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Lessons from LA’s 1984 Summer Olympics

The 1984 Olympic 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 Gov. 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. Montreal played host to the Summer Olympic Games in 1976, which cost the city 13 times the original estimate, leaving it $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.

As most people now know, Ueberroth succeeded, thanks in part to The Look: Hot colors, brilliant blooms, exploded stripes, and bright stars spread across the sprawling city, making neighbors of geographically distant locations.

How did LA84’s designers create one of the most photogenic, most quoted, and most back-in-style Olympics of all time, with a brown-paper-bag budget of $12 million and a “village” of 75 sites spread over roughly 4,500 square miles? And if LA made spartan spectacular once, can the city do it again?

Like the toughest competitors in the ancient games, Los Angeles needed to stay focused on the win. On time, spectacular, with Ueberroth confidently predicting a 10 percent budget surplus (on a budget of $500 million) to Sports Illustrated in 1982. Which left only two years until the opening ceremony on July 28, 1984, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which had been built for the 1932 games.

Aided by a $225 million television deal with ABC, setting the standard for modern broadcasts, and phalanxes of sponsors, LA84 generated a $232.5 million profit, with $93 million earmarked for the LA84 Foundation, to support youth sports, coaching and, more recently, play equity.

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

“We had Sochi [2014 winter games, costing] $50 billion. Tokyo is talking about $30 billion. If you can get LA to reset the bar at $5 billion, then you’re changing the argument again,” AECOM executive vice president and global sports leader Bill Hanway told the Financial Times in 2016, which added, “a low-budget event could persuade other cities once again to consider hosting the games.”

Other cities have tried reuse-and-recycle strategies, though on a limited basis and with varying outcomes. In London, the doughnut-shaped Olympic Stadium designed by Populous was built for 25,000 permanent spectators, with an outer ring of seating for 55,000 more supported by visible steel girders. The original plan was for the extra seating to be taken down and re-used, though, in the end, the stadium was instead remodeled to hold 60,000. In Rio, the transformational narrative was the same, with media featuring “nomadic architecture” that, in the end, went nowhere. No one wants more Olympic ruin porn; LA needs to rent, not buy.

Los Angeles was the second choice of the U.S. Olympic Committee after Boston bowed out in the summer of 2015. Denver is once again debating a bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics, after pulling out of a bid to host the winter Games in 1976. In all three cities, opposition has organized under the NOlympics banner, with @NOlympicsLA focusing on the city’s current transportation and housing issues as more worthy of investment than a future tourist event. Criticism, like planning, now has a far longer lead time.

The LA 2028 website describes the “Vision” as “Host a new games for a new era that benefit our communities and connect the Olympic and Paralympic movements to the future.” No permanent structures, four “Sports Parks” spread from the Valley to Long Beach, and one Olympic Village, filling every dorm room at UCLA. Click to the next screen: “LA 2028 is about what we have, not what we’re going to build.”

The Look of LA84 was masterminded by architects Jon Jerde and David Meckel, in collaboration with environmental designers Deborah Sussman and Paul Prejza, aided by a cast of dozens of Los Angeles designers, and abetted by Harry Usher, Ueberroth’s second-in-command. A warehouse space on Eighth Street in Downtown Los Angeles became design HQ, with teams assigned to apply The Look to different sites.

Olympic posters decorating a wall in Mexico City, 1968.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

To find a model for a “cheap” Olympics, LA84 organizers did not have to look very far south. The 1968 games in Mexico City had also relied pre-existing structures, located across a sprawling, largely horizontal metropolis. Architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez led the design team, while architect Eduardo Terrazas worked to deploy the scintillating logo designed by young American Lance Wyman across the city in various forms. Beatrice Trueblood orchestrated publications, from posters to tickets to stamps to flyers, which traveled around the world, branding Mexico City as a design capital.

“Urban graphics would allow people to orient themselves between these fragments of pre-existing sports infrastructure,” says Luis M. Castañeda, author of the 2014 book Spectacular Mexico. “Eventually that became Mexico ’68’s claim to fame. But as a matter of fact, the games had to be less expensive. It was the first developing country to host. The connecting thread was not going to be permanent hard architecture, so they needed a design campaign to help people organize themselves in the chaotic city.”

In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s recent exhibition, “Found in Translation,” curators Wendy Kaplan and Staci Steinberger paired the two cities’ Olympics visually, backing Julia Johnson-Marshall’s cape and hostess dress, featuring Wyman’s black-and-white logo, with a glade of bright starred-and-striped sonotubes designed by Sussman/Prejza & Co. for LA84.

