Oxy and the Olympics

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Author: Chloe Jenkins-Sleczkowski

The recent selection of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics has spurred discussion about memories of Olympics past. In the next few months, we’ll be hearing all of the old remembrances of past winners and losers. Old stories will be dug up and vendettas will be reignited. Meanwhile, here at Oxy, a myth the size of Mt. Olympus itself hangs over the campus.

You’ve heard the rumors. “Back in ’84, the Russian Olympic team was living in Stearns!” people insist. “The gold medalist practiced on Oxy’s track!” others say. “The cross-country team ran around Fiji on their morning runs!” Each year Oxy’s campus is peppered with alleged facts about what really happened at Occidental College during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

Every semester the stories grow bigger and bigger.

But now, 25 years and thousands of students later, first-person accounts of the 1984 Olympics are long gone and the facts are fading away. The 1984 incoming class has grown up and left. Six new presidents have passed through the office since then. Few of the ’84 faculty remain or remember that summer of the Olympics (believe me, I’ve checked). Since then, the stories handed down from class to class have become more and more warped and defunct. No one really knows what went down in those few months of glory in 1984 . . . so I went on a hunt to track down the remnants of one of Oxy’s legendary claims to fame.

It was a year of controversies, changes and scares at little Occidental College in the hills of Eagle Rock. It was the year an unidentified corpse was found on Mount Fiji and a woman was raped at knifepoint in a Pauley bathroom – a year when every week boasted a different radical feminist speaker and the campus became a battleground of intense debate. Authors Elie Wiesel and Alex Haley visited the campus and gave talks to enthralled students in Thorne Hall. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was suspended for having strippers at a party. Angry students debated the “New Alcohol Policy” on campus (ResLife used to regularly allocate money for booze at residence events).

But perhaps the most-hyped highlight of the year was the arrival of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The Olympics had been here once before in 1932 and the city had long been fighting to bring it back to Southern California. With the activities of 1984 quickly approaching, the whole city buzzed excitedly with preparations for the return of the Torch.

At the previous Olympiad in 1980, the U.S. led a boycott of the event because of its controversial location – Moscow, Russia. It was part of the Soviet Union, after all. There was a record low participation of countries that year. So for the next round of games, the Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee (LAOOC) made a special effort to put on an Olympics with flair. And indeed, the 1984 Olympics left their mark in Olympic history: Carl Lewis, an American athlete, set records with his four gold medals in the track competitions. Nawal El Moutawakel became the first woman from an Islamic nation to win an Olympic medal, and the first gold medalist for Morocco.

Pre-Olympics celebrations flooded the months leading up to the long-awaited summer. The 1983 Sixth Annual Los Angeles Street Scene Festival became a tribute to the Olympics. In the past, the festival had a tradition of gathering together fine art, ethnic arts and crafts, food and entertainment in Southern California. This year, however, the festival joined in on the Olympic frenzy. The organizers added an Olympic stage and an area for judo, gymnastics, archery and fencing demonstrations by former Olympians.

The Olympic fever was growing. And in the ten-week period leading up to and including the Olympics, the LAOOC hosted the Olympic Arts Festival. Boasting over 1,500 of the world’s finest artists, the Olympic Arts Festival was meant to be a festival of Olympian proportions. “[The festival] will be one of the most comprehensive celebrations of the arts in Olympic history and the biggest ever in the United States,” the LAOOC reported at a planning meeting. It involved a variety of art companies, including 30 theater, 26 dance and 21 music groups, as well as 22 exhibitions.

However, the absence of several countries from the 1984 Olympiad became another cause for this year’s fame. In retaliation for the U.S. boycott of Moscow, the Soviet Union and its allied countries decided to boycott Los Angeles.

“The ’84 Olympics were famous for a couple reasons, one of them was the boycott by the Soviet Union and a number of other aligned states,” said Olympics attendee and Occidental Professor Woody Studenmund of the Economics Department. “At first we thought that was going to be catastrophic for the Olympics, but it turned out that it wasn’t.” Take note: The Soviets did not come. So much for the rumor that they lived in Stearns.

