The Inner-Turmoil: Los Angeles And The 1976 Olympic Summer Games

By Brad J. Congelio

OL_1976_cand_LAThe city of Boston’s garbage is the city of Los Angeles’s treasure, as it were.

For fans of the Olympics, watching the bidding mess unfold in Boston was saddening. For years, the United States Olympic Committee was at odds with the International Olympic Committee over what many in the Olympic family (read: Europe) viewed as an unfair balance in revenue sharing that heavily favored the United States. Because of the Eurocentric base that makes up the membership of the IOC, it came as no surprise as American bid cities were tossed out in the earliest rounds of voting in the bidding process. The most notorious example of this being, of course, Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

But, finally, in May of 2012, the IOC and USOC finalized a new revenue sharing deal that provided American cities an honest chance to bid for and win the right to host the Olympics. While it was struck too late to save Chicago’s bid, all eyes turned to Boston when the city was selected (albeit, surprisingly) over both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Boston’s bid was a mess from the start.

“No taxpayer money would be involved.”

“Okay, maybe we will need a little of your money.”

“Nope, never mind: here is version 2.0 of our bid.”

“All facilities will be located in Boston proper.”

“Oh, that will be difficult: let’s spread them out a little bit.”

And the saga went on and on. It is actually quite good that Boston dropped out of the race when they did. If the USOC allowed Boston to hang on as American’s bid city, humiliation would have quickly followed. And, worst of all, the United States would have gone yet another bidding cycle without a victory.

But now, all attention has turned to the city of Los Angeles. While Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. were all asked to reconsider their 2024 bids after Boston’s demise, the general consensus is this: only Los Angeles has the name power and the Olympic history to successfully sway the IOC to give the 2024 Olympic Summer Games to an American city. All efforts from a city not named Los Angeles are likely futile.

The city’s long history with the Games has much to do with it. In part one of this two-part piece, I’d like to examine the history between Los Angeles and the Olympic Games, specifically the bid for 1976 Olympic Games. While many maintain an idealist memory of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (and rightfully so – they were wonderful), many do not know the turmoil that marred the 1976 Olympic bid for Los Angeles.

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At the conclusion of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, a group of individuals – still exhilarated from the success of the city’s hosting of the Games banded together in an effort to bring the Olympic Movement back to Southern California. It would be another fifty-two years before their efforts bore fruit and their dreams became reality. Formed in 1939 through a direct request of the United States Olympic Committee,[1] the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games (SCCOG) was organized by civic and Olympic leaders William May Garland and Paul Helms – both notable names synonymous with the Los Angeles Olympics. Garland, a member of the International Olympic Committee from 1922 to 1948, had successfully secured the bid for the 1932 Games at the height of economic boom times and then met the challenge of hosting the highly successful Olympic festival in Los Angeles in the depths of the Great Depression. Helms, on the other hand, is most remembered for being the baker-opportunist behind the “Great Bread War” between himself and then USOC President and idealist Avery Brundage.[2]

The task of the SCCOG was quite clear: after the success of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the USOC directed the Southern California group to provide continue support for the Olympic Movement in Los Angeles and to bid for future Olympic Games. The group therefore presented the Los Angeles bids to the IOC in 1948, 1952, and 1956 in hopes of getting Los Angeles selected as the host again. And in 1969, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984, the group promoted Los Angeles to the USOC as a potential American candidate to be presented to the IOC.

When the USOC awarded the international bidding rights to Los Angeles for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, then-Mayor Sam Yorty called for the establishment of the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee. The SCCOG and the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee were historically separate entities. Both were composed entirely of volunteers with only an individual or two ever serving in both organizations. The mayor assigned his committee the responsibility of organizing the city’s bid to the IOC and, if it succeeded, put on the 1976 Games in Los Angeles. Thus, Mayor Yorty had vested it with powers that the members of the SCCOG thought rightfully and historically belonged to them.

