By AGNIA GRIGAS
Although separated by 30 years and nearly 7,000 miles, the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 and the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi offer instructive comparisons for our city, particularly as Los Angeles prepares its bid to host the Olympics again in 2024.
The ’84 Olympics were held at the height of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries boycotting the games, a response to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by the United States. While the tensions of the so-called new cold war are not as fraught or dangerous as they were during the post-World War II decades, the Sochi games took place during a time of distinct chill in U.S.-Russian relations.
Over the past few years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in a showdown with the United States and the West. His support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, cooperation with Iran’s regime, decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, pressuring Ukraine from developing closer relations with the European Union and military incursion into Crimea have all marked an end to the “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations that President Barack Obama initially hoped to achieve. In addition, Russia’s recent laws banishing homosexual “propaganda” resulted in a diplomatic boycott of the Sochi games by Obama and the leaders of France, Germany and Great Britain, among others. While the boycott was only by political leaders and not athletes, the echoes of 1984 still reverberated.
The L.A. games were personally important for President Ronald Reagan, a resident of Los Angeles and governor of California from 1967 to 1975. Putin, who came to love Sochi from skiing in the region, feels a similar connection to his host city. He made a deeply personal appeal to the International Olympic Committee in 2007 to win the bid for the games. But for Putin, hosting the games in Sochi was more than an opportunity to showcase a city (part of the Olympic mission). It was a chance to show off the entire country and rebrand Russia as a strong, proud state that he has personally rebuilt from the shambles of the post-Soviet years. Although this effort might play well with his domestic audience, the international audience was more difficult to convince.
The 1984 Summer Olympics were the most financially successful of modern times. Taxpayers funded only $75 million of the costs while the games earned a profit of $250 million. The success was driven by corporate investment and the use of existing sports facilities rather than building new ones. Eventually, the profits of the games endowed the LA84 Foundation, which still promotes youth sports and education.
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