Sondheimer: Greatest legacy of 1984 Olympic Games is LA84 Foundation

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Driving past a San Fernando Valley middle school during lunchtime, the sports fields were buzzing with activity. Soccer balls were being kicked, basketballs were being dribbled, tetherballs were being socked.

My previous three hours had been spent attending a conference sponsored by the LA84 Foundation in downtown Los Angeles, listening to speakers discuss the magic and importance of inclusion in sports.

When competitions are open to anyone, whether you’re rich or poor, nerdy or athletic, a future pro or a future doctor, what unfolds could produce something unexpected.

Right on cue, amid the many games being played during lunchtime on the middle school campus, there was a kid wearing glasses and long pants receiving a high five from another kid in shorts who looked like the school’s soccer star. They were having fun, a lesson that needs to be appreciated everywhere.

In the rush to separate those with pro ambitions from the amateurs, people can forget the journey. Remember when it was fun to win a game and get cupcakes. Remember when it was fun to lose a game and still get ice cream. Remember when it was fun to be driven to your Little League game and debate what to listen on the car radio. Remember that first day of high school when the coach recognized you in the hallway and greeted you with a friendly handshake that immediately injected self-confidence during a morning of nervousness.

Former NBA player Derek Anderson was at the conference telling his story of overcoming poverty and absent parents.

“Listen to learn,” he said. “You don’t always begin where you end.”

He explained how sports was so influential in his life.

“Basketball taught me to be a good teammate,” he said.

He said that when coaching a youth team, he tries to empower his players by putting them in position to exercise authority, such as making them the coach. Suddenly they’re shouting for players to stop making turnovers when they were making the turnovers a few minutes earlier.

“Put kids in position of leadership roles and you’ll see a different outcome,” he said.

It’s the 40th anniversary of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and there was no more important outcome than the creation of the LA84 Foundation from the Games’ financial surplus. It has invested millions of dollars in youth sports and helped save, expand and cultivate the idea that sports should be available to anyone. It’s the greatest legacy of the Olympic Games and proves passionate people with integrity and resources can make a difference.

So many disadvantaged communities have been given lifelines to develop sports programs. So many alternative sports have gained in popularity for boys and girls, from skateboarding to rowing to rugby, with a little seed money to help attract the curious and the courageous.

As pointed out by one speaker, not every sports experience is positive. Perhaps a coach hasn’t been trained properly. Perhaps a facility doesn’t have enough security to allow participants to feel safe. Perhaps politics or ignorance prevents a newcomer from getting the chance to shine.

Yet intervention by professionals who recognize problems can transform something negative into a big positive.

There are many people fighting the good fight who only need support.

“It’s a continuous investment. It’s not one and done,” said Santee High principal Violeta Ruiz, a former water polo coach who welcomes sports participation from all her students and seeks partnerships in her community.

Her school’s valedictorians are athletes.

“Sports really opens up their eyes,” she said.

It’s magical when a shy, previously unmotivated student discovers something new, makes a friend and uses a sports experience to change their outlook

Starting in 2024-25, recess is mandated in California for 30 minutes during the school day. So much can be done positively for the mental health of students with the right approach. Just like vacations can reinvigorate and revitalize, so can exercise breaks.

Thanks to the LA84 Foundation, Southern Californians have the opportunity to embrace the fight for everyone to enjoy a sports experience if they want one.

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