The Role of California in the 2012 Olympic Games

The Olympic Charter says that, “The honor and responsibility of hosting the Olympic Games are entrusted by the IOC to a city.” In 2012 that honor and that responsibility were borne in a manner most worthy by the City of London. Still, the far away state of California played a large and quite visible role in the 2012 Games and the Movement that sponsors them. California’s continuing leadership in the Olympic Games is a fine case study of effective citizen diplomacy.

As a competitor, California is perennially a leading force in the Olympic Games. The 128 California residents competing for the United States this year amounted to almost 25% of the entire American team. The complete badminton team resides in California, as well as 24 of the 26 water polo players. Thousands of Olympians from all past Olympic Games as well as the London Games reside in greater concentration in Southern California than anywhere else in the world. Beyond California residents, the United States Olympic Committee’s athletes in 2012 included a score of athletes who live and train in California but do not list it as their home state.  With the United States Olympic Committee training center in Chula Vista, California and prominent facilities and coaches throughout the state, California attracts elite athletes from all over the country.

The Californians on the U.S. team are even more prominent as medalists. Depending whether you are counting just residents or all California participants, the state’s share of the American total of 104 medals in London was either 44 or 66 medals. If the University of Southern California were its own country, its alumni alone would have ranked sixth among countries in gold medals (ahead of Germany, France, and Italy) and 11th in overall medal count. Stanford University matched USC’s count of 12 gold medals. Not all these California medals are by athletes competing for the United States. Oussami Mellouli, who won gold and bronze for Tunisia in the pool and in open water swimming is a USC athlete, living and training in Los Angeles. Another Trojan swimming medalist is Vladimir Morozov, who swam for Russia, despite being a champion swimmer in high school in Torrance, California and at USC since age 15. His Russian teammate, silver medal winning tennis star Maria Sharapova is a permanent resident of Manhattan Beach, California. For these and so many others, California is a mecca for Olympic caliber performers.

The imprint of California on the London Olympics goes beyond the numbers. The Olympic Games are so well matched with life in California that a flavor of California suffuses the Games wherever they occur. The state gave birth to three of the Games’ most popular disciplines, mountain biking, BMX cycling and beach volleyball. The event with pride of place at the London games was the quintessentially Southern California sport of beach volleyball on the Horse Guards Parade, adjoining Buckingham Palace. In the 16th Century Henry VIII jousted there.  On August 8, 2012 two pairs of California beach city athletes in bikinis, Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings, and Jennifer Kessy and April Ross, jousted for the gold medal. Between the action a coed gaggle of cheerleaders provided a British interpretation of Southern California atmosphere for Prince Harry and the rest of the crowd. Score both gold and silver for the Californians.

The Olympic Games have a deep institutional connection to California. Two Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles and the Winter Games were once at Squaw Valley. No other state in the United States has hosted so often. Following the 1932 Games, the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games was set up to promote the Olympic Movement and, when appropriate, to bid for the Games to return. It is the world’s only such independent voluntary Olympic support organization. The Southern California Committee has worked for Los Angeles to be the American bid city over a dozen times, succeeding in 1979 to bring the 1984 Olympic Games to Los Angeles. In February 2012 it hosted the IOC’s quadrennial Conference on Women in Sport for 800 international delegates—the first major IOC event to occur in the United States since the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. For the London Games, the Southern California Committee sent a delegation and maintained a presence at the Museum of London in the reception facility of the Lausanne-based Union of Olympic Cities, in which Los Angeles is a leading participant.

The 1984 Olympic Games established the concept of a legacy of the Games in a way that has not been bettered. It poured 40% of its $235 million financial surplus into a new foundation devoted to supporting sports for children in Southern California. This LA84 Foundation has given grants and managed its assets in the ensuing decades to have given hundreds of millions of dollars to sports activities while maintaining a large endowment for future generations. It also has accumulated one of the largest sports libraries and sports memorabilia collections in the world, accessible to the general public.

American Olympic leadership is a California affair. The two permanent American members of the International Olympic Committee, Anita DeFrantz and Jim Easton are both from Southern California. The third United States member, the athletes’ representative, Angela Ruggeiro, grew up in Los Angeles.

You can take the Olympic Games out of California, but you can’t take California out of the Olympic Games. Los Angeles will continue to seek to return the Games to the state. When Los Angeles competed with Chicago to be the American bid city for 2016 it conceived a bid that would center in Los Angeles but use facilities in various cities of the state, from Palo Alto to Irvine; and a cultural program that would engage every town in California. A resolution unanimously proposed in Los Angeles City Council on August 18, 2012 called on the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games to “return the Olympic Games to Los Angeles at the earliest appropriate opportunity.”  With the American flag bearer at the Closing Ceremonies in London, Angeleno and USC athlete Bryshon Nellum firmly in mind, Los Angeles will try to do just that.

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