In 1969, Lee Combs Jr., the acting president of the SCCOG, wrote a letter dated 21 March 1969 to now IOC President Avery Brundage. The subject was the usurpation of SCCOG’s role by the mayor’s newly formed Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee. Combs open with a matter-of-fact statement, expressing his concerns over the increasing professionalism in athletics. Combs clearly knew how to play to a favorite Brundage peeve. Combs then moved on to the crux of his letter, informing Brundage that he was “deeply concerned with the tone, the personnel, and the underlying purpose of the Los Angeles mayor’s committee.”[3]

As the acting president of the Southern California Committee, Combs took it upon himself to attempt to place the SCCOG in what believe was its rightful place – at the helm of Los Angeles’s international Olympic bid. With no apparent response from Brundage, Combs wrote directly to the Southern California Committee’s adversary, the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee. Additionally, Combs copied each letter directly to Brundage at the elegant La Salle Hotel in the Chicago Loop. In a letter dated July 15, 1969, to John Kilroy, the president of the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee, Combs expressed the Southern California group’s mounting concerns over the 1976 Olympic Games, presenting to Kilroy a brief and somewhat self-righteous history of the SCCOG. The SCCOG, he declared, has “been working on the matter [the Olympics] since 1938 [officially, 1939] the year when William May Garland, Paul Helms, and Ralph Chick organized it.” Combs also let Kilroy know that the SCCOG maintained strong “international Olympic connections.” Combs then concluded on an arrogant note. Claiming he had recently lunched with Brundage at the IOC President’s request, he implied that he outranked Kilroy in Olympic matters as he had been involved with Olympic affairs “since 1926,” and he declared that the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee had “problems of which” Kilroy’s group was “not at all aware.[4]

On July 29, 1969, Combs responded to a letter from Kilroy that has not survived in the archives. From Combs’s pointed words, however, one can infer how Kilroy responded to the earlier letter from the leader of the Southern California group. Combs first chastised Kilroy for implying in his response that Combs was nothing more than a “concerned citizen” and not the “acting head of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games.” Kilroy also insisted in his response to Combs that his group, the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee, was working closely with the Southern California group. Combs vehemently argued otherwise, stating that members chosen to attend the LAOOC meetings were handpicked by the LAOOC, and that none of them were sitting members of the SCCOG’s executive board. Combs was not entirely misguided in his anger, but his assertion that no SCCOG members served on the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee executive board was incorrect. At least two members of the SCCOG executive committee, Vice President William H. Nicholas and Jesse T. Mill, also sat on the executive committee of the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee.[5] Finally, Combs informed Kilroy that the Southern California group was keeping Brundage abreast of the situation in an effort to “clear up” erroneous impressions. Exactly which erroneous impressions Combs believed Brundage to be receiving were not addressed.[6]

Immediately after dispatching his letter to Kilroy, Combs prepared a missive to Brundage. The purpose of the letter was two-fold: (1) to argue to Brundage that the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee formed by Mayor Yorty was not legitimate according to the provisions of the Olympic Charter and (2) to explain that cooperation between the two groups was “wholly unsatisfactory.” Combs contended that Olympic Charter protocol placed the onus of building an organizing committee “on the shoulders of the National Committee [the USOC] of the city to which the games were awarded.”[7] Combs further argued that any rights or privileges conferred on the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee by Mayor Yorty did “not extend to the creation of an organizing committee to conduct the Games, if awarded to Los Angeles.” Combs was correct with his assessment—but also misguided. The National Olympic Committee (the USOC, in this case) does maintain the power to build the bidding and organizing committees that oversee the international bid and, if won, to host the Olympic Games. However, in many cases, the USOC simply vests the responsibility and power in an already-established local organization, which is exactly what happened in the case of the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee in preparation for the 1976 bid. Combs, it seems, was simply upset that the USOC provided the newly created Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee with the power and responsibility the historical SCCOG coveted. Combs was not only railing against the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee assuming charge of the bidding process; he was also informing Brundage that the squabbling would endure if Los Angeles were indeed awarded the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Combs then smugly submitted a copy of the letter to Kilroy.[8]

Unsatisfied with his effort thus far, the very next day Combs wrote yet another letter to Brundage. He charged that the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee was comprised of nothing but “opportunists and politicians.” Because of this, Combs reasoned, the Los Angeles group “ought not [to] be permitted” to deal with Olympic matters. He conceded that the Los Angeles group would be infuriated with his claim, but concluded that he could not “sit quietly by” and watch his city’s Olympic dream fail due to its present course.[9]

