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When Everyone Giggled at the LA Coliseum's Headless Nudes

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As Olympic fever burns, we're taking a look at some of the ways Los Angeles's two Summer Olympic Games (1932 and 1984) changed the city. Suggestions? Hit us up at the tipline. On Tuesday, we reviewed the long battle to create Olympic Boulevard; today we turn to a now-familiar piece of public art.

The 1984 summer Olympics were the frugal games--Los Angeles solicited loads of corporate sponsorships and decided to use mostly existing venues rather than building all new ones (Pauley Pavilion, the Rose Bowl, and Santa Anita Park all hosted, among many others; the modern pentathlon was held in gated Coto de Caza in the OC!). Opening ceremonies were held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and to give the stadium's entrance a little something special, the Olympic committee commissioned Venice-based sculptor Robert Graham to create "Olympic Gateway." The double headless nude feels like another part of the Coliseum landscape to us now, but it actually caused a whole bunch of pearl-clutching and giggling at the time of its unveiling (it was dedicated on June 1, 1984). Shortly after, architect Joseph Giovannini talked to Graham for the New York Times News Service--Graham said "his intention was to depict 'specific athletes, but not individual portraits; by cropping the figures, I made them more emblematic and more universal.' The female and male torsos are modeled after two athletes - whose names the sculptor will not disclose - who will participate in the Games this summer. She is in track and field; he is on the United States water polo team."

Let's go to the first-hand accounts:

New York magazine couldn't help itself in its sniffy article on the Olympics, "Stars and Smog Forever": "The Olympic Gateway, Venice sculptor Robert Graham's 25-foot-high bronze arch, which supports the headless torsos of two startlingly explicit nudes, has been unveiled at the entrance to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The snickering has been heard all over town. "Penis, penis, penis was all everyone was talking about," wrote Herald Examiner columnist Joe Morgenstern. At the United States Track and Field Trials, at the coliseum, all the mostly male sportswriters were talking about was what it was like to stare up at the woman statue's anatomically exact vagina."

Giovannini explained that "Some people felt that, without heads, there is an element of violence in the sculpture, and perhaps the insinuation that athletes are brawn only. Others felt that the anatomical detail is too clinical."

And he added that some were afraid of what those Raiders fans would do: "Yet other observers wondered whether the works might be abused by the crowds who come regularly to the Los Angeles coliseum for professional football."

The male statue's inspiration was eventually outed as US water polo team captain Terry Schroeder (from the LA Times): "Schroeder was embarrassed-but only about the controversy and not the sculpture itself, which took 60 hours of modeling to produce ? 'Hey, someday I'm going to take my grand kids to see it and say that a long time ago that used to be me up there.'"

From the same article, a little topical humor: "the Olympic Gateway even inspired one wisecrack in the letters to the editor column of The Times that the Russians stayed away from the Games because they'd seen the 'decapitated lewds.'"

Mayor Bradley received a very concerned letter about the matter (as recounted in the LA Times): "'Who performs in the Olympic Games naked as the statues?' a Michigan woman asked. 'They should've had athletic clothes on-as is, they are gross. Why didn't they have heads-the most important part of the body? No wonder there was a crowd milling around them-they were probably all perverts,' she concluded."
· The Great 1920s Battle That Created Olympic Boulevard [Curbed LA]

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

3911 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90037