The story is not unimaginable: Everyone in the city was anticipating the influx of activity that was sure to come with the arrival of 140 countries’ representative athletes. Hotels around the city were booked, making Olympics officials turn to local colleges for housing aid. Several years earlier, when the LAOOC had started planning the ’84 Olympics, Occidental was selected to be one of several colleges in the area to supply housing for Olympians and Olympics-related personnel.

Partly responsible for this was John Argue ’53, the man who brought the Olympics to Los Angeles. A longtime Olympics aficionado, Argue had been fighting to win the Olympic bid for Los Angeles for much of his adult life. When he finally succeeded with the 1984 Olympics, he played a large role in the organization of events and supplies. Part of the reason for Argue’s Olympic passion was his father’s participation many years before. John’s father J. Clifford “Iron Man” Argue ’24 (the source for the name of the Iron Man Room) had competed in the pentathlon in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Hoping to continue the family legacy of involvement with the Olympics, Argue became a major factor in the success of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and subsequently including Oxy in the logistical plans.

However, this called for a few changes on campus. In the years leading up to the 1984 Olympics, Occidental had been working on a series of campus-wide redevelopment projects to upgrade the college. The old buildings erected earlier in the century were beginning to wear down and needed refurbishing. After the recent remodeling of Johnson Hall in 1982, the administration had been rushing to complete a new residence hall. Some speculated that this hall was built expressly for the upcoming Olympics, but the construction organizers cited the need to house the growing student body.”The completion of Stearns Hall will take the pressure off the current housing situation,” reported The Occidental Weekly in September 1982. The enrollment surges in addition to residence space crunches from previous years had caused many students to turn to off-campus options. (Hey, that sounds familiar).

“It went up fast. It may have been the first building on campus completed within its deadline,” The Weekly reported of Stearns Hall after the building’s completion in September 1983. Perhaps the looming arrival of Olympics representatives spurred the construction’s punctuality, but the administration claimed otherwise.

In addition to the Johnson Hall and Stearns developments, there was another campus undertaking: a projected million-dollar construction plan to upgrade the out-of-date and embarrassing athletic facilities. The final cost came to over two million dollars. According to The Oxy Weekly, students had recently been complaining that their high schools’ gyms were of better quality than Oxy’s.

The reconstruction plan included a three-pronged approach to revamping the old facilities into dignified ones: new bleachers on each side of Patterson Field (apparently the second side got the short end of the deal), new athletic quarters immediately north of Rush Gymnasium (they opened in Oct. 1984) a
nd finally, a new world-class eight-lane polyurethane track around the field.

The addition of the track became much more than simply an athletics upgrade. “The third renovation, an eight-lane all-weather track, will be funded through the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and will be completed in time to serve as a training site for athletes participating in the 1984 Summer Olympics,” read an article in a 1982 issue of The Weekly. Indeed, Oxy received one of eight new Olympic tracks that were built especially for the 1984 Olympics.

“The LAOOC was instrumental in securing the assistance of the ARCO Corporation which, along with College Funds, made possible the installation of a new all-weather synthetic track at the College,” the Oxy administration told the campus in 1984. “That track is reserved for the exclusive use of Olympic athletes if needed as an extra practice facility.”

So, in September 1983, a year after the construction started, the new Bill Henry Track was officially dedicated by then-President Richard Gilman. It was named for the late Bill Henry ’14, a former sports editor of the Los Angeles Times and popular announcer for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. (See, Oxy has Olympic ties left and right).”The biggest on-campus impact [of the Olympics] was the new track,” said Studenmund. “This track is a clone of the track that was used in the Olympics in the [Los Angeles Memorial] Coliseum. Oxy chose to add in some extra money to bring the quality of the track up to precisely the same quality as there, and so it means we just have a phenomenal facility, and it’s all because of the Olympics.” Oxy Athletics has maintained the Olympic quality of the track over the years. It remains a constant souvenir of the event’s moment in the college’s past.

