Like London and Paris before it, Los Angeles will host the Olympic Summer Games for a third time in 2028. To mark that milestone we look back at the two previous editions the Californian metropolis has staged. Despite taking place against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Los Angeles 1932 proved to be a huge success and established a number of benchmarks that helped shape future editions of the Olympic Games.
“The time had truly come to bestow recognition upon the sporting youth of the United States for the effort they have made since Athens and for their ever-brilliant and numerous contributions to Games past,” wrote Pierre de Coubertin in his Olympic Memoirs. “It was for these three reasons that the members of the IOC unanimously elected Los Angeles the host city of the X Olympiad.”
The sole candidate to stage the Olympic Summer Games 1932, the “City of Angels” was duly confirmed as host city at the 21st IOC Session, held in Rome in April 1923. Six years later in Lausanne, the US ski resort of Lake Placid was named the host of the Olympic Winter Games 1932, in accordance with the rule at the time, which required that Summer and Winter Games take place in the same country, as long as it could offer a location with suitable mountains.
The Memorial Coliseum
One of the most of illustrious of all Olympic buildings, the Memorial Coliseum was commissioned in 1921 and completed two years later. By the time of the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1932, the stadium’s capacity had been increased to over 105,000 thanks to the addition of upper tiers of seating. Renamed the Olympic Stadium, it was the venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the athletics, equestrian, gymnastics and field hockey events. Standing 32 metres high, its signature torch-shaped Olympic cauldron was installed atop the central arch of the peristyle and housed the Olympic flame that would burn throughout the two weeks of competition. Having also been the main venue at Los Angeles 1984, the Memorial Coliseum will in 2028 become the first stadium in the world to host the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events at three separate Olympic Games.
Owing to the Great Depression – the far-reaching economic crisis that gripped the world at the time – Los Angeles largely used existing sites for the 1932 Games. Among them was the 15,000-seater Grand Olympic Auditorium, the largest indoor arena in the USA at the time, which was the venue for the boxing, wrestling and weightlifting competitions. A new aquatics stadium was built close to the Memorial Coliseum, however, and hosted the swimming, diving and water polo events, while the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (another landmark building in Olympic history) was converted into a velodrome for the track cycling competitions. Located in Baldwin Hills in southern Los Angeles, the Olympic Village comprised over 500 portable houses, as well as a post office, cinema, hospital, bank and a range of other amenities. These were only for use by the male athletes; their female peers were obliged to take up temporary residence at the Chapman Park Hotel.
Because of the Great Depression and the fact that California was relatively difficult to reach at a time when commercial aviation was still very much in its infancy, athlete participation at Los Angeles 1932 was only half that of Amsterdam 1928. In total, 37 NOCs and 1,332 athletes (126 women and 1,206 men) took part in 177 events across 14 sports, with football disappearing temporarily from the programme.
Nevertheless, the city’s inaugural Olympic Summer Games saw the introduction of significant and lasting changes. First of all the LA Games took place over a much shorter period. Whereas previous editions had gone on for several weeks or even months, Los Angeles 1932 lasted just 16 days, setting the template for the format that has remained in place ever since. In another innovation, athletes climbed on to podiums to receive their medals, with gold medallists occupying the highest step in the middle, flanked by the silver and bronze medallists on their right and left respectively, on successively lower steps. And the athletes received their medals at the venue where they had competed, with their respective national flags being raised to the sound of the winners’ national anthem, a ceremony first introduced a few months earlier at the Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid. Another first was the creation of a complex telecommunications system linking all the sites and available to the organisers and the media.
Other enduring innovations in Los Angeles included the introduction of timekeeping equipment accurate to the nearest hundredth of a second, and a new maximum quota of three athletes per nation per event.
Held on 30 July 1932 in front of an enthusiastic capacity crowd of 105,000, the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the X Olympiad was a grand occasion. Thanks to its sheer size and the quality of its facilities, the Olympic Stadium set new standards for the Games and provided a fitting backdrop. Accompanied by a 300-strong orchestra, a choir of 1,200 singers performed the US and Olympic anthems, while the fencer George Calnan took the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes. After Charles Curtis, the vice-president of the USA, had declared the Games open, hundreds of doves were released into the sky, bringing the Ceremony to a spectacular end.