One of the tubes—cardboard readymades typically used as molds for poured-concrete columns—has black-and-white stripes, making the whole ensemble look as if it were designed together. Sussman, when working for Charles and Ray Eames, had first traveled to Mexico in 1957 to work on their film The Day of the Dead, and admired the colors, the outdoor markets, and the many ephemeral items crafted for holidays; by 1984 she, and Los Angeles, had added other influences and hues from India, China, and Japan.

“When I saw the sonotubes in “Overdrive” [a 2013 Getty Center exhibition on Los Angeles urbanism] I thought, ‘What are these things for Mexico City doing here?’” says art historian Jennifer Josten, who wrote about both Olympics for the “Found in Translation” catalog.

Magenta—aka “Mexican pink” since 1949, thanks to the efforts of designer Ramón Valdiosera—also featured in both games’ color palettes, a style architect Jon Jerde initially nicknamed “Mariachi federal style,” emphasizing the back-and-forth with Mexico. Both Olympics studiously avoided national colors in favor of vernacular ones, and, Josten argues, emphasized the ephemeral. The dresses, the tickets, the banners, the maps, the pavements all radiated a sense of distributed fun.

Magenta insignia reading “Mexico 68” with the Olympic circles superimposed.
Bettmann Archive
Pink graphic banner with the Olympic rings at L.A. Memorial Coliseum during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Alamy Stock Photo

The most photogenic new building completed for ’68 was Felix Candela’s Sports Palace, with its parabolic curves and copper-covered roof, and it seems to serve as the model for any number of bubblicious subsequent Olympic structures, including Beijing’s Water Cube and the London Aquatics Centre, designed to be seen from the air and to maximize interior sightlines for TV. Castañeda writes that “this Olympic venue was envisioned not only as a monumental intervention in Mexico City’s urban fabric but also as a hub for the transmission of televised imagery.”

It’s also a great example of what architect and writer Sam Jacob has identified, in discussions of tech company headquarters, as “design by Google Maps.” (Candela, and the exposition structures of Frei Otto, were obviously in the back of the minds of BIG and Heatherwick Studio in their 2015 “workshop” for Google.)

Event architecture, like the Sports Palace, speaks to the home viewer, while in Mexico City, and later Los Angeles, graphics brought the experience to the streets. Lance Wyman’s logo, with its radiating lines, was made architectural and pedestrian by Terrazas, who specified that the pavements around the Olympic venues, old and new, be painted with similar lines or, at minimum, the pastels and pinks of the games’ official palette.

Paint was also used in an attempt to mask the poverty that existed in close proximity to many of the Olympic venues. Castañeda writes that residents of Rio Churubusco, on the way to the Sports Palace, were given buckets and brushes in the approved hues so that their houses might, on the surface alone, meet the image of the Mexican future.

To loop the city into the spectacle, Terrazas created a color-coded map, with sports sites lettered in Wyman’s stripy font and identified by his minimal pictograms. An orange route led south to Xochimilco for water sports, a Mexican pink inner ring followed the Circuito Interior; these colors remain part of the city’s maps today. Terrazas originally considered painting the actual roads these colors—a literal colored code of the streets, with Reforma in red—but quickly realized that would be impossible. Instead, the light posts along those streets were painted in the relevant color above the height of four feet, a precursor to Los Angeles boulevards’ colorful banners.

Height became an important organizing principle for the sights: They had to stand out at two speeds. Six-meter-high papier-mache sculptures of athletes, based on totemic Judas figures typically burned as part of Easter celebrations, marked the venues. Giant transparent balloons, with Wyman’s logo, floated above the venues. From the moment they arrived at the airport, visitors would be able to spot these alternative moons marking the games in the city. The last element in the drive-by parade were monumental, permanent sculptures installed along a 10-mile stretch of the city’s Periferico: “nonrepresentational designs built in reinforced concrete and painted in bright colors, meant to be viewed from speeding cars,” Josten writes.

Mexico ’68 oscillated, in its effects, between the modern and the folkloric, parabolas and papier-mache, pictograms and totems. But LA84 was designed in a different era, when modernism was no longer associated with the future but with the corporate past. The Los Angeles designers’ task was to integrate history with the contemporary, generating stylistic populism that nodded to the specifics of the city’s history, o’erleaped its sprawl, and emphasized the temporary, festival nature of the Games. No small ask.

