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The Olympics in Los Angeles: A Look Back and a Look Even Further Back

Posted: 08/07/2012 2:44 pm

By Bob Timmermann and Christina Rice, Los Angeles Public Library

London is hosting its third Summer Olympics, pushing it ahead of several other cities that have played host to the games twice, including our fair city, Los Angeles.

The Olympics first came to Los Angeles in 1932 during the throes of the Great Depression. The Memorial Coliseum was the main venue, hosting the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, along with track and field, gymnastics, field hockey, and an equestrian event. The unique aspect of these games was the construction of the Olympic Village in Baldwin Hills, which the organizers built to reduce housing costs for athletes who were making the long trip to Los Angeles. Previously, competing teams would compete for hotel space with visitors to the games. Since these were the 10th Olympic Games of the Modern Era, 10th Street in Los Angeles had its name changed to its current one, Olympic Boulevard.

Fifty-two years later, Los Angeles hosted the Olympics again. In 1984, cities were not lining up to host the games. In fact, most were steering clear of them. However, the Los Angeles organizers were able to pull off a profitable Olympics thanks in part to working out numerous sponsorship deals, as well as avoiding building few new venues. The Memorial Coliseum was the host again. Television ratings skyrocketed as the absence of athletes from many Eastern European nations lead to numerous wins by the U.S.

It's been 28 years since the last time Los Angeles hosted an Olympics. Prior to that, the gap was 32 years. During each time period, the Olympic Games changed in ways that people watching at the time would be stunned to believe. Even beach-loving Angelenos of 1984 would be surprised to think that beach volleyball would be one of the biggest draws on television worldwide.

The Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection contains numerous images from the Olympic Games of 1932 and 1984. Below we highlight some of the biggest events from the time that they happened, that may not be remembered as well today. Don't worry, you can still load up on Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis photos!

For those not scoring at home, the other cities that have hosted the Olympics twice are Athens, Paris, Lake Placid, St. Moritz, and Innsbruck. Stockholm hosted the 1912 Olympics and the equestrian portion of the 1956 Melbourne games.

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  • The 201.5 meters

    Eddie Tolan followed up his narrow win in the 100 meters with a win in the 200 meters. Both times Ralph Metcalfe (unlabeled runner) finished third. After the race, officials discovered that Metcalfe's lane was 1.5 meters too long. Metcalfe opted not to protest. He would later win gold in 1936 as part of the USA's 4 X 100 meter relay team. Photo dated August 4, 1932. <em>(Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>

  • Stroke, stroke

    In an era before television, the visuals for the rowing events at the 1932 Olympic Games wasn't as important as it is now. Then again, in 1932, people associated oil derricks with prosperity. This photo was taken at the Long Beach Marine Stadium. For 1984, Olympic rowing moved up to the much more pastoral Lake Casitas.<em>(Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library) </em>

  • The less glamorous part of the Olympics

    Unsurprisingly, the Olympic Grand Auditorium was the site of the 1932 Olympic boxing competition. This newspaper photo shows Canadian gold medalist, Horace "Lefty" Gwynne, taking on Germany's Hans Ziglarski (right) in the bantamweight final. <em>(Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library) </em>

  • Not an intimate setting

    Romeo Neri of Italy dominated the men's gymnastics competition in 1932. He won the all-around as well as the parallel bars. Italy won the team all-around as well. Despite the fact that spectators were a long way from the action, the cavernous Memorial Coliseum hosted the gymnastics competition. <em>(Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>

  • From the Coliseum to Iwo Jima

    Baron Takeshi Nishi of Japan and his horse Uranus won the gold medal in the show jumping competition, held as one of the last events of the 1932 games. Nishi and Uranus were big hits in Hollywood social circles, especially Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. During World War II, Nishi eventually became a commander in the Japanese Army and died at Iwo Jima. His story was featured in Clint Eastwood's 2006 film <em>Letters from Iwo Jima</em>. <em>(Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>

  • Conquering the Albatross

    Perhaps the most exciting race in the swimming competition in 1984 was the 4 X 200 meter freestyle relay. The American team had set a world record in qualifying, but the West German team was a co-favorite, because of the presence of Michael Gross, aka "The Albatross" (because of his 6'7" frame), who had won gold in the 200 meter freestyle. The Germans and Americans battled throughout the race, with the far less publicized Bruce Hayes out-touching Gross by .04 seconds at the end. Both the Americans and Germans broke the world record by over three seconds. In 1990, Hayes competed in the third Gay Games, held in Vancouver, and has gone on to be a prominent spokesperson for gay athletes throughout the world. Photo dated: July 31, 1984. <em>(Photo by Javier Mendoza: Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>

  • Quiet domination

    During the 1984 Olympic Games, most of the world was focused on Carl Lewis, who won four gold medals with relative ease. However, Edwin Moses may have been the biggest favorite in any event. Moses dominated the relatively obscure 400 meter hurdles, winning gold in 1976, missing out in 1980 because of a boycott, and then wiping out the field in 1984 for what was then his 89th straight win in the finals of the event.<em> (Photo by Paul Chinn: Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>

  • Women finally go the distance

    Women had been competing in the Olympics since 1900, but they were never allowed to run in track events longer than 800 meters after 1928 (until 1960, the longest distance was 200 meters). By 1984, women finally were given a marathon of their own. Joan Benoit Samuelson of the USA was the gold medalist, finishing the 26 mile, 385 yard course from Santa Monica City College to the Memorial Coliseum in 2:24.52. <em>Photo by Chris Gulker: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library</em>

  • A happy dude

    Not many people in America paid attention to Greco-Roman wrestling, but Jeff Blatnick's gold medal in the Super-Heavyweight class made everyone take notice. Just two years after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, Blatnick took the gold. Interviewed immediately after the match, Blatnick, in tears, said, "I'm a happy dude!" Photo dated: August 3, 1984. <em>(Photo by Paul Chinn: Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>

  • No contest

    The 1984 men's basketball team at the Olympics was still comprised of collegians. Without the presence of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, they had little trouble winning gold. In this photo, Patrick Ewing prepares to swat away a shot from a West German player. <em>(Photo by James Ruebsamen: Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>

  • The final event

    Carlos Lopes of Portugal (wearing 723) runs in the men's marathon which was the final event of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Lopes's time was 2:09:21. <em>(Photo by Chris Gulker: Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)</em>