A poll of Angelenos at the time showed that while 80% were in favor of hosting the Games if they could be held without spending any city money, that figure dropped to 34% if the Games might result in a deficit. Hence, the "businesslike Olympics." "We are invoking the spirit of Sparta," said California Governor Jerry Brown. "There will be zero government money spent. Zero."
The rank air of skepticism that hovered over L.A. Games II wasn't easily dissipated. Not even a 1978 city charter amendment, avowing that "the city shall not, directly or indirectly, appropriate or disburse any city funds for the purpose of promoting the 1984 Olympic Games," wholly appeased the 72% majority that voted for it.
Nor the International Olympic Committee. If the host city wasn't financially responsible for the Games, as decreed by IOC rules, who then was? The Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, which had promoted L.A.'s bid for the Games, held out for the unprecedented concept that a private corporation could and should be solely responsible for the Games. In the end, after seven long, often rancorous months of negotiations, a compromise was struck, namely that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) would assume joint responsibility with the SCCOG for the Games, and the IOC capitulated.
"The key to the whole Olympics," says SCCOG Chairman John Argue, "was to hire one good man."
Ueberroth, meanwhile, wasn't exactly nursing a cherry Coke at Schwab's drugstore, waiting to be discovered. Starting from ground zero, he had become the high-flying chairman of his own immensely successful company, First Travel Corp. of Van Nuys, Calif., a self-made boy wonder with a knack for squeezing high returns from a business with a notoriously low profit margin.
The son of a building-products salesman, Ueberroth was born in Chicago and had lived in five states and attended six elementary schools and two high schools by the time the family took root in Burlingame, a San Francisco bedroom community. Along the way, like some migrant Horatio Alger Jr., he had mowed the lawns, caddied at the golf courses and plied the paper routes of a stretch of suburban America extending from the leafy groves of Upper Darby, Pa. through the plains of Davenport, Iowa to the shores of Laguna Beach, Calif. While in high school, he ran the aquatics program at a YMCA summer camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains and for two years worked full-time as the recreation director at Twelve Acres, a home for children from broken families.
Looking back, Ueberroth feels that he had an invaluable opportunity "to learn how to adapt, to learn a little more about life a little earlier."
What gave it focus were the spirited debates his father moderated at the supper table each evening. The fare was strictly meat-and-potatoes stuff—economics, world affairs, current events. "Those were my father's interests and I inherited them from him," says Ueberroth. "He would constantly challenge the three of us, my older sister, my younger brother and me, and there was always an encyclopedia handy. My father never graduated from grammar school, but he was a brilliant individual, very well-read. A student of world trade who had street smarts."
Ueberroth's sports credentials are legit, as attested to by a nose that hooks left and right like a club fighter's. The appendage has been broken more times than he can count, the legacy of an average-size jock with an uncommon love for body contact.
A four-letter man for the Fremont (Calif.) High Indians, Ueberroth combined what skills he had in football, swimming, basketball and baseball to try out for—and win—a partial scholarship to San Jose State in a sport he had never played before, water polo. While captain of the Spartan (prophetically enough) freshman team, he came within an eggbeater kick or two of making the U.S. water polo team that competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. In his final two seasons at San Jose State, he led the league in scoring.