Mark Dyreson


The City of Los Angeles “Follow the Sun” float.

The 128th Tournament of Roses Parade stepped-off on Monday morning, January 2, beneath overcast skies and temperatures in the low fifties.  It was not the best climate that the parade has enjoyed in its long history but still better than weather in most homes throughout the United States watching the Pasadena festivities on television.  It was certainly far better than weather outside my house in central Pennsylvania–slate grey skies, temperatures in the low thirties, and freezing rain mixed with just plain cold rain.  As I watched the spectacle I wished I could spend the winter in Pasadena, but settled for putting another log on the blaze in my den.  For more than a century the Rose Parade has been holding such visions of California as a mid-winter paradise in front of snow-and-ice bound denizens of the industrial and agricultural heartlands of the United States.

In 2017 the Rose Parade doubled as an advertisement not only for California as the American grail of idyllic living but for the quest of Los Angeles to garner a third Olympic spectacle.   The City of Los Angeles float, “Follow the Sun,” featured a flowery recreation of the Los Angeles Coliseum on which former Olympians and Paralympians cavorted.  Gymnasts Bart Connor, an American hero of the 1984 Los Angeles games, and Nadia Comaneci, an all-time great who after her Olympian career immigrated from Romania to the U.S. and later married Connor, waved to the crowd from the front of the float.  Anita DeFrantz, a bronze-medalist in rowing in 1976, an American member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and one of the leaders of the LA 2024 waved alongside the gymnasts.  Olympic volley-ballers, including beach volleyball stars April Ross and Holly McPeak, played a match in the center of the float.  Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympian who won three silver medals in the long jump, saluted the crowd from the rear of the float as did LA 2024 vice-chairwoman Candace Cable, who competed in nine Paralympics and earned eight gold, two silver, and two bronze medals in both summer and winter events.[1]

Right behind the City of Los Angeles’ promotion of the LA 2024 Olympic bid came the trio of grand marshals—three former Olympians with deep roots in Southern California, Allyson Felix, Janet Evans, and Greg Louganis.  Felix, a Los Angeles native, won six gold medals and three silver medals in a variety of sprints over four Olympics from 2004 to 2016.  Louganis won four gold medals and one silver medal in diving over three Olympics from 1976 to 1988, including double-gold at Los Angeles in 1984.  Evans won four gold medals and one silver medal in swimming in an Olympic career stretching from 1988 to 1996.  The Tournament of Roses selected the trio in concert with LA 2024 leadership to promote the bid effort.  Indeed, Evans serves as a member of the leadership team for the bid, and Louganis and Felix join Evans on the LA 2024 Athletes’ Committee.[2]  The three Olympians embodied the 2017 parade theme, “Echoes of Success,” showcasing that American Olympic prowess emerges from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences.[3]


While some might interpret the choice of the three—Evans, a woman; Felix, an African American woman; and Louganis, an openly gay bi-racial man of Samoan and Swedish heritage who made a post-Olympic career of fighting for LGBTQ causes as a California commentary on America in the age of Trump—they were in fact announced as marshals a few days before the 2016 presidential election when most pundits and pollsters confidently predicted a different result in the race than what eventually transpired.  Louganis, Felix, and Evans appeared at the gala heralding their selection with “Sam the Eagle,” the old mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  They also fit neatly into a much older tradition of using American Olympians to celebrate ethnic, racial, gender, class, and other categories of diversity—one that stretches back to the earliest interpretations of American performance at the origins of the modern Olympic movement.[4]  This persistent and popular deployment of American Olympians as symbols of some sort of heterogeneous “melting pot” as a key to the national success in international competition has never been a partisan position in American politics.  Instead, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the ardent left and the fervent right have cheered U.S. Olympic teams as signifiers of equality and meritocracy. From Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) to Ronald Reagan (Republican) and Bill Clinton (Democrat), American political leaders have long embraced Olympians to promote their visions how diversity has promoted American exceptionalism.[5]

While ideologues of a wide variety of stripes have used American Olympic diversity to combat the extremes of nativism that have historically waxed and waned in American culture, had the LA 2024 bid committee and the Tournament of Roses Association really wanted to send a message about the contributions of immigrants to American prowess they could have selected a triumvirate of immigrant American Olympian grand marshals that included Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese “lot boy” migrant who carried the flag for the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing games; Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean refugee whose family relocated to the U.S. when he was a boy and later became the silver medalist in the marathon at Athens in 2004; and Southern California’s own Olga Fikotová, who won a gold medal for Czechoslovakia in the 1956 Olympics, married her American sweetheart Harold Connolly, migrated to Santa Monica, and served as the U.S. flag-bearer in the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Had the engineers of the 2024 Los Angeles bid sought to express solidarity with the LGBQT community they could have chosen U.S. soccer gold medalist Megan Rapinoe and U.S. basketball gold medalist Elena Delle Donne to serve alongside Louganis.

