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How Los Angeles Landed Its First Olympics

Josh Stephens on
Feb 23, 2020

A few years ago, the city of Los Angeles, led by Mayor Eric Garcetti and entertainment mogul Casey Wasserman, threw its hat into the ring for the Summer Olympic Games with all the nonchalance of Kobe Bryant draining a three. You can do that when you don’t have to build a single new venue and when you’re the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world. 

It wasn’t always that way. In Dreamers and Schemers, journalist Barry Siegel recounts a very different bid, put forth by a very different version of Los Angeles.

Dreamers and Schemers

Today, Los Angeles is a grande dame of the Olympic movement, soon to host its third Olympic Games, in the company of London and (soon) Paris. Its original bid, which began in 1920 for the 1924 games, more closely resembled that of Beijing in 2008 or even Qatar’s World Cup bid for 2022. At the time, Los Angeles was a remote backwater that had more ambition than credibility and more money than prestige. 

It did, however, have growth. When Bill Garland arrived in Los Angeles in 1890, its population was scarcely 50,000. By the time he became the head of Los Angeles’s nascent Olympic organizing committee in 1918, it had grown to over a half-million. It grew largely because of unabashed promotion: Los Angeles’s civic leaders attracted new residents from across the country not on the promise of jobs but rather on that of quality of life—sunshine, fresh oranges, open spaces, and all the rest. Garland’s pitch to the International Olympic Committee, a stodgy Switzerland-based organization steeped in the traditions of the Old World, was similarly exuberant.

Garland’s name is almost unheard-of in Los Angeles lore, far more anonymous than that of the Chandlers (of Los Angeles Times fame), Henry Huntington (the trolley magnate), or celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford — but he was an associate of all of them. Garland first made his fortune in that quintessential Los Angeles enterprise: real estate. Focusing mainly on downtown, Garland bought low, sold high. He promoted cars, airplanes, and Hollywood — all of which became staples of the local economy. He backed the Biltmore Hotel, the city’s grandest. He became a pillar of the community, leading organizations like the California Prosperity League and the Los Angeles Athletic Club and creating others like the Los Angeles Realty Board. 

A consummate salesperson, he naturally wanted to both capitalize on Los Angeles’s growth and stoke it further. He saw a perfect opportunity in the Olympics. 

Siegel describes how the omnivorously gregarious Garland befriended Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, and, over the course of several years, shuttled between California and the Continent to sell the IOC on Los Angeles. Despite his modest Midwestern background, Garland ingratiated himself to many of his European counterparts, in part by his sheer enthusiasm for his city. He ironically assured some of the star-struck IOC members that Los Angeles was “near Hollywood."

The centerpiece of his pitch was the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Voters in 1920 rejected a $1 million bond measure, despite disingenuous promises that approval would automatically earn Los Angeles the Games. City leaders scrambled to concoct a public-private partnership whereby the boosterish Community Development Association (née California Fiestas Association) would lease land in Exposition Park and build the stadium itself with a 10-year financing deal. (It all went more smoothly than did the contentious battle over the proposed Dodger Stadium in the 1950s.)

Garland also invented the concept of the Olympic Village for lodging athletes, built of temporary cabins in Baldwin Hills. He saw it not only as a way to encourage fellowship among “the youth of the world” but also to defray costs for countries for which California might as well have been the moon. Notably, the Los Angeles Games were the first that invited significant numbers of women athletes, many of whom — like runner Babe Didrikson and swimmers like Helene Madison — turned out to be the celebrities of the Games. 

Los Angeles, as well as several other U.S. cities, lost out to Paris for the 1924 games and Amsterdam for the 1928 games. Both losses stung Garland, who had made multiple transcontinental and transatlantic trips to attend IOC meetings. But, in 1923, he accepted the 1932 Games. He hoped that Amsterdam would falter, but it prevailed and forced Los Angeles to be patient. What did not prevail: the global economy. 

