Torch relay press pass, 1984
WHEN I was 26 years old, I was one of those young reporters who believed that my next story would be bigger than Watergate.
I was, as we say in the business, hungry for news. As my mentor Gary Granville, a former investigative reporter used to say, I was looking for red meat. So when my editor at the Orange County Register told me to cover the Olympic Torch relay in Garden Grove, I thought this was vegetarian fare.
In fact, it smacked of a public relations event cooked up by the U.S. Olympic Committee to promote the upcoming games in Los Angeles, which by the way, were being boycotted by the Soviet Union and were being bashed from within and without as something that was dead on arrival due to LAs bad air and choking traffic.
Not to mention, a few days before, I covered the raising of Olympic street banners in Garden Grove, which was my beat and where the torch relay would travel. I remember the banners were done up in those garish colors hot pink and light green.
Needless to say, boy was I wrong. And so was the rest of the media prognosticators.
Not only was the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles one of the most successful in the history of the games, it was a shining moment for L.A. and Southern California. It had many storylines, including one of celebratory athletes and unmatched camaraderie among the U.S. swim team (gold medalists); joyous celebrations; free-flowing freeways; cleaner than imagined air and cooperative, peaceful fans all enjoying a nearly crime-free two-week event.
I believe the tone was set during the torch relay.
Southern Californians of all ilk came out of their homes to cheer on total strangers holding gold-plated torches burning a kerosene flames.
In Garden Grove, I watched a handicapped runner carry the torch his assigned mile to the cheers of well-wishers lined up three rows deep. Then, I witnessed something that melted my heart: The crowd spontaneously hoisted that young man on its shoulders and carried him several hundred more yards. I remember the ear-to-ear grin from his proud father. I have never forgotten that day, not even 24 years later.
I only wish I had kept the article. A search of the OC Register archives was fruitless. I dont even remember the runners name.
But the event touched me deeply. So deeply, that I broke a journalism cardinal rule: I helped the competition. Let me explain.
The next day, the torch was in Newport Beach/Irvine and my wife, Karen E. Klein, was covering it for our rival, the Orange Coast Daily Pilot. I got up at the crack of dawn with her thinking Id be a spectator. I stationed myself along the other end of Von Karmen, one of the sterile boulevards that criss-crossed the planned community of Irvine. Again, like magic, the people came out to cheer the runners and I was swept up, taking quotes and recording history, as they waved American and Olympic flags in a show of unity.
I have never seen that many people in the streets of Newport Beach or Irvine since. I have never witnessed a sporting event with such pure excitement like the torch relay of 1984.
There were no protesters. No police in riot gear. No conflict, really. Unlike today, when the torch relay for this summers Olympics in Beijing was marred by riots in Paris and London. And earlier this week, in San Francisco, where anti-China demonstrators had lined the Embarcadero Wednesday morning. The mayor changed the route at the last minute and the relay proceeded nearly without spectators.
The wife of local torch runner Eric Burke was kept in the dark and missed her husbands historic run. The Pasadenan was chosen for his work with at-risk students.
He enjoyed the experience, he told Staff Writer Kevin Felt, even though a few protesters threw water balloons in an attempt to extinguish the flame.
I am embarrassed for those torch runners, who were trying to unite the world and run for an ideal. I am all for protests, only this was the wrong venue.
I guess back in 1984, my news story did not change the world, not like Watergate or Iran-Contra. But it changed me. It taught me to be on the lookout for the American spirit it can surprise you. I only hope that now, in a much more cynical world, there are pleasant surprises left.