TRIUMPH OF THE DOLLAR SQUEEZERS
It turns out that American athletes didn't make off with the biggest gold haul at the Summer Olympics after all. That distinction belongs to the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, which last week announced that the Games produced a surplus of about $150 million. The LAOOC had originally projected a surplus of $15.5 million, and president Peter V. Ueberroth kidded, "We only missed by a zero." The surplus was described as "spectacular" by LAOOC chairman Paul Ziffren, while Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley called it "staggering."
Let's compromise and call it staggeringly spectacular. Under terms of the charter governing the Games, at least $75 million of the surplus will go to the U.S. Olympic Committee, a bonanza that, together with the $26 million it has so far received from the U.S. government's Olympic coin program, should make the USOC's familiar pleas of poverty sound more hollow than ever. An additional $50 million is earmarked for a new foundation to foster youth sports in Southern California, with the remaining $25 million to be held in reserve to cover the LAOOC's wrap-up costs. Ueberroth said a portion of that money might be channeled to athletic programs in Third World nations.
How did the LAOOC realize these eye-popping riches? Thanks largely to the decision to use existing facilities whenever possible, the Committee held expenditures to a bare-bones $469 million, of which the biggest outlays were for salaries and bonuses to its 40,000 employees ($99.5 million) and construction ($91.7 million). Revenues totaled $619 million, the main sources being broadcast-rights fees and ticket sales—$239 million and $151 million, respectively. The former figure was so big because high TV ratings resulted in ABC's making full payment to the LAOOC; the decision of Soviet-bloc nations to boycott would have entitled the network to withhold some payments had the ratings suffered. Ticket receipts were swollen by a last-minute box-office rush, for which the LAOOC could thank, among other things, the strong performance of U.S. athletes—could the Soviet boycott actually have been good for Olympic business?—and the fact that the horrendous smog and traffic problems that everybody had been predicting never materialized. This prompted Ueberroth to remark, "Some say the harder you work, the luckier you get. We were very lucky."
But luck was only part of the story. The LAOOC was also canny, well-organized and, in some ways, rapacious. The final figures suggested that Ueberroth & Co. needn't have scaled ticket prices so high, that they'd engaged in uncalled-for histrionics in pressing Washington to launch the Olympic coin program and that they had no cause to be so hard-nosed with sponsors, whose "exclusive" deals sometimes turned out to be something less than that, or with foreign Olympic committees. It also seems likely that the LAOOC intentionally understated pre-Olympic projections to justify such tactics. One LAOOC-watcher says that even after the boycott was announced and even without the late surge in ticket sales, "They knew they were sitting on at least a $75 million surplus. They've got to have known it. At some point they could've softened their stance and not extracted every ounce of blood."
In its euphoric summing-up, the LAOOC insisted it had kept its pledge—one that the city of Los Angeles had also made—that no public funds would be spent on the Games. In fact, federal, state and local governments picked up the tab for more than $100 million in security and other costs. Had the LAOOC been obliged to pay that sum, its surplus obviously would have been far smaller. L.A. officials joined in the charade by asserting that the city's Olympic-related expenditures of $31 million were more than offset by approximately $15 million in payments from the LAOOC, at least $9 million generated for Olympic purposes by a special one-half-percent hotel tax levied in 1978 and expiring next week, and $8 million or so from taxes on Olympic tickets. It's foolish to pretend, as the city does, that the hotel-tax receipts, raised by means of its taxation authority, aren't public monies. Also, the city's reckoning of Olympic costs didn't take into account tax losses suffered because of a substantial decline in non-Olympic economic activity during the Games.
But L.A. certainly spent far less on its Games than any other host city of recent times, and city controller James Hahn wasn't alone in implying that the Olympics would have been a bargain at almost any cost. Hahn told SI's Julie Vader that one of the Olympics' "incalculable" benefits was to "dispel a number of myths about L.A.—that there's choking smog and traffic so bad no one can move and that you can't walk the streets because of the crime." Something else the Games proved to the world, Hahn added, was that L.A. had shrewd businessmen. Of Ueberroth and other LAOOC officials, he said, "They figured out every way to squeeze every dollar."
A story making the rounds: A Dallas Cowboy fan showed up for one of the team's early-season games accompanied by a monkey. The Cowboys scored in the first quarter and the monkey leaped into the air, executed a perfect flip and landed in his seat. Moments later the Cowboys intercepted a pass and returned it for another touchdown, whereupon the monkey sprang to his feet, saluted and began singing, The Eyes of Texas. At this point an amazed onlooker turned to the monkey's owner and said, "Hey, this is a meaningless early-season game. What in the world does the monkey do when the Cowboys win a big game?"
"I don't know," came the reply. "I've only had him for five years."