But the LA 2024 and Tournament of Roses collaboration was not designed to promote alternative political or social visions.   It was crafted to sell Southern California to the nation and the world as an Olympian paradise, a California dreamscape that would be ideal host for the world’s most spectacular sporting event.  Such collaborations between sporting magnates and boosters of Southern California lifestyles have an ancient–by California standards–history, stretching back into the late nineteenth century.  The Rose Parade and Los Angeles’ multiple Olympic bids have their genesis in the idea of using sporting spectacles to sell California to the world.[6]

Like many Southern California traditions, the Tournament of Roses Parade began as a promotion for a real estate development.  In 1890 the well-heeled members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club, most of them transplants from the high society environs of New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and other established metropolises, came up with the idea for a Tournament of Roses to advertise their majestic mid-winter environs to snow-bound relatives and neighbors in their former hometowns.  They planned a retro medieval-style tournament that featured a mixture of modern and antiquated equestrian events, from jousts to polo matches.  With an abundance of mid-winter flowers in bloom, they kicked-off their well-bred extravaganza with a parade that featured horse-drawn carriages garnished with bountiful blossoms cut from local gardens.  So began the Rose Parade, an annual event held ever since to promote Southern California as the sun-dappled, affluence-blessed lifestyle capital of the United States—the sweetest slice of the American dream.[7]


Early Tournaments of Roses showcased the athletic and aesthetic sensibilities of the country club set.  Dr. Charles Frederick Holder, a former curator of the American Museum of Natural History and the scion of a prominent Boston family who had retired to Pasadena to take advantage of local sport fishing opportunities, led the charge as the first president of the Tournament of Roses Association.  In addition to the parade and equestrian sports, Holder sprinkled in a few other athletic events, including footraces and tugs-of-war.  American football, a game that originated during the 1870s as primer in manhood at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the other finishing schools of the country-club set, joined the Tournament of Roses festivities in 1902.  The University of Michigan trounced Stanford University in the inaugural tilt between gridiron gladiators.  In spite of the overflow crowd that turned out for the game, football would not return to the festivities until 1916.  In its stead, in 1904 the Tournament of Roses added chariot races, inspired by best-selling novel Ben-Hur, that sought to evoke the neo-imperial grandeur of Rome in modern America.    The chariot contests ultimately proved too expensive and too dangerous, much as they had for the Roman Empire, and disappeared in 1915.  Football returned the following year.  The Rose Bowl gridiron matches have proved more enduring than the chariot races and remain a Tournament of Roses staple that neither danger nor expense has yet curtailed.[8]

From the outset grand marshals led the parades that started the Tournament of Roses festivities.  Early marshals were elite sportsmen drawn from the leadership of the festival’s sponsor, the Valley Hunt Club, including Professor Holder and his cronies.  By the end of the 1920s the Southern California boosters turned to celebrity marshals to generate national publicity for the parade.  Hollywood actors, military heroes, politicians, astronauts, and other American luminaries dotted the roster of parade leaders.  Many had California connections, from Jimmy Stewart (1982) to Kermit the Frog (1996) to Earl Warren (1943, 1955).  Others, from John Glenn (1990) to Dr. Jane Goodall (2013) to Gerald Ford (1978), were national figures without any obvious California linkage.  The Tournament of Roses selection committee probably came to regret a few of the choices in light of later scandals—Paula Deen (2011), Bill Cosby (2003), and Richard Nixon (1953, 1960) spring to mind.  Athletes have figured prominently on the grand marshal roster.  The veteran voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Vin Scully, led the parade in 2014.  Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color line in major league baseball, received a posthumous nod in 1999.  The last major leaguer to begin his career, like Robinson, in the Negro Leagues got the Rose Parade nod the year after he overcome a mountain of racist venom from angry white fans and broke the all-time major league home run record: “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron led the parade through Pasadena in 1975.  Golfers Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez (1995) and Arnold Palmer (1965) served as grand marshals, as have global soccer legend Pelé (1987), football player and announcer Merlin Olsen (1983), and legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (1944)—although in Stagg’s long tenure his teams never played in a Rose Bowl.[9]

The 2017 marshal trio are not the first Olympians to lead the parade.  In 2015 a rider-less horse led the parade in honor of Louis Zamperini, the evangelist, war-hero, and Olympic runner at the 1936 Berlin games whose astounding life story had been chronicled in a best-selling book and major motion picture.[10]  Zamperini passed away in the summer of 2014 before he could undertake his marshal duties.  David Wolper, the Hollywood producer who helped to stage the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, shared marshal duties in 1999 with Jackie Robinson (a posthumous honor since the legendary star had passed away in 1974) astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Hollywood child-actress legend and diplomat Shirley Temple Black.  Two American Olympic stars, track-and-field star Carl Lewis and gymnast Shannon Miller, earned grand marshal honors in 1997.[11]

