By David Kurlander
In a declassified Backstage segment aired this week on Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman compared the Olympics to Disneyland, arguing that both institutions project a mythic American identity to the world. The two iconic establishments collided in 1984, when Disney crafted Sam the Eagle, the official mascot for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Sam’s reign reflected a brash pivot toward private Olympic financing and became a larger talisman for 1980s American business culture.
Prior to the 1984 Games, the Olympics were not known for turning a profit for the host city. The 1976 Montreal Games left Mayor Jean Drapeau with a $1.5 billion deficit, much of it sunk into an elaborate, doughnut-shaped stadium that was nicknamed “The Big Owe.” Even with extensive state and federal assistance, the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid also finished in the red.
Equally vexing to host cities was the political turbulence that so often surrounded the Games. First, police massacred protestors in the immediate lead-up to the 1968 Mexico City Games. Then, there were the terrorist murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games. Four years later, a large delegation of African nations boycotted Montreal to protest apartheid, while the U.S. and 64 other Western nations stayed home from the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was unclear whether the Soviets would come to Los Angeles.
Mascots had emerged as a potential dual solution to the debt and geopolitical tension that had come to plague the Olympics. The first such official critter was the pastel-colored dachshund Waldi, who graced much of the official material in Munich. The Russians scored particularly big with Misha, a massive teddy bear whose selection and attributes were voted on by USSR sports fans. A stuffed Misha traveled to space with Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz-29 rocket in 1978. At the closing ceremony in Moscow, a massive Misha, tethered to a plethora of rainbow balloons, ascended into the sky while the 100,000-person audience (with many in tears) sang “Farewell, Dear Misha.”
The man tasked with finding the answer to Misha—and making the mascot profitable in the process—was Peter Ueberroth, a 40-ish entrepreneur appointed in 1979 by the L.A. City Council as President of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC). Ueberroth was the founder of First Travel, one of the nation’s largest travel agencies. He was a pro-business Republican who supported former Texas Governor John Connally in his unsuccessful 1980 presidential bid. And he was a believer in funding the Games entirely privately.
Ueberroth pursued massive corporate sponsorships to begin paying for the Games. He set the minimum cost of a sponsorship at $4 million. One of the primary draws for potential sponsors would be their ability to use the mascot and other official Olympic symbology in promotions.
Ueberroth’s LAOOC brought on iconic Disney illustrator Bob Moore, who had worked at the company’s Publicity Art Department since the 1940s, to imagineer an alluring mascot. Moore oversaw a group of 30 animators. Initially, the art team searched for a Californian symbol, but Misha had made the state’s Golden Bear flag samizdat. “The golden bear was out because the Russians just got through using a bear mascot,” Moore later summated. Instead, the team settled on Sam the Eagle.
Per the 1984 Olympic Official Report: “A short, stubby, cuddly little eagle evolved. He had a large head, bulbous middle section and a protruding derriere accented by an array of tail feathers. Besides serving as the national bird of the host country, the eagle was also universally recognized as an incarnation of the ideals cited in the Olympic motto: ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (swifter, higher, stronger).”
On August 5th, 1980, the LAOOC held dual unveilings of Sam the Eagle in Los Angeles and New York. On the West Coast, comedian Bob Hope guided Sam the Eagle down the South Steps of Los Angeles City Hall. Sam fell several times and ultimately had to be supported by several assistants.
Local reception to the design was mixed at best. The Los Angeles Times editorial board said that Sam “looks more like a parrot to us. An ungainly parrot, at that.” Many drew specific comparisons between Sam and José Carioca, a singing parrot originated by Brazilian animator J. Carlos and immortalized in the 1944 Disney film The Three Caballeros.
In New York, Ueberroth appeared at the Stage Plaza of the World Trade Center to introduce Sam, making explicit comparison to Misha: “There is a Russian bear that has just gone into hibernation…now here’s Sam the Eagle.”
