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Parting a Sea of Olympic Red Ink, Organizer Peter Ueberroth Says the '84 Games May Even Make Money

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When Los Angeles last hosted the Olympics, in 1932, the Games were a prize for which cities around the world fought tooth and nail. Since then they’ve become a financial albatross about as welcome in most cities as gridlock. In 1976 Montreal, the last North American city to host the Games, saddled itself with a $1 billion deficit. No wonder L.A. taxpayers, when they got wind of their city’s interest in next summer’s Games, voted not to allow one penny of public money to be spent on them.

For a while it looked as if L.A.’s bid, and possibly even the Olympic movement itself, was doomed. But then a group of high-powered businessmen—the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games—hit on a startling idea: running the Games with private money alone. The key to making it work, said SCCOG Chairman John Argue, “was to hire one good man.” The choice was Peter Ueberroth, a low-key self-made millionaire who was at first reluctant, then rose to the challenge of organizing the Games, which will begin July 28, 1984. Plunging into the project, Ueberroth, 46, raised $400 million for the Games, mostly from TV contracts and corporate sponsorships. The L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) is predicting a multimillion-dollar surplus, earmarked for amateur sports programs. Not only does Ueberroth expect L.A. to benefit from millions of tourist dollars, 68,000 jobs, and an event to stir civic pride in the most skeptical hearts, he believes he will be making a point. “After this,” he says, “any city in the world will be able to hold an Olympics.”

Not everyone is convinced. L.A. Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler charges that the Olympics will require some $69 million in federal services, including FBI and Secret Service protection. Ueberroth replies that the government will be reimbursed for all requested services. Meanwhile, he has taken flak from community groups aggrieved by his aggressive managerial style. Mayor Tom Bradley dismisses the criticism. “Anyone doing this job satisfactorily would have to rub some people the wrong way,” he says. “Peter was made to order for this job.”

Before taking the Olympics job, in April 1979, Ueberroth had built his own business, First Travel, into the second largest company of its kind in the U.S., smaller only than American Express. Still, when he was first approached, he refused even to be interviewed for the Olympics assignment. “I thought they needed a household name, like Pete Rozelle or Alexander Haig, to put the public’s mind at ease,” he explains. “People were scared of the Olympics.” But when the nominating committee persisted, and narrowed the field from hundreds of candidates to six, Ueberroth got interested, “I guess I’m a competitive person,” he says.

When the job was his, he sold his interest in First Travel to Carlson Companies for $10.1 million and spent a month studying the financial plans of past Olympics. He discovered, he says, that “they all could have broken even if they hadn’t done so much construction. Montreal spent $25 million for a new rowing course, even though a perfectly good course was available.” By contrast, Ueberroth decided, L.A. would build only facilities it had to (primarily a velodrome and an Olympic-standard swimming pool). Observing such economies, he plans to stage the Games for a modest $475 million.

The cornerstone of Ueberroth’s funding has been the $225 million that ABC will pay to televise the Games. NBC had bid only $85 million for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and even that had been considered exorbitant. But Ueberroth learned from ad agency contacts how much the network could earn from the 1,750 minutes of commercial time it plans to squeeze into its 187½ hours of coverage, and used that information to jack up the price. He was equally calculating in signing up corporate sponsors, another major source of funds for the Games. Previous Olympics had hundreds of sponsors. There were 381 for the 1980 Winter Games at Lake Placid, including an official mattress. “Everything was commercialized, and it was very distasteful,” says Ueberroth, who believed the sponsorships would be worth more if they were made more exclusive. All told, his 30 corporate angels have pledged more than $100 million to the Games. Coca-Cola anted up $15 million to become the official Olympic soft drink, with the right to put the Olympic logo on every can and bottle it produces between now and August 1984.

In another fund-raising ploy, Ueberroth is offering 2,000 VIP sports fans, who might normally buy their tickets through scalpers, entry-for-two to the Olympic event of their choice for a tax deductible price of $25,00

. The proceeds will be used to bring 100,000 people—inner-city children, handicapped and the aged—to the Games.

To help manage the Games, Ueberroth has recruited a large number of women and minorities, and will continue to practice such affirmative action as his staff increases from 500 to more than 45,000. Among other tasks, they will sell eight million tickets in 152 countries, arrange housing and transportation for some 25,000 visiting Olympians, journalists and officials, and prepare for a projected 225,000 tourists daily. With so much at stake, Ueberroth is doing what little he can to minimize the possibility of a boycott by a major competing nation. He has carefully disassociated himself from both the Carter Administration’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Reagan Administration’s granting of asylum to the Chinese tennis star Hu Na—a decision he says he “questioned” in a conciliatory telegram to sports officials of the People’s Republic. Such calculated political moves have made Ueberroth a target for criticism, as has public concern over the pollution, crowding and potential for violence that, to some, is what the Games represent. “I’m more sensitive to all that than I should be,” admits Ueberroth. “That part of the job surprised me. But what really bothers me is when kids at school tell my children, ‘Your father is ruining this city.’ ”

Though pained by the buffeting, Ueberroth believes in the significance of what he is doing. “This country hasn’t yet realized to what a great extent sports can be used to affect foreign policy,” he says. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool for bridging gaps between nations.” Often, when he travels, Ueberroth encounters foreign officials who assume he must be closely linked to the government. “They’ll say things like, ‘It would be helpful if we could get most-favored-nation status.’ When I tell them I have no say in that, I get a wink and an elbow in the ribs. They simply don’t believe me.”

The son of a building products salesman, Ueberroth was born in Chicago but moved to California at age 7. A four-letter man in high school, he went on to play water polo at San Jose State College and tried but failed to make the U.S. team that went to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. At 22, he married his college sweetheart, Ginny Nicolaus. The couple moved to Hawaii, where he worked three years for a small airline before beginning to put together First Travel. He, his wife and their four children now live in a San Fernando Valley ranch house with a pool and an orange grove. On weekends they drive a Buick (the official Olympics car, naturally) to their other house, in Laguna Beach, where Peter spearfishes and skin-dives.

Ueberroth rarely works weekends(“I think it makes you stale”), but may have to change his habits as the Olympics approach. By next July he will have moved into a heavily guarded command post in an old helicopter factory in Culver City, where he will monitor the Games via phone and closed-circuit-TV links to each of the 28 Olympic sites. Ironically, he doesn’t expect to be able to attend a single athletic event in person.

When the Games end Aug. 12, 1984, Ueberroth would like to move on to the chairmanship of a FORTUNE 500 company. “I want one that’s ailing that I can turn around,” he says. He has already turned down one job offer he describes as “impressive,” but not because he wouldn’t consider leaving the Olympics before next summer. “The operation doesn’t need me to succeed,” he maintains. “There may have been a time when it did, but that time is past. Even without me, this will be the best Olympics ever.”