Janet Evans and Allyson Felix have tasted Olympic glory in host cities around the world. The Southern California natives experienced the joy of winning Olympic hardware in Seoul, Barcelona, Athens, Beijing, London, and Rio de Janeiro while representing the United States. Still, after 14 trips to the awards podium, the pair will experience an entirely new level of accomplishment if they play a role in bringing the Olympic Games back to Los Angeles.
As part of the LA 2024 bid committee—a group comprised of nearly 150 local athletes, executives, and civic leaders led by Chairman Casey Wasserman, CEO Gene Sykes, and Mayor Eric Garcetti—Evans and Felix are part of a team fully invested in the goal of building on LA’s Olympic legacy and earning the distinction of three-time host city in 2024. Evans serves as Vice Chair & Director, Athlete Relations, while Felix is a member of the Athletes’ Advisory Commission.
LA’s previous Olympic closeup, in 1984, resonates as a shining example that civic and financial success is possible. Unlike its predecessors, which inevitably lost money or struggled to break even, the ’84 Games generated a $225M surplus that launched LA84 Foundation, a nationally recognized youth development and sports-based foundation that continues to impact for good the lives of kids in the city and far beyond. No Olympics since has approached a similar level of profitability.
CSQ met with Evans and Felix at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum several weeks before the scheduled September 16 announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of the host cities for both the 2024 and 2028 Games. The pair have been going non-stop: Evans is immersed in her leadership role with LA 2024, and Felix is still actively competing in addition to fulfilling her duties with LA 2024.
The Coliseum emanates greatness, from its massive arched entrance to its iconic Olympic cauldron, which is still lit for the fourth quarter of USC football games. Events were held here for the 1932 and 1984 Games, and the venue is integral to the staging plans for 2024. Walking through the press box, one gets a sense of the history that has been recorded in the impressive, time-tested structure. It was a fitting setting for a conversation with two world-class athletes who will be instrumental in bringing Los Angeles another Olympic experience.
Optimism has been running high, because— barring an 11th-hour wrinkle —2024 finalists Los Angeles and Paris each seem assured of earning the distinction of host city for their third Olympic Games. The only question is who will get there first.
The time-efficient manner with which LA 2024 has set out to achieve its goal is commendable if considered on the same terms of a tech startup. In just under two years, Evans – along with Wasserman, Sykes, and company – have mobilized the city and its influential counterparts on a focused, mass collaborative effort that continues to gain steam right up until the IOC announcement in September.
On June 30, Kobe Bryant came on board officially as the 100th member of LA 2024’s Athletes’ Advisory Commission. The announcement came during LA 2024’s #Follow the Sun 2020 Campaign, a series of 20 days of 20 announcements, which culminated July 11 in a full presentation before the IOC board in Lausanne, Switzerland. Evans was part of the senior leadership team who attended, along with several other representatives of LA 2024. Her evolution from world-class swimmer to globe-traveling executive has been as swift as her world-record-smashing stroke in the pool.
Diving Into the Deep End
Born in Fullerton and raised in Placentia, Evans demonstrated her amphibious tendencies early on. Her mom couldn’t swim, so Evans and her two older brothers were enrolled in swimming classes. “The story goes that I could swim laps at the pool at two [years of age] and all four strokes by the time I was four,” she recalls. “It was impossible to drag me out of the pool, because I loved it so much.” By age 11, she was setting national records in her age group. Not that her parents were grooming her for success in the pool. “My dad said swimming was something you did if you fell off a boat,” says Evans with a laugh.
When the Olympics came to town, there was no turning back. Evans was hooked. “I was 12, and I didn’t know a lot about the Olympics because the U.S. boycotted in 1980 and I was only four in the summer of 1976,” she says. “Like a lot of SoCal kids, I was moved and inspired by the summer ’84 Olympics which … drives a lot of my passion for what I’m doing now.”
As Evans matured, she demonstrated extraordinary stamina, which more than compensated for her comparatively smaller stature and unorthodox stroke. In 1987, at the age of 15, she broke the world records in the 400-, 800-, and 1,600-meter freestyle distances. The following year, Evans made her Olympic debut in Seoul, South Korea, bringing home three gold medals. In 1992, she would win a fourth gold, along with one silver medal, in Barcelona, Spain.