The first—and for interpretations of the 2017 parade as a commercial for the Los Angeles Olympics, the most significant—appearance of an Olympian as grand marshal occurred in January of 1932 when William May Garland, a Los Angeles real estate developer, member of the IOC, and the godfather of the original installment of the Los Angeles Olympics, served as grand marshal.  Garland and the Tournament of Roses Association made the entire parade into an Olympic promotion under the theme of “Nations and Games in Flowers.”  Every float that year took on an Olympic theme, representing either a nation attending or an athletic event or an ancient Greek Olympian connection.[12]  The Olympian Rose Parade bedazzled Jean Bosquet, a recent Eastern transplant to Southern California who covered the event for the Los Angeles Times.  For Bosquet, the experience of wintertime rose petals combined with Olympian grandeur carried the power to instantly transform Easterners such as him into converts of California as paradise, as he breathlessly confessed in a front-page essay on the Rose Parade.[13]


Like the originators of the Rose Parades, Garland staged the 1932 Olympics to sell property.  As one of the largest realtors in greater Los Angeles, he managed to get municipal governments to use taxpayer funds to spiff up his holdings by planting the ubiquitous palm trees that came to signify the city along the boulevards that led to his developments.  That same spirit of civic boosterism and profit motive would animate the 1984 Olympic extravaganza, as governments in the Los Angeles basin rewarded real estate developers with additional palms to gentrify local throughways.[14]   As political theater the 2017 grand marshals and Olympic-themed floats have more in common with the 1932 Rose Parade led by Garland than they do with a growing progressive spirit among the powerbrokers who stage these events.  True, in 1932 a rich, white, male entrepreneur served as the public face of the Los Angeles Olympics while in 2017 the diversity of both the core leadership of the bid group and the public faces of LA 2024 reveal some remarkable changes in the constitution of power elites.  Still, Evans, Felix, and Louganis are being made to do essentially the same thing today that Garland did decades ago.  The effort is not calling for a profound social revolution or an ambitious economic redistribution but rather is selling the Olympics to a public whose consent is required to get the job done.  The corporate promoters who design Olympic bids understand that what rich, white male personas could do in 1932 now takes a multi-cultural team. However, while the racial, ethnic, and gender make-up of the elites has broadened considerably, they remain the class destined to profit most handsomely from a third Los Angeles Olympics.  This is not meant as an indictment of Evans, Felix, and Louganis, who have each used their global fame to partner in important charitable campaigns to improve the quality of life for all Southern Californians.  Rather, it is intended to highlight the ironies that while since Garland’s era the elite classes have been profoundly democratized in terms of their ethnic, gender, and sexual composition, the mechanics of acquiring an Olympics in Los Angeles or any other city have not been similarly democratized but remain in the hands of the elites.

For a real challenge to social status quo, the 1975 grand marshal choice, Hank Aaron, represented a much more radical departure by the Tournament of Roses Association.  Aaron was the first African American grand marshal in the history of the parade.  His chase of Babe Ruth’s all-time home record had elicited death threats from white supremacists and revealed the deep racial fissures that remained in American culture in the post-Civil Rights era.  Aaron consistently refused to offer white America feel-good platitudes about how his own personal triumphs demonstrated that racism was about to disappear from American life.  He routinely decried institutional racism in baseball and other American institutions even as legal and customary segregation diminished during his career.[15]

Rarely, however, have the promoters of Southern California who stage the Rose Parade made as dramatic a choice as Hank Aaron.  What if they had selected native Pasadena son Jackie Robinson as grand marshal in 1948, in the aftermath of his first season in the major leagues when he had led the Dodgers to the World Series and won plaudits for his fierce determination to erase the national pastime’s color line, rather than when he had been dead for almost three decades when they finally made him a posthumous grand marshal in 1999?  What if they had tabbed Greg Louganis as grand marshal in 1996, shortly after he came out as both gay and HIV-positive?  What if they selected Los Angeles native Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1989, after she set sprint records as the fastest woman of all time in the 1988 Seoul Olympics?  What if in 1937 the Tournament of Roses Association had selected a trio of local African Americans who had won glory and medals under incredible duress at the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin—James LuValle, the bronze medalist in the 400-meter dash who grew up in Los Angeles; Cornelius Johnson, the gold medalist in the high jump who grew up in Compton; and Matthew “Mack” Robinson (Jackie’s older brother), the silver medalist in the 200-meter dash who grew up in Pasadena?[16]