The Depression mightily challenged Los Angeles’s Olympic aspiration. Though Siegel doesn’t say it directly, it’s clear that any booster even slightly less dogged than Garland might have failed. Instead, he went about making deals. He convinced steamship companies to lower their fares for overseas athletes. When ticket sales appeared to be lagging even into early 1932, he brought out the big guns of Pickford, Fairbanks, and other Hollywood celebrities to record promotional films. 

To make a long story short, the Games were a huge success, with record attendance, inspiring athletic feats, and a reported financial surplus — not to mention the prestige and economic benefits that Garland had hoped for. 

While Siegel's account is well researched and well told, its ambitions are also more modest than those of its subject. The Los Angeles of the 1920s and 1930s was a fascinating place. The growth that Garland stoked and lauded was, arguably, unlike anything the world had seen before. Siegel touches on this context, but he gives it less attention than it might have deserved. He alludes to everyday life in 1920s Los Angeles and describes a bit of its economy and built form, not intimately so. He also offers little insight into the passions of everyday Angelenos. Because Olympic movement was very much fueled by self-appointed elites (not unlike many of today’s major initiatives), it’s hard to tell how much of Garland’s enthusiasm was shared by the people who lived in houses he sold and sat in bleachers he got built. 

Dreamers and Schemes is also unsatisfying for its abrupt ending. Siegel reports that the Olympic Village, which Garland considered “the brilliant jewel of the Xth Olympiad," was torn down. But he does not discuss the fascinating legacies of other venues, including the recently renovated Coliseum, which will, yet again, be a centerpiece of the Olympics. In fact, he ignores some venues entirely, such as the former Grand Olympic Auditorium. In so doing, he makes it hard to discern the material legacy of the Games. 

That should have been the easy part. 

The harder part would have been to analyze the emotional, civic, and economic legacy of the Games. Harder, yes, but arguably more important, especially since Siegel’s own subtitle claims that the Games “transformed” Los Angeles. Siegel presumably did not want to speculate too much. But, especially as the city invests billions of dollars into the upcoming Games, there’s still room to discuss whether the expense was — and will be — worthwhile. In a few cursory paragraphs, Siegel reports that the Games generated $60 million ($1.1 billion in 2018 dollars) in economic activity, and it gave Los Angeles name recognition and, perhaps more importantly, created a virtuous cycle for the city’s already formidable promotional machine. 

“Billy Garland would never again have to pull out a map to show a diplomat the city’s location,” Siegel writes. “Even in a city that invented itself chiefly through self-promotion, the Games study out as an unsurpassed example of civic boosterism — a colossal feat of public relations.” 

Siegel cites exciting economic and architectural developments in the wake of the Games: Farmers Market, Union Station, the first freeways, and the arrival of major league teams. The shipbuilding industry boomed, and the city reached a population of 2 million by 1950. Of course, there’s no telling whether all of this would have happened anyway. In the absence of the Games, surely Garland and his colleagues would have found plenty of other ways to sell Los Angeles to the world. 

Oddly, Siegel makes no mention of the impending 2028 Olympics, an event that, though not unproblematic and probably unnecessary, nonetheless holds great promise. Despite the auspicious timing of his book, he evidently wanted his account to be a rigorous history and not a commentary on today’s Los Angeles. Regardless, Siegel provides a useful benchmark for evaluating the preparations for the upcoming games and, perhaps more importantly, for considering Los Angeles’s place in the world. The city is no London or Paris. It’s no Athens, and Eric Garcetti is no Pericles. But, in many ways, it’s a mature, confident city, with essentially no more developable land and very little need to sell itself.

Billy Garland would likely be impressed — and proud. 

Dreamers and Schemers: How an Improbable Bid for the 1932 Olympics Turned Los Angeles from Dusty Outpost to Global Metropolis
Barry Siegel
University of California Press
October 2019
272 Pages
$29.95 Hardcover

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