Youths in tough, inner-city areas of Los Angeles may soon have an alternative to street gangs: flag football. An innovative new program aimed at using sports to prevent gang recruitment is being started by a community group here. The project is one of more than a dozen youth-oriented athletic programs about to begin in southern California, backed by surplus funds from the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Almost a year and a half after the end of the Los Angeles Games, some of the first Olympic surplus money is beginning to be parceled out. There is a sizable honey pot to deal with. Some $225 million -- the largest Olympic surplus ever -- remains from the privately funded games.
Much of that money will be kept in local hands. Under the L.A. Olympic charter, 40 percent is to go to the US Olympic Committee, 40 percent to the games' host region, and 20 percent to the national amateur sports federations.
None of the three groups has received its entire allotment yet. But recently the foundation responsible for divvying up southern California's roughly $90 million share began giving out some of its money.
Among the recipients: a rowing club in Santa Barbara that will use some of its funding to help disabled rowers; a group in East Los Angeles that intends to start a girl's softball league; and a tennis association that will launch programs, mainly for youth from low-income families.
``Our primary purpose is to improve the quality and quantity of sports for youth in southern California,'' says Stanton Wheeler, president of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee, Amateur Athletic Foundation -- the group distributing this region's share of the surplus.
The foundation is trying to establish itself as a catalyst for local amateur sports -- and in the process perhaps become a model for other athletic organizations around the country. One of its pet projects will be to establish a ``sports resource center.'' The center will act as an athletic research facility and clearinghouse for information about sports programs in southern California.
Eventually, foundation officials envision the center becoming a sort of hall of fame for the Olympics as well. While the foundation's mandate is to enhance amateur athletics, some of its recent grants have social significance as well. The grant program is, in fact, something of an experiment in using sports to foster social improvement.
The gang project is the most visible example. Community Youth Gang Services, a network of street workers that tries to thwart gang violence, was given $350,000 to set up sports clubs in six ``tough'' neighborhoods.
The idea is to bring athletics to youth who seldom get a chance to participate in recreational activities. But the main goal is to keep 10- to 14-year-olds from joining gangs. ``Our message is don't join a gang, join our club,'' says Kelly Presley of Youth Gang Services.
The foundation has received over 200 requests, and in its latest round of funding it gave out 17 grants worth a total of about $1 million. It expects to spend $16 million on foundation-initiated programs and youth sports over the next two years, the funds for which will come mainly from investment income on its share of the surplus.
While distributing such a large booty would seem an enviable task, it hasn't been without its controversy. Last spring, for instance, foundation trustees gave out a $2 million grant for a cultural program to be held in 1987 that will be patterned after the Olympic Arts Festival. At the time there was talk of using the surplus for all kinds of activities, from famine relief to aid for the elderly.
While there are still some who would like to see the money more widely dispersed, Mr. Wheeler and several other key foundation officials see sports as their sole focus. ``Our charter really is for sports,'' he says.
Meanwhile, the US Olympic Committee is just beginning to take grant requests for its surplus, which will be targeted more at atheletes with olympic potential.
``Having a stable source of funding like this could have a big impact on both our current and future atheletes,'' says Rob Hilbert, executive vice-president of the US Olympic Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo.