Remembering the Technology of the 1984 Olympics

The year was 1984 for the 23rd Olympiad held in Los Angeles. At the time I was employed as a Recreation Supervisor for the City of Long Beach, which hosted two Olympic venues – Archery at El Dorado Park and Volleyball and Fencing at the Long Beach Arena and Convention Center. I was recruited as an Olympic volunteer almost 2 years earlier by a former co-worker who was then a paid recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC). When asked what I wanted to do at the Olympics my answer was simple: make it something interesting and fun.  As a result, I was assigned to the Technology team at the Long Beach Arena.

Opening Ceremony, XXII Olympiad

Most of the Technology team work was done prior to the start of the Olympics in setting up the venue, ensuring there was enough power everywhere to support the television crews and all of the special equipment brought into the venue. We set up typewriters and TV monitors around the facility. After the start of the Olympics, the Technology team served as liaison between the LAOOC and the ABC television network (the only authorized TV film crew) and all authorized reporters from the US and rest of the world. We were also in charge of distributing the Official Olympic Results from our venue.

In our Technology office, we had two IBM photocopiers that were almost as big as 18-wheelers. One was there to photocopy the official results of each contest and the other was there to back-up the first copier in the event of a breakdown.  Volleyball results were hand-written on paper forms courtside, signed by the officials, and a runner brought them to the Technology Center. There a top-of-the-line Brother typewriter was engaged by a volunteer to quickly type out the results in both English and French, which were then ripped from the typist’s hands and photocopied. The official results were then rushed by a second set of runners to the Press Room, the ABC-TV desk and back to the Officials courtside. This entire process took about 30 minutes from handoff to the first runners. At that point, American volleyball fans watching the ABC coverage would hear the announcer say something like “It is now official, the US Women’s team has beaten tough rival, Japan.”

Contrast that with the electronic scoring stations we saw throughout the London venues, especially noticeable at the women’s gymnastics events when judges were crowded around a particular terminal to resolve conflicts. Those conflicts were resolved within moments, and official results posted immediately.

In 1984 there was also this really new-fangled technology thing that was the buzz of all the venues. There was a kiosk in each venue where long lines of fans queued up in order to send an electronic letter to their favorite Olympian. They were able to send these messages at the kiosk by typing a message on a keyboard that appeared in green on a six inch screen that looked a bit like a TV. When they pressed a “send” button on the keyboard, the message disappeared from the screen and everyone marveled at the fact that it was sent directly to a mailbox where the Olympian could find the message. There was, of course, no way for the Olympian to respond to those messages, unless he or she gave a press interview and thanked their fans for the good wishes. Of course most of the intense athletes didn’t bother to look for these greetings until after their competition because they didn’t want to stand in line to read their greetings. Yes, this event was the first where email was introduced to the public in a big way, although most newscasters at the time thought it was just a novelty that wouldn’t last.

The other responsibility of the Technology team in 1984 was communications. So each day we handed out giant brick-like Motorola walkie-talkies and collected them again at the end of our shift.  Key volunteers had them to be able to tell athletes in the practice gym that it was time for them to come to the arena for their main event, or that busses had arrived to take athletes back to the Olympic Village. They cracked and cackled and it was a wonder anyone could communicate using them. Often it was more efficient to send a runner over to the appropriate area to deliver the message. And, at the end of the evening after all of the walkie-talkies were collected and we were closing the Technology Center, we simply yelled down the hall “TECHNOLOGY IS CLOSED!” so other volunteers knew we were no longer there.  Amazing technology, don’t you think?

Contrast that with all of the Twitter notes and congrats sent from around the world to the athletes, to other fans and to the world in general at this year’s Olympics in London.  And talk about instant communication…President Barack Obama called Michael Phelps on his personal cell phone just moments after Michael won his 18th Olympic medal. That was just after he called Michael’s mother to congratulate her!  And if you were a fan like me who liked to wait until the events were telecast before knowing who won, you had to completely avoid Twitter and all other social media sites, not to mention local TV and radio newscasts to keep from being exposed to the winners name before seeing the competition on TV.

And then there was the TV coverage. Not only was NBC fully engaged this year, but so were the half-dozen or more cable affiliates. You could see any event you wanted, as long as you could find it in the extensive lineup.  In 1984, US audiences only got to see the events that had US athletes competing, so some of the most exciting events from the Fencing venue didn’t get seen by anyone in the U.S.  West German and Italian TV audiences went wild when they saw Italian Mauro Numa come from behind to beat then-reigning world champion German Matthias Behr in the most exciting fencing match I’ve ever seen, but it wasn’t seen on U.S television.

Yes, the technology of daily life as reflected by the Olympic Games has really changed in the last 28 years.  What do you think is the most significant technology change in that time period?  Can you even imagine what the technology will be like in the Olympics in 2040?  Share your thoughts in a comment below.


On to the adventure,




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