Los Angeles Times columnist Lou Maysel argued in response, “At least Misha was a cuddly little bear that didn’t convey the jingoistic nature of the Kremlin crowd. Sam the Eagle not only is nationalistic, he’s grotesque.” Even Ueberroth eventually admitted that Sam “looks like a fuzzy duck.”
At the New York unveiling, however, Ueberroth was focused on highlighting Sam’s potential role in the private financing process. “The Olympic Games are now operated by the private sector, not by a government,” he announced, before presenting an initial slate of $116 million in sponsorship: Canon would be the official camera, the Southland Corporation (then the owner of 7-Eleven) would be the official convenience store, Coca-Cola would be the official soft drink, Anheuser-Busch would be the official beer, and United Airlines would be the official airline.
McDonald’s, the official fast-food franchise, also agreed to shoulder the $3 million cost of building a pool for the Games. The following year, 7-Eleven committed to constructing a 6,000-seat velodrome.
Sam went on a 24-city tour to secure additional sponsorships. Over the following three years, the LAOOC secured 43 corporate sponsors and over 50 licensees.
Card Walker, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, served as head of the Olympics merchandising and licensing commission, navigating increasingly turbulent corporate litigation over the usage of Sam’s visage. In March 1984, McDonald’s went to war with Pioneer Chicken, a fried chicken chain that gave out 300,000 2-inch Sam action figures alongside their $7.99 fried chicken buckets. Although Pioneer purchased the birds through a licensed toymaker, McDonald’s argued that they didn’t have a right to use the toys for profit. “Corporate feathers have begun to fly,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
The flaps couldn’t stop Sam’s profitability, however. 10 million Sam products were ultimately moved. McDonald’s central ad campaign, “The U.S. Wins, You Win,” consisted of Sam the Eagle-adorned scratchers that gave away Big Macs when U.S. athletes won Gold. A TV ad campaign had Sam meeting up with Ronald McDonald and Grimace to traipse through the pole-vault and rings.
The commercialism of the Games also became a central tenet of the Soviet Union’s May 1984 decision to boycott the Olympics. While the corporate sponsorships weren’t the only element in the Soviet decision—Reagan administration foreign policy and the reaction to the 1980 U.S. boycott certainly played roles—USSR authorities also referenced the “uncontrolled commercialism” of the festivities.
Even with the Russian exit, the Games proved to be a massive success. President Reagan opened the ceremonies at the Los Angeles Coliseum as Sam the Eagle pranced below. Lionel Richie rocked the closing ceremony with a 9-minute rendition of “All Night Long.” In between, sprinter Carl Lewis won four Gold medals and a rising basketball star named Michael Jordan anchored the triumphant U.S. Men’s National Basketball team.
The Games turned a profit of $222.7 million, surpassing even Ueberroth’s rosy expectations. At the conclusion of the Games, Ueberroth said, “I don’t think that it could have been put on by government. I think it would have failed.” TIME Magazine named Ueberroth the 1984 Person of the Year and he became Major League Baseball’s Commissioner shortly after the Games concluded.
Several Sams danced alongside Mishas, Waldis, and other mascots on the dais at the Opening Ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Games while Koreana sang their hit Olympic anthem, “Hand in Hand.” The 1988 Games made a profit of $497 million, more than doubling the impressive Los Angeles totals.
The legacy of Disney’s Sam the Eagle continues to leave soaring profits—and discontents—in its wake. At the Tokyo Games, Japanese companies invested a record $3 billion, even with low public support for the COVID-limited Games. As Heather and Joanne suggested, these dichotomous existential questions about amateurism, capital, and national identity continue to swirl around the post-Sam games: “Who are we? And how do we present who we are to the world? Who gets to have that say?”
For more on Sam the Eagle’s design, check out Disney historian Jim Korkis’ scholarship on MousePlanet. And to get a larger sense of the business decisions surrounding the 1984 Games, read Peter Ueberroth’s memoir, Made in America: His Own Story.
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