These designers did not have a decade to get it together but rather, a scant two years. “It was like a fever seized me, and it never stopped,” Deborah Sussman told Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Reich in 1985. The idea that drove her, and the other members of the design team, was as lightweight as those balloons: “to cover the environment with an invasion of butterflies. To design it in the spirit of the circus.”

What that translated into, in the early 1980s, was villages. Rooftops, pennants, pediments, columns, and banners, in flaming shades of magenta, vermilion, chrome yellow, and aqua, as if King Arthur’s Court and Ringling Brothers joined forces and spent too much time in the sun. California was the theme, not America. For, as Jerde said, “Southern California had an extraordinary and unique environment of its own, one that the majority of visitors would never have seen anything like.” Nationalism was out; being a good host was in.

One of the index cards that Jon Jerde created to illustrate designs for key spots at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Jerde Partnership

By the time Sussman/Prejza were hired to work with the Jerde office on the Olympic village set on UCLA’s campus, Jerde had already had time to think about the best approach. His team brainstormed ideas on 3-by-5 index cards, coming up with a series of prototype arrangements strikingly similar to what was built.

One such card, labeled “Invasion of Butterflies,” depicts posters and stickers deployed as “urban confetti”: sniped up a street sign, in a grid on a wall, along a highway underpass. “Customizing Rented Parks” shows how pre-existing party infrastructure could be made Olympic, with bare metal painted yellow, an extra support added, and the pitch of the roof adjusted from ordinary to wizard hat.

The structures that resulted are wrappers and pointers: The wrapper makes anywhere in Los Angeles Olympics ready; the pointers herd the crowds to their destinations. Even the lowly school bus, once striped in stars, becomes Olympic transport, a pumpkin transformed into Cinderella’s coach (if Cinderella is a track star).

Once Sussman/Prejza came aboard, these ideas would be refined and repeated in signs, badges, pictograms, uniforms, merchandise, and event interiors with a more precise hierarchy of type, symbol, and color. The colors are what everyone remembers: magenta, as previously seen in Mexico City, plus vermilion, aqua and chrome yellow. Then, to a lesser degree and as accents, lighter info yellow, green, lavender, violet, blue and pink.

Sonotubes, called out on one card, would become the pillars of the enterprise, deployed to hold things up, frame views and events, and create avenues of appropriate pomp. Arriving at any Olympic destination, you would be greeted by an information tent with the tallest of white peaks. Someone was finally thinking about the city as a total design project, and a specifically urban, collective one.

Press headquarters for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Alamy Stock Photo

The stars and stripes loosened up under the sun: Giant stars stabbed the ground in front of Arts Festival sites, while rainbow balloons striped the rowing lanes at Lake Casitas, and scattered stars and confetti marked the acres of fabric-covered fencing that wrapped the venues. Just as ’60s fashion trumps ’80s fashion, so the uniforms were a bit of a letdown: eye-searing sport coats, two-tone tracksuits, sensible shoes.

“Modernism never taught us about communality,” Jerde said, foreshadowing his decades-long career as a maker of malls. “Now we’re interested in 20 buildings at a time, making neighborhoods, communities.” The ’84 Olympics added structure to the ad hoc, turning Exposition Park (which will be remade again by the Lucas Museum, and then LA 2028) into a more formal and hierarchical setting for the 1932 stadium, and bringing the campus at UCLA together around a visually dominant Main Street.

Scaffolding, leased from companies across the region, was covered in fabric to make distinctive peaked, Disney-esque rooflines, but also used as a fill-in grid, a la the Eames House, for colored nylon louvers, plywood stars and rings, and fiberglass spheres. Since then, scaffolding has become a symbol of Olympic thrift, a resource quickly absorbed back into a city’s event infrastructure—but only if you use off-the-shelf parts.

The men's 10-meter platform medal ceremony, where the graphics were prominently displayed and the medalists received local flowers.
ABC via Getty Images

On TV, it didn’t matter that the games were spread across 28 venues and three villages. As Joseph Giovannini wrote in a special issue of Design Quarterly devoted to LA84, “the screen focused the events so that there was a television urbanism that eliminated the distances in the city… The film, in fact, would make the decorations in some way permanent—the footage was itself a site.”

