't the relaxed, flexible sort of organizing committee that put on the Winter Games in Sarajevo. Sometimes, a veritable siege mentality takes hold. On the occasion of a quarterly meeting of the LAOOC's 60-member board of directors in September, Usher wrote a letter to his top employees warning them to turn over sensitive papers on their desks, so that the directors, while touring the premises, wouldn't see anything they shouldn't.
But quite aside from Ueberroth and Usher, nearly every member of the staff is on guard, concerned, trying hard to cast the Olympic effort in a positive light. "I love working at the committee," says one employee. "There's such idealism here. People are willing to put in such long hours. You should see what some are willing to do. It's an extraordinary atmosphere." And a tense one.
The Los Angeles Games will be very different. The LAOOC is essentially a local businessmen's organization. Probably less than 15% of the $600 million or more to be spent on the Games will come from public funds, and most of the government's share will be in the form of federal security aid. The balance—more than $510 million—will come from television contracts, commercial sponsors and licensees, ticket sales and a commemorative-coin program that's actually making money for the U.S. Government.