Peter Vidmar

A rousing launch at the beach: good vibrations


SANTA MONICA, Calif. — They could have held the news conference on Tuesday formally announcing Los Angeles’ entry into the 2024 bid race anywhere. At the LA Memorial Coliseum. At Staples Center. In Hollywood, with the iconic sign as a backdrop, like in so many movies. No.

This event, one of the most intriguing and rousing plays in recent Olympic history, was staged at the beach.

Literally, at the beach.

With twin palms standing tall as frames for the dozens of cameras and television crews. Bicyclists riding by. And, of course, beach volleyball and, beyond, the brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean sparkling on a spectacular summer afternoon.

The Olympic movement, the Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee — they all, to be candid, need to be cool again.

At the risk of being obvious, the Southern California beachfront is unequivocally one of the coolest places on Planet Earth.

Before it all got underway, the music that was playing from the speakers: “Good Vibrations,” by the Beach Boys.

For sure.

Take a look at this selection of photos from the event, at which U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun declared, “I want to thank Los Angeles for standing up once again as America’s bid city,” and LA mayor Eric Garcetti — speaking first in English, then in Spanish, then in French — said, “This is a great day for Los Angeles and a great day for the Olympic movement.”

The scene at Santa Monica beach, LA mayor Eric Garcetti at the mike // Getty Images

Red, white and blue behind the speakers // Getty Images

In SoCal, the mayor may have things to say but beach volleyball must carry on // Getty Images

What makes Los Angeles different from Paris, Rome, Budapest and Hamburg, Germany, its expected competition in the 2024 campaign?

Which of the five candidates boasts an extraordinary beachfront?

And, along with it, a beach culture known now in far corners of our world, a culture in which surfing and skateboarding — two events that young people, you know, actually really like — feature prominently?

This is why, among other reasons, Los Angeles should have been the USOC’s first choice all along.

But also why that whole months-long adventure elsewhere — someplace in Massachusetts, if memory serves — will quickly become a historical footnote, and no more, as the 2024 campaign develops and hurtles toward the IOC vote in the summer of 2017, in Lima, Peru.

The mayor, who along with the sports executive Casey Wasserman will be the central figures in the LA bid, proved yet again that he is a most compelling public official.

It’s not just that he is a Rhodes Scholar or served as an officer in the United States Naval Reserve. It’s not just that he can speak to others in their language.

It’s what he says.

“Breathe this moment in,” Garcetti told the assembled crowd, which included athletes who had starred at the 1984 Games, such as the diver Greg Louganis and the gymnast Peter Vidmar; 2008 Beijing decathlon winner Bryan Clay; members of the gold-medal winning London 2012 U.S. women's water polo team; and volleyball standouts.

“There are very few moments like this in our lifetime where this place and this space and this time transcend this moment.

“Look at these historic bluffs behind you. In front of you, the endless possibility of the Pacific Ocean. And this moment of the Pacific Rim. And here we are in a city that represents, to all of us, human possibility, ingenuity, creativity and diversity.”

Janet Evans, the gold medal-winning swimmer from the 1988 and 1992 Games, also stole a star turn Tuesday. In 1984, she said, she was 12, breathing in the moments from the seats at the Coliseum. Now, she said, at the outset of this 2024 bid, it must be that this LA effort is not just limited to Southern California. Nor just a bid. More, she said.

“If we are going to win these Games, and I like to win, we need to have every American behind us in this bid,” she said. “So,” turning toward the athletes, assembled on a row of seats nearby, “I am asking my Olympic and Paralympic friends to lead the effort to make the LA24 bid not just an LA bid but a national campaign and a national celebration.”

The Olympics can sometimes get such a bad rap. The two-year bid process can be a slog of numbers, finance, politics. The seven-year build-up to a Games can sometimes seem a protracted exercise in doubt, worry, negativity.

What gets lost, way too often, is the very thing that was showcased Tuesday at the beach: the hope and promise of the Olympics, the possibility of the human experience, the notion that sport has a legitimate role to play in moving the world forward toward a better way.

Earlier Tuesday, the Los Angeles city council voted 15-0 to authorize the mayor to sign an agreement with the USOC over bidding for the Games. In LA, as Garcetti said, “The Olympics is in our DNA.” It is. It’s why eight of 10 people want the Games back in Southern California, according to a recent poll.

