The Story of Los Angeles' 1932 Olympics, When Everyone Was Poor

As Los Angeles bids to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, its strongest argument is that the last time it did so, in 1984, the Games were more profitable than they've ever been. The event was staged on the cheap, in part because the city had passed a ballot measure limiting how much it could spend.

But the city also had experience, having hosted the Games already in 1932. That meant most of the venues, like the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, were already built. 

The ’32 Games, in fact, also were done on a tight budget. That's because they had to be — they were held during the nadir of the Great Depression.

The Olympics were still fairly new when the International Olympic Committee met, in 1923, in Rome, to choose the host for the 1932 Games. And Los Angeles was a hick cow-town few people in the world knew or cared about. A real estate entrepreneur named William May Garland was in charge of the bid. As Paul Zimmerman, who reported on the Games for the Associated Press, would later write in his 1984 book, Los Angeles the Olympic City:

Los Angeles was so little known in the world scheme of things that an IOC delegate, before the vote at Rome, asked if it were near Hollywood. Garland, with a twinkle in his eyes, said Los Angeles was a "suburb of Hollywood." The delegate promised his vote "because I've always wanted to see how movies are made."

In the end, Los Angeles was a shoe-in — it was the only city to bid.

In the intervening years, the Depression hit. By the time the Games were held, nations struggled to afford the cost of sending athletes to the far-flung outpost of California. Only 1,503 athletes from 37 nations showed up, so few that some events, like soccer, had to be canceled.

From a 1932 "water parade" in Newport Beach
From a 1932 "water parade" in Newport Beach
Los Angeles Times / UCLA Digital Collections

The ’32 Games saw, for the first time, an Olympic Village built for athletes, in Baldwin Hills. This was out of necessity: The village housed male athletes for $2 a day; they couldn't afford to stay anywhere else. The 177 female athletes stayed at the Chapman Park Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.

Some of the poorer countries sent their athletes to L.A. with goods to trade, instead of money. A team of 60 Brazilians arrived in the United States with bags of coffee beans to sell. "By the time the red tape could be cut to sell the cargo to pay expenses to Los Angeles, the Brazilians barely arrived in time for the competition," writes Zimmerman.

(This may explain why the Brazilian water polo team, after losing 7-3 to Germany, physically attacked the Hungarian referee. They had to be restrained by police.)

The Cubans weren't as lucky. They were sent over with sugar. But when they docked in Galveston, Texas, they were told sugar prices weren't high enough to cover their travel expenses. They were forced to turn around and go home. 

Field hockey was the national sport of India at the time. They had won the gold in 1928, and were widely expected to repeat their victory in 1932, when only two other countries were even competing. But the team had trouble affording the trip. According to David Wallechinsky, writing in The Book of Olympic Lists:

When it came time to raise money to send a team to the Los Angeles Olympics, a journalist representing the Indian Hockey Federation approached Mahatma Gandhi and asked him to issue an appeal to the masses. Gandhi's only reply was, "What's hockey?" Nevertheless, an Indian team did make it to Los Angeles, paying its way by playing exhibition matches in Europe on the way home.

Even some of the locals had a tough time. Here's Wallechinsky again:

Club swinging was included in the gymnastics program the first two times the Olympics was held in the United States. The 1932 winner, George Roth, was unemployed and nearly starving in the midst of the Great Depression. He would go to the Olympic Village each day, collect some food and sneak it home to his wife and baby daughter in East Hollywood. After receiving his gold medal before 60,000 cheering spectators, Roth walked out of the stadium and hitchhiked home.

Despite everyone's overwhelming poverty, the Xth Olympiad was deemed a success. More than 100,000 spectators paid $3 each to attend the two-hour Opening Ceremony at the Coliseum, then known as Olympic Stadium (not in attendance was President Herbert Hoover, who became the first host nation head of state not to attend the Summer Games). According to Zimmerman:

As the 1,500 competitors filed out, the chorus of 2,000 voices sang the recessional "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet ... Lest we forget ... Lest we forget ..."

The public address announcer asked the crowd to "please wait 10 minutes so the competitors can board their buses and depart." So the throng stayed and joined the band and chorus in singing popular songs with great gusto.

The United States destroyed its travel-weary competition, winning 103 out of 346 medals. Five-foot-seven Eddie Tolan set Olympic records in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, while Mildred "Babe" Didrikson won gold medals in javelin hurling and hurdles, and perhaps would have won the gold in high jump were she not disqualified for what judges deemed was an illegal technique. 

But perhaps the real winner was Los Angeles, which renamed 10th Street Olympic Boulevard and got the Coliseum, which is still in use today and will host L.A.'s first NFL game in 22 years next month. Most important, the city didn't lose money. As Zimmerman writes:

Considering the economic climate, even more startling was the fiscal phenomenon. Los Angeles paid off a $1 million bond issue to the State of California and still had a surplus of $206,000. Every Olympics before the Xth Olympiad and every one since it has finished in the red.

That is, until the 1984 Games, which again were hosted by L.A. And again, it made a profit. 

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