Combs received a reply from the Los Angeles group on August 4, 1969. In what was surely intended as an insult to Combs, the letter was not sent by a sitting member of the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee’s executive board, but by an adviser, Paul Zimmerman. Zimmerman opened the letter to Combs by informing him that Kilroy was currently in Europe dealing with “pressing Olympic matters,” lest Combs become further “hurt” by not receiving immediate responses. Zimmerman related that he was “startled” that Combs “would put self before the success of Los Angeles’s bid by writing” as he had to Brundage. In response to Combs’s opposition to those Southern California group members picked to serve on the mayor’s committee (SCCOG Vice President William Nicholas and Jesse T. Hill), Zimmerman professed his personal opinion that Combs was simply upset that he had not been appointed to it. Zimmerman copied his letter to both Kilroy and Brundage.[10]

It took Combs only two days to respond to Zimmerman’s charges. Combs informed Zimmerman that his personal attack was “not too surprising,” coming from “an employee of a corporation like the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee.” Further, he charged that Zimmerman’s claim of hurt feelings over non-appointment to the Los Angeles Committee was “ridiculous.” In an indirect insult, Combs wrote: “Without any compensation, I chairmanned [sic] an important national Olympic Committee when you [Zimmerman] were a young newspaper reporter for a local newspaper.”[11] Combs continued, “The time I have spent on Olympism and amateur sport has been without pay—a contribution of thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars cash over the last four and a half decades. Our two situations are not at all comparable.” Combs then lectured Zimmerman and the Los Angeles group in general for desiring to use the “Garland Image” as an asset in seeking the 1976 Games without inviting Garland’s son,[12] a well-respected member of the Southern California group’s executive board, to sit on the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee. As he typically did, Combs ended the letter by assuring Zimmerman that Brundage would be receiving a copy of all correspondence between the two groups.[13]

Indeed, Combs lost little time in apprising Brundage on the developments, writing to him the same day. The IOC President appeared to be distancing himself from the situation, as he had not replied to either group, but Combs apparently failed to realize this. In a letter to Brundage dated August 6, 1969, Combs escalated his complaints, charging that Mel Pierson, “who spearheaded the Mayor’s Committee about two years ago, [was] presently under indictment for bribery.”[14] Combs concluded, “Without changes, I don’t think the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee has enough solid Olympic background to qualify it to run the Olympic Games.”[15] Brundage, once again, did not respond. On August 19, 1969, Kilroy responded to Combs—copying Brundage—with a short and to-the-point letter. In it, Kilroy simply stated, “the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee, as presently constituted, is duely [sic] authorized to represent the City of Los Angeles and the United States Olympic Committee in its quest for the 1976 Summer Games.”[16]

Ultimately, the 1976 Olympic Summer Games went to Montreal. Shortly after the vote, another flurry of letter writing took place. On June 15, 1970, Kilroy remonstrated to Brundage that the International Olympic Committee and its leaders was failing “to impose upon themselves the same disciplines [sic] that they insist be imposed upon all other participants.” How, he asked Brundage, could the “traditional and oft stated objective of the Olympic ideal be extended to and understood by youth if it is not understood and practiced by the Committee?” Kilroy ended by insisting that the letter was written without acrimony.[17]Without directly saying so, Kilroy implied that the IOC violated its own cardinal rule of no politics in the Olympic Movement. Rather than taking the moral high road and accepting the best bid despite the Cold War overtones, the IOC—to avoid the inevitable political noise if either Los Angeles or Moscow was picked—awarded the 1976 Olympic Games to Montreal, despite what Kilroy perceived to be a vastly inadequate bid.

In a June 4, 1970 letter to Al Stump of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Brundage claimed that the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee’s reaction to the defeat was “disgraceful” and “as usual Avery Brundage” was blamed for the city’s loss.[18] A month later Brundage further vented his feelings to William Nicholas, the general manager of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission. Brundage noted that the “moans, groans, howls, and wails emanating from the Los Angeles group” were beginning to come to an end.[19] But, more importantly, he “resented” the Los Angeles group blaming the loss on him. He was convinced that the failure of the Los Angeles bid was a result of the Americans having few friends when it came to “voting on matters” such as the Olympics, “despite the billions of aid that [America] has scattered through the world.” Brundage felt that the loss had much to do with the “newspapers of the world” being filled with the “Kent College affair and other anti-United States propaganda.” Lastly, Brundage confided to Nicholas that he was wholly “skeptical” of the promised votes Los Angeles felt they were due to receive.[20]