“Never once was I told in my career that I can’t do something because I was a female. I’m very appreciative of … the likes of Donna de Varona [and] Billie Jean King, because they paved the way for athletes like me. I was one of the first generations of athletes who didn’t experience discrimination because I was a female.” – Janet Evans
Evans was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004, but the competitive fire continued to simmer inside. In 2012, she attempted a gutsy comeback at 40, competing against athletes half her age. While she didn’t add to her medal total, Evans earned additional admiration from her peers and the nation for her ageless spirit.
That same spirit has served LA 2024 well. Miss Perpetual Motion—a nickname Evans earned at the Seoul Games—has transferred her dedication for excelling in the pool to the boardroom. A focused beam of energy, she speaks swiftly, whether recalling her personal Olympic memories or discussing her role at LA 2024. Having joined in late summer 2015 at the invitation of Wasserman, she has drawn from her personal experience participating in four Olympics to integrate the athlete’s perspective into a complex bidding process.
Felix, a native of Los Angeles, was raised on a steady diet of community, church, and family. Following the footsteps of her older brother, Wes, basketball was Felix’s first love. While she was very involved in gymnastics and other activities, she didn’t discover track and field until high school. When she decided to try out for the track team after the hoops season had ended, Felix made an immediate impression. The first day, she ran a very fast 60-meter sprint. So, the coach asked her to run it again. And again. “At first he thought he measured the distance wrong, so he kept having me do it over,” she says with a laugh.
Felix was on the fast track. By her senior year, she began to visualize “that the Olympics were a possibility and I could do this as a career.” She credits her high school coach with grooming her for the level of competition that prepared her for the whirlwind that would soon consume her life. Felix made the World Championship team at 17 and went on to professional track, forgoing college sports while attending USC in preparation for the 2004 Olympics. “That’s when it got real,” she says.
Though she was enrolled in classes at the University of Southern California, she trained and competed as a professional athlete, traveling to Europe and spending long hours on the track every day. “Figuring out all that, [and] balancing everything,” she muses, required “dedication on another level.” It’s a common trait that connects athletes of her ability who succeed in developing their talent to its fullest potential. Still, the intense glare of the world stage is overwhelming to an 18-year-old, regardless of athletic prowess. “I learned patience [in 2004],” says Felix. Thirteen years later, new horizons continue to open up.
The 31-year-old sprinter has gone on to become one of the most decorated U.S. Olympians in history. Her introduction to the Games was 2004 in Athens, Greece, where she earned a silver medal. She has also competed in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Games, amassing a total of nine medals (six gold and three silver) in her Olympic career. Felix has won more gold medals than any other female track-and-field athlete to date.
As part of LA 2024’s Athletes’ Advisory Commission, Felix contributes the perspective of an active athlete with exposure to the most recent Olympics experiences. Speaking in Qatar in November 2016, Felix said, “I believe LA is a perfect choice for the 2024 Games, because the face of our city reflects the face of the Olympic movement itself.” Most recently, she accompanied the LA 2024 delegation to Switzerland where she spoke on behalf of the city. Evans describes Felix as “the first person I call when I need to understand what it’s like to live in the Rio village or what she liked or didn’t like about the London Games. I like to call her our ‘young Olympian.’”
Los Angeles’ Legacy
Southern California’s pedigree for producing talent at the highest level is well established (p. 52). Since 1912, the SoCal Olympians and Paralympians has consistently accounted for the largest percentage of athletes representing the United States at the Olympic Games. The organization currently has more than 800 members.
The 1932 Games took place during a worldwide economic depression, impacting athlete attendance for LA’s first turn as host city. Nonetheless, the standout of the Games was track-and-field star Babe Didrikson, who won two gold medals and a silver. She would have likely added to her medal count (she won five events at the U.S. Olympic trials), but prevailing Olympic rules allowed women to compete in a maximum of three events.
“I believe LA is a perfect choice for the 2024 Games, because the face of our city reflects the face of the Olympic movement itself.” – Allyson Felix
Fifty-two years later, LA’s Olympic sequel played host to a world that had evolved measurably, thanks in part to the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act (1972), which stated that “no person … shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in … any activity receiving Federal assistance.” Notably, 1984 is the first year a women’s marathon was included in the Games.
