Olympics 2012: West Adams memorabilia collection is one of best in the world

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This is part of KPCC’s "L.A. To London” series, which will be exploring local connections to the 2012 Summer Olympics. View the series and follow it on Twitter at #latolondon.

One of the world’s best collections of Olympic memorabilia is housed on the grounds of a stately mansion in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood.

The collection is maintained by the LA84 Foundation, whose president — Anita DeFrantz — is an Olympic legend. DeFrantz a member of the International Olympic Committee and was on the team that organized the 1984 Olympics in L.A.

Sitting in her trophy-filled office, she opens a padded case that contains her membership in an exclusive club.

“This is my Olympic medal from 1976," she said. "I laugh about it because no matter how hard I rub it, it remains bronze."

Four years after that Olympic win, DeFrantz was ready to race for the gold in rowing.

“I was at someone’s birthday party, I guess it was January, when I happened to see Persident Carter on television and he said if Soviets don’t remove themselves from the border of Afghanistan we will not send our spectators or our athletes,” she said.

DeFrantz led a legal campaign to challenge the United States government boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics. She lost the effort to protect athletes’ rights to decide for themselves whether to boycott.

She left her post-Olympics law career to join the LA ’84 Olympics organizing committee. Those games were run so well, there was a$232 million surplus. More than a third of that money stayed here as the endowment for the LA84 Foundation.

“We here have been churning out about $6 to $7 million every year to youth sports throughout Southern California,” she said.

The group’s West Adams headquarters includes a modern conference center and a library.

LA84 Foundation Vice President Wayne Wilson was my tour guide though this collection of Olympics past.

“The best Olympic collection in the world, of course, is at the International Olympics Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland," she said. "But I would say this is among the two or three other best Olympic collections in the world, and when you combine the other non-Olympic sports materials we have and the experience and knowledge of the staff, we like to say this is the best collection in the world.”

Behind glass cases, the Olympic torch collection jumps out when you walk through the door. All together, they’re a great study in industrial design: Soviet modernism punctuated by a hammer and sickle on the 1980 Moscow torch, the sleek blue sail design of the 2006 Turin torch, and Wilson’s favorite from the 1994 Olympics in Lillehamer, Norway.

“This torch was used in the opening ceremony at the 1994 winter games. A ski jumper took this to the top of the ski jump and went off the ski jump with this lit and landed and went to the outrun with it,” Wilson said.

The LA84 Foundation collection was started with holdings from a collection of memorabilia from the 1932 L.A. Olympics. They include maps of the venues of those games.

“Down near Long Beach we [had] the yachting events," said Wilson. "They had track cycling out at Rose Bowl. Most of the games, though, took place at Exposition Park or where the University of Southern California is now.”

The LA84 Foundation is also documenting the fast-disappearing oral histories of U.S. Olympians who’ve lived in the L.A. area, such as that of Don Barksdale, a UCLA basketball standout who in 1948 became the first African American on a U.S. Olympic basketball team. Wilson reads from the late Barksdale’s account of a game he played in Kentucky soon after returning as a gold medal-winning Olympian.

“I was staying with a black family and somebody said, 'if this guy is out there playing tomorrow night, he’s going to get shot'. It was a threat, you know, and the people I was staying with were scared to death.”

A few years later, in 1953, Barksdale broke more barriers. He became the first African American to play in an NBA All-Star game. This, and the stories of many other Olympians, are free to browse, many online, at the LA84 Foundation website.

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