Lee Combs, of the SCCOG, resumed his barrage of letters to Brundage on June 16, 1970. He conveyed to Brundage that he had “long hesitated” to write since Montreal won the bid because of the “catastrophe, so far as Los Angeles Olympism is concerned, that occurred.” In light of the struggle between the SCCOG and the mayor’s Los Angeles group and the eventual loss of the city’s bid, Combs admitted to Brundage that he “seriously considered whether or not [he] should attempt to hold together an organization [SCCOG] which [had] been deeply torn apart.”[21] Ultimately, Combs committed himself to doing so, but explained to Brundage his belief that too much damage had been done to Los Angeles’s reputation because of the bickering between the two local groups. Combs told Brundage he felt it would be several decades before Los Angeles would recover and that he (Combs) would be “gone” before the Olympics ever returned to his beloved city. Combs summarized the situation by saying the fighting, the bickering, and the Cold War overtones were a “shattering experience upon Los Angeles, its people,” and its Olympic dreams.[22]

Combs, of course, could not be more wrong. Not only would Los Angeles win the bid for the 1984 Olympics, but also the host committee – led by Peter Ueberroth – constructed the hosting model that virtually all modern Olympic Games follow. And, now, we face the likelihood of Los Angeles hosting the Olympic for the third time in its history in 2024. The chances of it happening are quite good. In the coming part two of this post, we will explore exactly why Los Angeles is in a very good position to again successfully host the Olympic Games.

Brad J. Congelio is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Sport Leadership and Management Master’s program at Keystone College.  He can be reached at bradley.congelio@keystone.edu or on Twitter @BCongelio.  You can also visit his homepage at bradcongelio.com
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[1]The signing of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 officially marked the creation of the United States Olympic Committee. However, for the sake of clarity and consistency, the name United States Olympic Committee (hereafter USOC) will be used rather than American Olympic Committee (AOC).
[2]Helms registered the identifying marks of the Olympic Movement in every state except Washington. After doing so, he began to sell his bread as the “Official Olympic Bread,” complete with the Olympic rings symbol. Helms was defeated after a long legal battle that saw Brundage and the USOC wrest away control of the Olympic Movement’s identifying marks in the United States. For the complete history of the “Great Bread War,” please see Jeremy White, “The Los Angeles Way of Doing Things: The Olympic Village and the Practice of Boosterism in 1932,” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies XI (2002): 79-116.
[3]Lee Combs to Avery Brundage, March 21, 1969, Avery Brundage Collection, Box 194, Reel 112, International Centre for Olympic Studies (hereafter ICOS), London, Ontario, Canada.
[4]Combs to John Kilroy, July 15, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[5]In an official Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee correspondence from Paul Zimmerman to Lee Combs, Zimmerman could “hardly agree” that members of the SCCOG were being ignored and reminded Combs that both Nicholas and Mill were sitting members of the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee. For more, see Zimmerman to Combs, August 4, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[6]Combs to Kilroy, July 29, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[7]In an official Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee correspondence from Paul Zimmerman to Lee Combs, Zimmerman could “hardly agree” that members of the SCCOG were being ignored and reminded Combs that both Nicholas and Mill were sitting members of the Los Angeles 1976 Olympic Committee. For more, see Zimmerman to Combs, August 4, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[8]Combs to Kilroy, July 29, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[9]Combs to Brundage, July 29, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS. Brackets mine.
[10]Ibid.
[11]Combs to Brundage, July 30, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[12]Paul Zimmerman to Combs, August 4, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[13]A well-known sports journalist, Zimmerman covered college football for the Los Angeles Times from 1931 to 1968. He went on to cover three Olympic Games for the New York Post.
[14]In this case, Combs is referencing John Garland’s son, who continued his father’s Olympic tradition.
[15]Combs to Zimmerman, August 6, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[16]A grand jury indicted Pierson, the Recreation and Parks Commissioner, in September 1968 on charges of bribery and conspiracy in the rezoning of land in the San Fernando Valley.
[17]Combs to Brundage, August 6, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[18]Kilroy to Combs, August 19, 1969, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[19]Kilroy to Brundage, June 15, 1970, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[20]Brundage to Al Stump, June 4, 1970, ABC , Box 23, Reel 39, ICOS.
[21]Brundage to William Nicholas, July 3, 1970, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[22]Brundage was likely referring to the Kent State College shooting on May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired upon unarmed students protesting the Cambodian campaign, killing four students and wounding nine others.
[23]Ibid.
[24]Combs to Brundage, June 16, 1970, ABC, Box 194, Reel 112, ICOS.
[25]Ibid. Brackets mine.
[26]Ibid.

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