Peter Ueberroth

updated 12/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1984 01:00AM

The U.S. collected 83 gold medals at last summer's Los Angeles Olympics, but the biggest American winner never stood on the victory stand. He is Peter V. Ueberroth, 47, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Ueberroth devoted five years to the immense task and proved the naysayers wrong by turning a potential disaster into a grand success, netting $150 million in the process. Ensconced in his new job as commissioner of major league baseball and acting as co-chairman of the committee to refurbish the Statue of Liberty, he may be destined for political office. Sitting amid crates in his nearly dismantled office at LAOOC headquarters, Ueberroth reflected with Los Angeles bureau chief Martha Smilgis on the most trying—yet triumphant—two weeks of his life.

How did you celebrate when the Olympics were over?

There wasn't any time to celebrate. I felt an obligation to attend different parties and programs. I had to visit the Olympic offices, thank staffers and see my kids, who had worked at the Games. For me, celebration meant sleep.

Did you have fun?

There was too much tenseness for me to have fun. I was always aware that one incident could destroy it all. And, for me, there were always 50 problems that required instant solutions. In fact, I was a walking communications center. I had every kind of device attached to my body. There were the usual car phones plus beepers upon beepers. I was always "on."

How do you feel about the criticism over the $150 million surplus?

Before we started, all we heard about were the financial disasters of past Olympics. Montreal had $1 billion in debts to pay. The fact that we were overly cautious was understandable. If we were too cautious, so be it.

Where does the money go?

At the moment, 100 percent is going to amateur sports in the U.S. However, a small amount may be refunded to the foreign national Olympic committees.

What did you learn by running the Games?

I learned that the private sector's involvement is the real solution to problems in our society. I also learned that I was right about the deep patriotism of the people in this country. And, although I am highly organized, I had only managed a business before. I now know that I can lead a large group of people.

How much did the Soviet boycott hurt the Games?

I don't know if it would have been better with or without the Russians. The most difficult thing was persuading 140 countries to come in the face of the boycott. The Russians wanted to whittle us down to 80 countries, the number they had attending the 1980 Olympics. We did everything to get countries here. We sent empty planes to Africa to pick up their athletes. And we did it.

Did you ever get nervous?

Eight months before the Olympics began, the realization hit us that it was more than a sporting event. The reputation of the U.S. was at stake. This little committee had an awesome responsibility.

Which athletes did you find the most exciting?

Ecaterina Szabo and the whole Romanian team. Their dignity from beginning to end was superior. And Mary Lou Retton had a special exuberance, also Joan Benoit, because I fought so hard to get the women's marathon into the Games.

Did you actually watch any events?

Well, I had rows of TV screens set up at the headquarters. There were 34 sets, covering all the venues. But I didn't really get to see much of anything live except for a few moments of water polo.

How did you hold up physically?

I lost about 10 pounds. I was sleeping three or four hours a night and I usually get seven. And there was one scary moment about a week before the Opening Ceremony. I was working until 11 p.m. Somehow, I don't know how, a fragment of glass got in my eye. I was awake all night. It was serious because the glass was working its way in. Fortunately, two specialists took the piece of glass out and treated the eye. There was talk of my wearing an eye patch to the Opening Ceremony, but luckily I didn't have to.

What gave you the most personal satisfaction?

The torch relay. From the beginning it was criticized, and there were plenty of problems at the start. But once it got going and moved along the roads of America, people came out to see it. It rekindled the patriotism that is alive and well in the U.S.

What was the most exciting moment for you personally?

When I was introduced at the Closing Ceremony, 100,000 people stood up.

How did you react?

I cried.

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