My arrival at the ’84 Olympic Games preceded the opening ceremonies by about a week. In those final days, much of the work that needed doing at the USC swim venue was organizational—learning our jobs, helping put materials in place and so on.
That’s why, on my first day in press operations at the world’s premier sporting event, I was assembling shelves.
I didn’t mind, actually. Back home, I worked as a clerk in a hospital storeroom; I was used to the occasional “special project” during slow times. And while I didn’t realize it then, this was a lesson in the unspoken reality of public relations: There’s far more grind than glamour in PR.
What worried me more was my job title. I was designated a Messenger, which sounded suspiciously like “Go-fer.” My colleague Dick, on the other hand, was designated an Interview Note Taker. We also had differing uniforms—Dick wore a golf-style collared shirt, while I was clad in a white-and-green T-shirt. I didn’t resent my best friend landing a better gig, but I wasn’t keen on managing shelves for three weeks.
Still, shelving was the task at hand, and I would pursue it with all devotion.
The guts of the metal shelves were piled in the main press tent behind the stands at the McDonald’s Olympic Swim Stadium. This was one of the few competition sites specifically built for the ’84 Games. To avoid the financial catastrophes of past Olympics, organizer Peter Ueberroth was determined to use existing venues throughout Southern California. The swim venue—a 50x25-meter pool and a 25x25-yard diving well—was built on the campus of the University of Southern California with major funding from McDonald’s Corporation. USC continues to use the facility, which was renovated and reopened this year as the Uytengsu Aquatics Center.
The press tent would serve as the interview site after swim events. Reporters and photographers would gather, and medal winners would sit at a table at one end of the tent. The shelves would provide background materials and results for the journalists.
Dick stopped by the tent while I was building shelves, and we gabbed as I kept working. I reached for one of the last pieces of gray metal, and as I lifted it from the ground I saw something large and black lurch near my fingers. Instinctively, I dropped the metal with a clatter and shout. Scrambling from what had been its hiding place was an ebony spider. It seemed enormous at the time, but I suspect that was the image summoned by a startled mind.
I quickly dispatched the arachnid with a well-placed shoe. I studied its remains for a moment; I’d never seen this type of spider before, but I had a sneaking suspicion I knew what it was. Taking the tip of my shoe, I flipped it onto its back.
On its abdomen gleamed a bright red hourglass shape.
I looked up at Dick. “It’s a black widow! It nearly bit me!”
Dick promptly scooted off to the break room, returning with two cups of ice-cold water and a toast to my dodge from death (or, more precisely, a very painful spider bite).
During swim events, journalists had two places they could go: in the designated stands, or in a shaded area beneath the stands along the length of the pool. The latter was for photojournalists. They could move along with the athletes, taking pictures at any point during a heat or medal round. But with so many photographers attending, there was constant jostling in the photo area—not exactly conducive to good shots. As a result, a few photographers tried to sneak into the stands with the paying spectators. This annoyed a lot of people who plunked down big bucks to watch the contest.
And thus came to me that most important role at the Olympic Games: kicking photographers out of the stands.
I had some issues with this assignment. For one, I was a distance runner and weighed about 135 pounds—hardly the kind of guy to play bouncer. Second, I wasn’t the most assertive person, so I doubted these guys would pay attention to me. And finally, this wasn’t what I’d expected press operations to entail.
But hey, I’d signed up for this. I owed it to the LAOOC and all the athletes who’d worked so hard to be there.
So I sighed and headed for the stands.
Almost immediately, another volunteer on crowd control trotted over. She looked exasperated. “There’s some French photographer getting in people’s way. I told him to leave. He won’t listen to me.”
I saw the guy in question. He would stand, take a few pictures, then sit down again. But he wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all the people behind him. I headed over.
“Excuse me,” I said, trying to find a balance between firmness and politeness. “You can’t take pictures up here. You’re getting in people’s way. Photographers are supposed to be in the area over there.” I waved at the designated spot on the other side of the pool.
He smiled and responded in barely discernible English. “But see, all ze people, eez hard to take picture.”
I did feel sorry for him and his colleagues. I could see the photojournalists packed like sardines under that gaudy tarp, with only a narrow opening for snapping pictures. But that wasn’t a problem I could solve.
“I understand that, and I’m sorry. But you can’t stay here.”
Still smiling, albeit falsely, he mumbled something in French and left the stands. I breathed a prayer of thanks.
“Look, I told you before you can’t be up here. You can leave the stands now, or I can call Security. They’ll throw you out of the stands AND out of the stadium!”
Still forcing the smile on his face, the photographer gathered up his gear. But he was determined to have the last word. Before he headed for the exit, he turned to me, wagged his finger in my face and made a loud announcement in front of several hundred spectators:
“You! You, I no love!”
And then he stormed off.
One wonders what the spectators were thinking….
Fortunately, I had little time to mourn his lost affection. Within a couple of days, my job changed to one that would expose me to some of the greatest swimmers in Olympic history.
Next time: Gold Medals and Teddy Bears