Evans and Felix realize that being a champion is fundamentally dependent on the opportunity to achieve. “I have huge respect for all the women who came before me,” says Evans. “Never once was I told in my career that I can’t do something because I was a female. I’m very appreciative of … the likes of Donna de Varona [and] Billie Jean King, because they paved the way for athletes like me. I was one of the first generations of athletes who didn’t experience discrimination because I was a female.”
Also figuring into local Olympic legacy is the fact that no Olympics has cut as financially attractive a figure as Los Angeles in the past half century. An Oxford Olympic study tallies the average cost for a city to produce and host the Olympics since 1960 is $5.2B. The 1984 Games, in comparison, cost $719M to produce.
“I believe in the legacy of the ’84 Games,” Evans says. “I am an LA Olympic girl, and so when Casey asked me [to join LA 2024], it was an easy ‘yes’ because ’84 is what inspired me. I want to … bring the games home so i can help inspire a whole new generation of young people to do whatever it is they want to do…. Whether it’s [to] swim or be a scientist … I think the Olympics motivate and inspire people in so many different ways outside of the playing field.”
A Well-Timed Call
Evans recalls the summer night in 2015 when she was attending a Taylor Swift concert at STAPLES Center with her then-eight-year-old daughter. “It was funny because I was standing out by the statue of Magic [when Wasserman called] and he said, ‘Let’s talk.’ I looked around L.A. Live and I saw it, you know? It was a little serendipitous because it just made sense to me [in that moment] because I was standing in the middle of it.”
Wasserman and Evans agreed that athletes should have an impactful voice in the process of formulating the LA 2024 bid. Nine-time Paralympian Candace Cable joined as Vice Chair early the following year, boosting efforts to position Southern California as the ideal setting to accommodate international athletes, inclusive to the adaptive sports movement. U.S. Hockey Team Defenseman and Gold Medalist Angela Ruggiero (p. 75), one of three U.S. IOC members, has also been a positive influence with the international community in advancing the effort to bring the Olympics back to the United States for the first time since 1996.
The Atlanta Games resonate with Evans as her greatest Olympic experience, but not for her exploits in the pool, where she came up empty in her quest for Olympic gold. She credits her coach and mentor, Mark Schubert, with advancing her perspective on the competitive journey. “I was devastated with a silver medal, but he called me up and told me that … I was gonna have to learn to deal with both failure and success, and he convinced me to swim for four more years to better understand that.”
Passing the Torch
Billy Haynes, the Chairman of the Atlanta Organizing Committee, whom Evans had known since her breakout ’88 Games, asked her to run the torch for the Opening Ceremonies in 1996. “As a swimmer, you don’t usually go to opening ceremonies because you swim the next day,” explains Evans. “But Billy convinced me that it would be the greatest moment of my Olympic career.… He wouldn’t tell me who I was passing it to, and he wouldn’t tell me who was passing it to me, but he told me I would be the second-to-last runner.” She agreed to do it, more to honor the tradition than for the promise of “an incredible experience.”
Receiving the torch from boxing great and Atlanta product Evander Holyfield, Evans began her symbolic leg to transport the flame to its final recipient. As she drew closer, the enormity of the moment became crystal clear when Evans handed the torch to Muhammad Ali, who provided a memorable ignition of the Atlanta Games. Prior to that moment, Evans says, “I didn’t really experience the Olympics because I was so focused on winning. But in Atlanta I had a moment as an athlete that far exceeded that.”
In January, Evans, Felix, and Greg Louganis served as grand marshals for the 128th Rose Parade in Pasadena, further amplifying the resurgent Olympic spirit that has enlivened Southern California as the IOC’s September decision approaches.
Speaking at the 2016 CSQ LA Visionaries Summit in October, LA 2024 CEO Gene Sykes acknowledged that the biggest obstacle facing the LA 2024 bid was that “the IOC doesn’t know who we are.” Much has changed in under a year, culminating with July’s full-court press in Switzerland. The golden opportunity to build on the region’s Olympic legacy seems to be coming to fruition. There couldn’t be a better time to follow the sun straight to the City of Angels.