Vidmar, who since late 2008 has served as chairman of the U.S. Gymnastics board of directors, explained:

“The fears that many people in Boston had are the same fears that many people had in LA before 1984. Which were: How much is this going to cost us? And what about traffic?

“And we saw in Los Angeles in 1984 that neither of those problems materialized. And I’m very confident that this will happen again the next time the Games come to Los Angeles.”

Garcetti, who keeps a 1984 Olympic torch in his office, never lost faith that it could, should, would be LA: "We do this because we believe since ancient times that human potential is always just in front of us, that the best has never yet been achieved. And that a moment in time, we can taste for a moment,” a reference to the 17 days of a Summer Games, “what it feels like to have a human family come back together.”

He said, noting the 1932 and 1984 Games, that “this is a quest that Los Angeles was made for.”

At the same time, and this must be stressed, while the 2024 bid can link back to a proud history in town, this is a new LA.

Once more: it is.

The city and all of Southern California has become a very different place since long-ago 1984.

In 1984, Eric Garcetti was 13. He came home to LA from sleep-away summer camp to see one of the last days of the Olympic track meet; to see as well the closing ceremony; to see, as he described it Tuesday, “the transformative power of the Games, not just to change my life but to change my city forever.”

He said, “When people said, ‘Oh, you’re from LA,’ after ’84, they knew us. They had already seen our films, our television programs, they had a sense of us. But they got a sense of our soul after 1984.

“Today we are here in a new Los Angeles. This is the face of a new America, a city that reflects the world as it is today and where this country will be tomorrow.”

It is the case, as Wasserman pointed out, that some 85 percent of the venues that would be needed for 2024 are already built or in planning regardless of any Olympic anything.

That said, about 80 percent of the venues that would be needed for 2024? New since 1984.

An $8.5 billion makeover at Los Angeles International Airport? Already underway, Garcetti said.

Some $40 billion in transit improvements, including extensive light-rail capacity throughout Los Angeles County? Voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase via what was called Measure R in 2008, unleashing that $40 billion through 2039.

The one major we’ll-figure-it-out in the bid as it stands now is the projected Olympic Village; if LA wins, the organizing committee would put in $75 million, a developer $925 million. “We have had a lot of interest from the private sector,” the mayor said, understating matters.

The ledger sheet strongly suggests that an LA24 Games would very likely make a lot of money. Even so, city council members were assured that the approval they gave Tuesday is merely the start of discussion and negotiation with Olympic officials; taxpayers are not committed.

"This is the engagement, not the wedding," council president Herb Wesson said.

“We are not changing the face of our city to fit the Olympic Games,” Garcetti said. “Instead, we are adapting an innovative Olympic Games concept to comfortably fit in what the city is doing already.”

As Blackmun said, “When we look at LA and what the mayor and Casey and their team have built, we see a framework for an ideal matchup,” adding a moment later, “We believe in the vision of LA. We believe this city can produce a new kind of Games for a new Olympic era,” one in line with IOC president Thomas Bach’s would-be reform plan, called Agenda 2020.

“We will do this openly. We will do it openly with the press. And we feel strong enough about this bid,” the mayor said, “that there’s nothing we can’t share.”

“Thank you,” Garcetti said at the end of his remarks and a Q&A session, before he, Wasserman, Blackmun and USOC board chairman Larry Probst headed off to Switzerland for meetings at IOC headquarters in Lausanne Wednesday evening and Thursday. The music turned to Randy Newman's "I Love LA."

“Feel free,” the mayor suggested, “to stay at the beach all day.”

Paul Hamm's legacy

A couple days ago, Paul Hamm announced his retirement. Is he the most accomplished male American gymnast ever?

Or is he the greatest difference-maker of all time in the U.S. men's gymnastics program?

Or -- both?

There are those who would say that Kurt Thomas still holds the most profound legacy. In 1978, Thomas was the first American to win a gold medal in the floor exercise at a world championship. In 1979, he became the first gymnast to receive the James E. Sullivan Award, given to the best amateur athlete in the United States.

Thomas was expected to dominate at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Though the United States boycotted, Thomas nonetheless set the stage for "a lot of success, including ours," said Bart Conner, who himself won gold on the parallel bars at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and was part of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at those 1984 Games.

Even so, Conner said, "In terms of hard-core credentials -- you can't deny Paul's."

Is that where the debate starts? Or ends?

Simply put, you truly can't deny Hamm's credentials.