There were other, even more transitory ways these Olympics upended tradition and kept it California: “We came up with the idea that the winners would all get appropriate local, exotic flowers, including birds of paradise and other Southern California or California kind of florae,” Sussman told my colleague Alissa Walker in 2014. “This guy said, you must be crazy. Athletes get roses, and that’s what we want them to have. We? He.” They went ahead with their plan and, if you look at period photos, there are the athletes with exotic flowers, looking great. Sports Illustrated even called them out.

When Los Angeles hosted the Olympics in 1932, California itself was exotic. Visitors to the Olympics would have used a trip to Los Angeles as a jumping-off point to the West. The ads emphasized the weather, Spanish heritage, beach, sun, movie stars. By 1984, the meaning of Los Angeles had morphed. By 2028, bouquets of cactus are not out of the question.

“One of the biggest advantages we have are memories of ’84 and how there was little or no traffic at all during the games,” says Hanway. Hanway and AECOM worked on London 2014 and Rio 2016, advised the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for two years on 2020, and is currently the lead consultant for LA 2028. I talked to him recently to try to get a sense of lessons learned, and how much mariachi we might expect in the future. “The plan is essentially to add bus lines so that every single sports park and venue can be accessed by public transport,” he said. “That was one of the biggest questions from the commission that reviews the games. We took no extraordinary measures, but using buses, Metro, HOV lanes, we got everyone to the venues in the assigned times.”

The Spartan games of the past can be identified by their materials: Mexico ’68: paint, paper and sculpture. LA84: tubes, tents and the 10 recently restored freeway murals. For 2028, it seems clear that digital and technological design will define the aesthetic, colors becoming pixels (and reducing one’s chance of scoring a physical souvenir). But screens still need scaffolds, and the communal ideal remains central to Los Angeles’s vision of its future self.

“Using the existing venues throughout LA gave the people of LA the Olympics themselves,” says John Simones, design director at Jerde, whose first job at the firm was LA84. “Olympic venues were near their house, in their community, East LA, Long Beach, Anaheim, Malibu. Being able to put pageantry on the major streets and all the way to the LA airport, when came in by plane felt like you were part of the experience.”

The city’s new downtown parks, investments in public transportation, and transformations of boulevards all point to the same festive spirit—but not wanting to wait for the Olympics to make it happen. Grand Park, with graphics by Sussman/Prejza, even echoes The Look’s color palette.

“What we are looking at is how do you capture the spirit of LA, merging technological advancements and the spirit of Southern California?” Hanway says. “When you look at the Clippers or the Kings or the Lakers, you see how fans are actively engaged with the graphics, the laser lighting, the flames, to make every sport more exciting. We want to take the entrance of the Lakers into Staples and apply that to fencing.”

A general view of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum stadium during the first heat of the first round of the Women's 4x100 meter relay event of the athletics competition of the 1984 Olympics.
Getty Images

The screen sirens have been replaced, as stars, by leaping men. LA’s innovation is in packaging the action. “If you have been down in LA Live, right now there are different ads on the screens, but you could create a consolidated visual design around the city, with a consistent theme and color palette,” Hanway says. “It becomes a very coherent city visual content and also in terms of way-finding.”

Paper tickets will likely be replaced by an app, a bracelet—who knows?—that could hold your hotel and event reservations, along with public transportation prompts. With geolocation, spectators at a venue could receive push notifications about the next nearby event with open seats. At recent games, non-event tickets have allowed visitors into the gated clusters around the venues, where they can eat, drink, watch the screens, and even try out some of the more exotic sports. Without this option, many Angelenos will find themselves on the outside of attractive fences, unable to look in.

The material that seemed to excite Hanway the most was naturally occurring and ephemeral: sand. There is a history of nature infiltrating the hard-edge design of the games. 1932’s organizers planted 35,000 palms on the streets leading to and around Exposition Park; 1984 had birds of paradise, but also stripes, tiers, and beds of color-coordinated blooms, which distributed themselves around the city after the athletes headed home.

Typical beach volleyball venues have been made of scaffold wrapped in fabric, but what if, Hanway asks, 3D-printing technology had advanced so that the exterior envelope could be printed of Venice Beach’s sand? When the games were over, it would melt back into the beach, a truly temporary structure.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Denver pulled out of hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 1976. Denver pulled out of the Winter Olympics that year. They were then held in Innsbruck, Austria, not Montreal.

Casey Wasserman, who is chair of LA 2028’s organizing committee, is also a board member at Vox Media, Curbed’s parent company. Vox Media board members have no involvement in Curbed’s editorial planning or execution.