It was not just thanks to the Memorial Coliseum that the Games left an enduring mark on the host city’s landscape; 10th Street, one of the city’s most important thoroughfares and which stretches for several tens of kilometres from the ocean at Santa Monica to the eastern side of Los Angeles, was renamed Olympic Boulevard, a name it retains to this day.
The heroes of Los Angeles 1932
A remarkably talented golfer and distinguished basketball player, Mildred Didrikson of the USA showcased her all-round sporting skills in the track and field events, collecting a unique hat-trick of medals. Victorious in the 80m hurdles in a world record time of 11.7 seconds, she also won javelin gold with an Olympic record throw of 43.6m and then took silver in the high jump with a leap of 1.65m. Her compatriot Eddie Tolan was another standout for the host nation in track and field, landing double gold in the men’s 100m and 200m.
Finland’s nine-time Olympic gold medallist Paavo Nurmi (whose haul has only been equalled in track and field by the USA’s Carl Lewis) was banned from taking part in the Games due to doubts regarding his amateur status. His fellow Finns Volmari Iso-Hollo and Matti Järvinen took up the baton, winning the 3,000m steeplechase and javelin titles respectively. Meanwhile, Ireland’s four-strong team excelled themselves, with Robert Tisdall winning gold in 400m hurdles and Pat O’Callaghan doing likewise in the hammer. Elsewhere, Juan Carlos Zabala won the marathon to become Argentina’s first Olympic athletics champion at the age of just 20, and he remains the event’s youngest ever winner.
Japan were the dominant force in swimming, winning four of the five men’s titles on offer. One of these went to Kusuo Kitamura in the 1500m freestyle. At 14 years and 309 days, he is the youngest Olympic champion his sport has ever seen. The only swimming gold to evade Japan’s grasp was the 400m freestyle, which was won by the USA’s Buster Crabbe, who subseqently went on to become a film and TV star.
Sweden’s Ivar Johansson achieved the unique feat of winning middleweight gold in freestyle wrestling and then shedding 5kg to win Greco-Roman welterweight gold, making him the only Olympic wrestler to win two different weight categories at the same Games. Dunc Gray scored a notable first of his own in the 1,000m time trial, becoming Australia’s first Olympic cycling champion, an achievement that led to the Olympic velodrome at Sydney 2000 being named in his honour. Takeichi Nichi, a colonel in the Japanese Army, partnered Uranus to gold in the individual showjumping competition. To this day, he remains Japan’s only Olympic medallist in equestrian sport.
The women’s foil final between Great Britain’s Judy Guinness and Austria’s Ellen Müller-Pries saw a remarkable example of Olympic values in action. On being declared the winner, Guinness pointed out to the judges that they had missed two of her opponent’s hits, a selfless act that led to her collecting silver instead of gold.
The most successful athletes of Los Angeles 1932 were American swimmer Helen Madison, who won gold in the 100m and 400m freestyle events and the 4x100m freestyle relay, and Italian gymnast Romeo Neri, who landed a golden hat-trick of his own in the individual and team all-around competitions and the parallel bars. Hungarian gymnast Istvan Pelle secured the biggest total medal haul, picking up gold in the floor and pommel horse and silver in the parallel bars and individual all-around.
With the exception of the Olympic Village, which was a temporary construction, all the other competition sites used in 1932 still stand today, having since been renovated or adapted for other uses. And several of the venues will be drafted back into use for the 2028 Games. As well as the majestic Memorial Coliseum, the Rose Bowl will return to Olympic duty, providing the setting for matches in the men’s and women’s football tournaments, including the women’s final. Meanwhile, Long Beach Marina will host sailing events, just as it did in 1932 and 1984.
Los Angeles 1932 proved hugely successful and shaped the template for many features that define the Olympic Games as we know them today. They also instilled the host city with a feeling of Olympic pride, which has endured over the decades. “The story of the success of the Games of the Xth Olympiad is carved in the depths of a dark abyss of world depression,” reads the Official Report. “But the spirit of Olympism has illuminated that abyss, and those who came to the Games from all the far corners of the earth have taken home with them something of a new hope engendered by a finer understanding of and a more intimate friendship for their fellow man, regardless of race or creed.” They are words that could easily be applied to the world today.