He is the 2003 all-around world champion. He is the 2004 all-around Olympic champion.

In Athens in 2004, he led the United States to a silver medal, the Americans' first medal at an Olympics in 20 years. He was the rock of silver-medal teams at the 2001 and 2003 worlds.

He earned five medals at the worlds. He has three Olympic medals.

It can be difficult now for many to remember the furor that enveloped Hamm amid those  2004 Olympic Games. A fall on the vault left him in 12th, with only two events left. Incredibly, he rallied to win gold.

"He had ice water in his veins," said Peter Vidmar, another of the 1984 team gold medalists who also won individual gold at those Los Angeles Games on the pommel horse, now chairman of the board at USA Gymnastics. "He was great under pressure."

Best, Hamm always had an elegant style to his routines: "He was able to make it look effortless," Conner said.

A couple days after Hamm's triumph, meanwhile, the international gymnastics federation, which goes by the acronym FIG, said that South Korea's Yang Tae-young had not been given the right start value on his next-to-last event. Add in the right value, an extra tenth of a point, and Yang would have scored higher than Hamm.

If, and this is a huge if, everything had played out exactly the same on the final rotation -- which, of course, no one can ever say.

Moreover, the Korean team did not protest in time. And FIG said it couldn't change results after the competition was over.

It took a full two months for all the legal wrangling to play out.

The crazy thing is that the process left Hamm in the position of having to defend his gold medal. And why? He did nothing wrong. All he did was perform under pressure, which is what anyone asks of a champion.

Another unfortunate aspect: Women's gymnastics typically gets way more favorable publicity, especially in the United States. In the ordinary circumstance, men's gymnastics in general, and Hamm in particular, stood to cash in -- literally and figuratively -- on that gold medal. Not in 2004. Not really.

To underscore how hard it is to do what Hamm did in 2003 and 2004:

In London this summer, perhaps the gymnast widely considered the best in the world, Japan's Kohei Uchimura, will come through, and win the all-around gold. Uchimura is the 2009, 2010 and 2011 world all-around champ.

But unless and until he wins in London -- Hamm is a member of a club, world and Olympic all-around champ, that Uchimura is not.

As Uchimura would know. He is the Beijing 2008 all-around silver medalist.

"Paul is the catalyst of the current era of success in men's gymnastics we are enjoying now," Vidmar said.

"He made everybody else better," added Kevin Mazeika, the U.S. team's national coordinator who in 2008 was the U.S. team coach. "When everybody is trying to beat not just the best guy in your country but the best guy in the world -- that just makes you better."

In Beijing, the U.S. men won bronze. That gave the Americans back-to-back team Olympic medals for the first time in history.

At last year's worlds, the U.S. men won bronze again. Danell Leyva won gold on parallel bars. At the 2010 worlds, Jonathan Horton was the all-around bronze medalist.

The thing about gymnastics is that the sport is so physically demanding -- you wonder what could have been.

In the lead-up to Beijing, Hamm was rocking his routines, "clicking on all cylinders and definitely positioned to make a very solid run at the all-around gold," as Mazeika put it.

Then, though, just 11 weeks before the Beijing opening ceremony, he broke a hand at the U.S. championships. The hand and an injured shoulder ultimately forced him to withdraw a few weeks before those Olympics.

In July, 2010, Hamm announced another comeback.

In early 2011, he tore his right labrum and rotator cuff.

Last September, in an episode that still seems entirely out of character, Hamm was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, accused of hitting and kicking a taxi driver, damaging the cab's window and refusing to pay a $23 fine. Last month, he pleaded no contest to two reduced charges, both misdemeanors.

With the court action out of the way, Hamm seemed poised for London.

But -- that right shoulder especially, he said, was "clicking and popping and creaking," making sounds "like when a squeaky door opens."

He added with a laugh, "It's tough to train through that."

Paul Hamm will turn 30 in September. Asked how he thinks he ought to be remembered in the history books, he said, "For being a tremendous athlete who was dedicated and focused and an amazing competitor. And remembered for my biggest accomplishments. And also remembered as a nice person."

Typical Paul Hamm -- no mention of medals won.

"What I saw him do was elevate our program more than anybody in the history of our sport," said Steve Penny, who has been with USA Gymnastics since 1999, its president since 2005.

"He became the Michael Jordan of men's gymnastics in the United States. He became Tiger Woods. He forced people to raise their game in order to compete with him, not just in our country but around the world.

