Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Lessons from LA’s 1984 Summer Olympics

Opening ceremony at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

The 1984 Olympics Games proved Los Angeles could do spectacle—on a shoestring budget. Can the city do it again in 2028?

The headline in the Los Angeles Times on October 18, 1980 read “L.A. Will Push For A Spartan Olympics,” stressing that the city’s bid would not include a new Olympic Village, but instead repurpose university dorms and facilities.

“We are invoking the spirit of Sparta,” said once and future Governor Jerry Brown. “There will be zero government money spent. Zero.” “That’s the guy we need,” said movie producer David Wolper of Peter Ueberroth, when he was a candidate for the presidency of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) in 1978. “If anyone can run a Spartan Olympics, the cheap sonofabitch can!”

Spartan was the perfect word for what a non-Olympian might call economical, low-cost, or indeed, cheap. Denver backed out of the 1976 Games, which were picked up by Montreal, and cost 13 times the original estimate, leaving the city with $1.6 billion in debt. The Olympics had to be rebranded as an event that would not tax its host city or saddle it with overscaled stadiums. For the Olympics to have a future, LA had to stay frugal.