“What ifs,” however, are the historian’s trusted sleight-of-hand, designed mainly to shift the focus in order to pontificate about what might have been rather than what was.  The civic deacons who stage Rose Parades and select its grand marshals are not social crusaders who appeal to better angels of human natures.  They are purveyors to the ice and snow-bound masses of January rose petals and sylvan vistas, of suburban utopias in balmy Mediterranean climes, of palm trees and Pacific beaches, of mission-style cul-de-sacs littered with year-round backyard swimming pools and perpetual orange blossoms.  They trade in California dreams—a product they share with Los Angeles Olympic promoters.  Sometimes, as in “Echoes of Success” and “Nations and Games in Flowers,” their advertising campaigns intersect.  From my bleak midwinter chair in front of the television and fireplace in gloomy central Pennsylvania, their pitch has a remarkable appeal.  Janet Evans, Allyson Felix, and Greg Louganis would make fabulous neighbors.



All photographs provided by LA 2024.

[1] Daniel Etchells, “Los Angeles 2024 Promote Olympic and Paralympic Bid at Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game,” Inside the Olympics, 3 January 2017,

[2] “Rose Parade 2017: Here’s the Complete Lineup with Every Float, Band and Equestrian Group in Order,” San Jose Mercury News, 21 December 2016,;  Claudia Palma, “Your 2017 Rose Parade Grand Marshals Are Olympic Athletes Allyson Felix, Greg Louganis and Janet Evans,” Pasadena Star-News, 3 November 2016,; LA 2024 Bid webpage,

[3] “2017 Rose Parade Theme,”

[4] While some categories of diversity such as ethnicity, race, gender, and class, have remained constant over the history of American Olympic enterprises, others have changed considerably.  In the first half of the twentieth century pundits paid a great deal of attention to regional identity, particularly East versus West.  By the end of the twentieth century notions of regional identity had mostly disappeared, but questions of sexual identity had become a major focus of interpretations.

[5] Mark Dyreson, Making the American Team: Sport, Culture and the Olympic Experience (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); idem, Crafting Patriotism for Global Domination: America at the Olympics (London: Routledge, 2009); idem, “Return to the Melting Pot: An Old American Olympic Story,” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies 12 (2003): 1-22; idem, “Playing for a National Identity: Sport, Ethnicity and American Political Culture,”  Proteus 11 (fall 1994): 39-43; idem, “Melting Pot Victories: Racial Ideas and the Olympic Games in American Culture during the Progressive Era,” International Journal of the History of Sport 6.1 (May 1989): 49-61.

[6] Mark Dyreson and Matthew Llewellyn, “Los Angeles Is the Olympic City: Legacies of 1932 and 1984,” International Journal of the History of Sport 25.14 (December 2008): 1991-2018; Mark Dyreson, “The Republic of Consumption at the Olympic Games: Globalization, Americanization, and Californization,” Journal of Global History 8.2 (July 2013): 256-278; idem, “The Endless Olympic Bid: Los Angeles and the Advertisement of the American West,” Journal of the West 47.4 (Fall 2008): 26-39.  On the mass media’s role in this process Michael R. Real, Super Media: A Cultural Studies Approach (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989).

[7] “Tournament of Roses History Timeline,”; “Rose Bowl Game Result History List,”; History of the Tournament of Roses Association,”

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal History,”

[10] Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York: Random House, 2010); Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, Universal Pictures, 2014.

[11] “Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal History.”

[12] “Garland Named Roses Marshal,” Los Angeles Times, 9 December 1931, sec. A, p. 1; “Floats Entrance Throngs,” Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1932, sec. A, p. 1.

[13] Jean Bosquet, “Beauty and Glory Join in Rose Parade Epic,” Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1932, sec. A, p. 1.

[14] Dyreson and Llewellyn, “Los Angeles Is the Olympic City”; Dyreson, “The Republic of Consumption at the Olympic Games”; Dyreson, “The Endless Olympic Bid.”

[15] Certainly Aaron’s autobiography challenges the racial status quo.  Hank Aaron, with Lonnie Wheeler, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).  See also, Howard Bryant, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010).

[16] John Gleaves and Mark Dyreson, “The ‘Black Auxiliaries’ in American Memories: Sport, Race, and Politics in the Construction of Modern Legacies,” International Journal of the History of Sport, 27.16-18 (November/December 2010): 2893-2924.

Mark Dyreson is professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in history of sport, social and cultural dynamics of human movement, race, ethnicity, gender, and sport. He has served as President of the North American Society for Sport History, is co-editor of several collections on sport and society, and author of Making the American Team: Sport, Culture, and the Olympic Experience, and director of research and educational programs at the Penn State Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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