"He showed that an American gymnast could rise to the level of any gymnast around the world. He is the only guy who has been able to do that."

On Peter Vidmar's resignation as U.S. chef de mission

As a journalist, I totally get why Peter Vidmar stepped down Friday as chef de mission of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. As Peter's friend, I find the whole thing profoundly regrettable. Candidly, I deplore the rush to judgment amid the political correctness and the intense immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle that in many regards has overtaken our political and media cultures. I also wish we could all find a way to tone down the often-incendiary rhetoric that nowadays seems way too common in far too many conversations in the public sphere  -- even in a case such as this one, which in theory revolves around sports but underscores yet again how sports and politics are intertwined.

Again, as a journalist -- I get it. I get all of it. Believe me, Peter does, too.

Understand: Peter has been on our side of the journalists' fence. He was, for instance, a working commentator at the 2008 Games in Beijing; he and I sat right next to each other in the press tribune in the gymnastics arena for a full week. And so he knew now where this was going. As much as a distraction as this might have been on Thursday and Friday, it was nothing compared to the noise once, say, the British tabloids might have seized upon it.

Peter's participation in two demonstrations on behalf of the successful 2008 Proposition 8 ballot initiative in California, and his donation of $2,000 to that cause, was threatening to become a major distraction. He really had no choice.

Understand, too: The USOC accepted the resignation but was prepared to stand by Peter.

Peter Vidmar is one of the finest human beings you would ever want to meet. I said he is my friend -- I was proud to call him my friend before this outburst started and I'm proud to call him my friend now.

Here's what is so troubling about all this.

Roughly within just one 24-hour news cycle, Peter became a symbol of something he absolutely is not. Just because you take a position against gay marriage does not mean you're anti-gay.

"I fully respect the rights of everyone to have the relationships they want to have," Peter told the Chicago Tribune in an interview in the story that started all of this. "I respect the rights of all of our athletes, regardless of their race, their religion or their sexual orientation."

Nonetheless, figure skater Johnny Weir told the Tribune it was "disgraceful" that Peter had been named the 2012 U.S. team leader.

Johnny is fully entitled to his opinion. That's the American way.

This is the American way, too:

Peter took part in the American democratic process. The First Amendment guarantees his rights to religious expression -- his Mormon faith teaches him that marriage is between a man and a woman -- and to peaceably assemble.

It's a pretty straight line from there, amplified by coverage in the Tribune and USA Today, to his decision to step down.

When the retributive process for taking a stand for something you might genuinely believe in can be so ferocious that a profoundly decent person like Peter Vidmar has to withdraw, it has to give you serious pause.

Also: If Mormon beliefs are an Olympic disqualifier -- remind me, how did we have those Games in Salt Lake City in 2002?

Moreover, how is it that Mitt Romney, who is Mormon and who led the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, can be elected governor of Massachusetts and now finds himself a credible candidate for president of the United States, and a conservative Republican candidate at that, but Peter Vidmar shouldn't be the USOC's team leader in 2012? Really?

This is also the fact -- Prop 8 is the law of the state in which Peter and I both live. It passed in the November 2008 election, with about 7 million votes, 52.2 percent of the ballots.

It's absolutely the case that the Olympic movement stands against discrimination. It's one of the "fundamental principles" of the Olympic charter.

I'm not here to defend Prop 8. I voted against it. Peter knows that, just as he knows that I respect his position, and the basis of his stance. As a matter of logic, though, isn't it worth asking the question: is it really discriminatory to hold a position in line with some 7 million other registered voters? More -- is such a position "disgraceful"? Truly?

It's also fact that the Olympic charter doesn't say word one about marriage being between a man and a woman.

The Olympics is not per se about equality.

It's about striving for the best of who we, as humanity, are -- or can be.

The open question is what that all means. The answer: different things to different people.

One expression of that is, of course, equality. But "equality" is susceptible to an incredible variety of interpretations.

Reasonable people have to be able to disagree about big ideas, and to have dialogue without the dialogue immediately becoming what it did in this instance -- inflammatory.

Peter Vidmar has led an exemplary personal and professional life. He would have made an extraordinary team leader. He was an athlete, a double gold medalist; he has led a life of service; he knows the Olympics; he loves the movement.

It's a shame he got bit by sound-bites. As a journalist, I totally understand it. But as his friend and as a fellow American -- that doesn't mean I have to like it, and I don't.