SI Vault
Edited by Craig Neff And Robert Sullivan
July 07, 1986
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July 07, 1986


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The Goodwill Games, Ted Turner's financially troubled enterprise with the Soviet Union, will open in Moscow on Saturday with either a bang or a whimper. A whimper is more likely, but allow them a honeymoon. By the time they end July 20, some world records may fall and some stirring competition will no doubt be witnessed.

The Turnerusski Games are a strange concoction: a mini-Olympic matchup of the superpowers, with the rest of the world invited as an afterthought. A made-for-TV event that serves as programming fodder for Turner's cable superstation. A star-studded, hammer-and-sickled ego trip for Turner himself. And yes, a sincere attempt, by Turner's standards, to bring the world closer together.

The whole idea of the games, which Baron de Turner dreamed up when the Soviets failed to appear at the Los Angeles Olympics in '84, is audacious. Here's an $89 million joint venture between a commercial broadcaster, who has direct access to American living rooms, and the U.S.S.R. No middlemen, no International Olympic Committee, no U.S. Olympic Committee, no State Department. Just Ted, Gorby and the gang. The games will be televised for 129 hours via Turner's WTBS super-station and a syndicated network of over-the-air stations that will reach about 82% of the U.S.

Turner, who's investing $35 million in the games and an additional $15 million in promotion, is facing a $10 to $30 million loss. He has been shamelessly hyping the games, calling them "bigger than the Olympics," the last two of which were "shams." This, of course, is rubbish. True, the Goodwill Games have been made to look like the Olympics. There will be competition among more than 4,000 athletes from 60 countries in 18 sports. But because other important meets and world championships are being held around the same time, many of the world's great athletes will be no-shows.

For example, the world swimming and diving championships are set for Aug. 13-23 in Spain. That means the U.S. Swimming Federation will send men's and women's B teams to Moscow in lieu of its best swimmers, who will stay home to train for the worlds. Greg Louganis, the peerless American diver, will also be at home training and will appear in an exhibition at Sea World in Orlando rather than go to Moscow. Michael Gross. West Germany's Olympic gold medal swimmer, will not compete in the Goodwill Games either. Without performers like these, what will the swimming and diving be worth?

The Commonwealth Games, which are going to be held in Edinburgh July 24-Aug. 2, are drawing British, Canadian, Australian and other athletes away from the Goodwill. The cream of British track stars—including runners Steve Cram, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe and decathlete Daley Thompson—is trying to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. So is South African-born runner Zola Budd. France's Olympic pole vault aces, Pierre Quinon and Thierry Vigneron, are staying home to perform in national meets. Says Pierre Amardeilh, a spokesman for the French swimming federation: "The games are not the summit of the sports world. Frankly, we find that the games were organized as money earners for the Soviets and for the Americans."

Still, American stars Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis and Willie Banks, the world-record holder in the triple jump, are going. So are sprinter Evelyn Ashford, heptathlete Jackie Joyner and long jumper Carol Lewis. The women's basketball competition will showcase Cheryl Miller; there is no men's basketball in the games, but WTBS will televise the men's world championships from Madrid as part of the Goodwill television package. "Gymnast Tim Daggett will also compete in Moscow. There will be any number of intriguing U.S.- U.S.S.R. matchups, including world-record holder Sergei Bubka versus Joe Dial in the pole vault, and the U.S. wrestling team, which includes three 1984 gold medalists, against the vaunted Soviets.

One reason Turner is losing money on the games is that he's handing out $6 million in checks for U.S. athletes' goodwill. Without stars and decent TV ratings, he figures, the games won't be worth a plugged kopek. All 18 of the U.S. sporting federations participating in the games have been visited by the tooth fairy. And each track and field athlete is getting at least $3,000 to compete (some, e.g., Lewis and Moses, are reportedly getting far more; Lewis will be chauffeured around Moscow in a Turner limousine).

The knock on the Goodwill—and it's a valid one—is that an entrepreneur in effect is hiring the athletes, at least on the American side, and also deciding which sports will be played. It's commercialism's fullest and boldest triumph over amateur sport to date. But it's also the first top-level multisports confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in more than a decade. And that counts for quite a lot.

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