The Olympic excitement was in full swing for Homecoming ’83. “An Olympic torch-lighting will replace the traditional parade of old cars filled with unknown alumni at this year’s homecoming ceremonies,” reported The Weekly on November 11, 1983. The homecoming theme of “Let the Games Begin” was designed in honor of the highly-anticipated Olympic extravaganza soon to come. “A series of interclass competitions, including a contest to see which class can cram the largest number of students into a Bengal Bus, promises to highlight three days of Homecoming events,” reported The Weekly. The classes earned points throughout these competitions, and the winning class received a trophy at the end.

But Oxy still had more preparations to finish before the Games, even after the installation of the new track in 1983. “The LAOOC has contracted with Occidental to provide residential space for up to 1,000 guests in campus dormitories,” said the administration in 1984. They reserved nine residence halls (Braun, Chilcott, Erdman, Haines, Newcomb, Norris, Orr [now Weingart], Pauley and Stewart-Cleland) to house the expected international guests. Oxy provided 1,007 beds for the LAOOC to use in its campus housing program.

In December 1983, The Weekly ran an article calling for students to apply for summer positions as proctors on campus. “The college will be staffing the proctor’s desks in nine dormitories for about six weeks,” The Weekly reported, adding, “The majority of the guests are expected to be foreign press representatives.” So for the rate of $3.35 per hour, 90 students and sons and daughters of faculty and staff provided services to the guests in the residence halls.

“Oxy was used as a ‘hotel’ for a wide variety of people, including a delegation,” said Nancy Grubb, an Occidental faculty member who organized and supervised the campus housing.

Then in March 1984, the LAOOC notified President Gilman that a select group of Occidental student singers had been chosen to represent the college at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the XXIII Olympiad. The dozen or so students would be part of 1,000 voices in The Olympic Honor Chorus – a high honor indeed. Oxy’s Olympic involvement was growing with each month.

And so, the ’83-’84 school year ended and the summer of the Olympics began. Oxy’s preparations, started two years in advance, finally reached their culmination. People from every corner of the world (except the Soviet Union and friends) poured into stadiums and fields around the city. At the busiest point in the summer, Oxy’s campus housed 600 people. The guests at the college were primarily foreign journalists, translators and a few coaches – not the gold medalists that rumors have led people to believe. “The six-week period went smoothly and preparations that had been made for everything from defections to terrorism proved unnecessary,” reported The Weekly the following September.

“Despite last year’s rumors to the contrary, there were no athletes staying at the college or practicing on the new track field,” The Weekly reported. The funded track was simply an “on call” resource for the Olympians. They never actually used it. “The ironic thing was that, and I’m not sure why, perhaps because of concerns about pollution or traffic, very few people actually trained here,” said Studenmund. “I heard rumors that one person trained here, but she had to sneak through [security], because she didn’t have the proper pass.” However, her identity remains anonymous and her presence unconfirmed.

As reported in The Weekly, the student proctor in Norris Dan Woodruff ’84 recalled “Kenyan athletes staying on campus one night because UCLA was not yet able to house them.” According to Woodruff, one of the memorable moments of the summer was “Yugoslavian journalists getting drunk and doing wierd [sic] things.” Oxy saw a little bit of action.

After it was all over, Oxy received rave reviews from the summer guests. The LAOOC sent a letter expressly commending the service organization and the students on campus. Out of the five institutions that had provided the same services, Oxy was by far the best, the letter said.

1984. The legendary, exciting, action-ridden year of 1984. The year the Olympics came to our very own city and even touched little Occidental College. The year Oxy found a tiny claim to fame – not for Angela Davis’ speech at Thorne, or even for The Bangles’ live concert outside of Coons. Now you can tell all your friends that back in the day, a random international journalist probably stayed in your dorm. Maybe a translator. Maybe they even partied together in your room. And Oxy got a new all-weather track out of it.

Maybe some myths aren’t meant to be debunked.

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