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A high time, at times
Kenny Moore
July 28, 1986
The competition in Moscow was uneven, but it did have its moments
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July 28, 1986

A High Time, At Times

The competition in Moscow was uneven, but it did have its moments

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By the time the volleyball final between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. at the Goodwill Games moved into its fourth hour on Saturday night, the opposing teams had already attained something of the dual ambition of these games. They had been splendid in competition. And they were friends.

"We get along with those guys better than with any other team in the world," U.S. captain Karch Kiraly had said earlier. "We pride ourselves on having hard-fought matches, and then they try to drown us with vodka."

The Soviets had won four world championships and three Olympic golds since 1960 but the U.S. team had won the 1984 Olympic gold and beaten the Russians in last year's World Cup. And now, on the strength of Kiraly's serving, the U.S. won the first two sets, 15-8, 15-8. Then the Soviets got their tremendous blocking game going to win the next two, 15-11 and 16-14. Ultimately, the Soviet pickets grew ever more effective as the U.S. hitters tired. Deciding set: 15-10, U.S.S.R. It was vodka time.

Volleyball, along with track, swimming, women's basketball and gymnastics, provided the Goodwill Games with the kind of elite competition founder Ted Turner had hoped would command world attention. But other sports were diluted by conflicting championships elsewhere and the uniform lack of interest of Western European countries. Many nations were represented in Moscow only by one or two token athletes recruited to swell the number of flags outside Lenin Stadium.

Thus, had they been held anywhere else, these games might be called unnecessary. But as diplomacy, they were a good and generous idea because they brought hundreds of young Americans to a Moscow that was prepared to be nice to them.

Banners at every venue said FROM FRIENDSHIP IN SPORT TO PEACE ON EARTH, and Turner bragged hourly that this was the first step away from the nuclear brink. That was Turner hype, his distinctive blend of good intentions and stunning oversimplification. Nevertheless, U.S. competitors met and sipped Bulgarian peach nectar and talked and danced with Soviets in the restaurant of the Rossiya Hotel. And outside, across Red Square, after being furiously shushed and straightened up by the guards, a lot of Americans got their view of the recumbent Lenin. "Not bad," said Turner, the very model of the casual capitalist titan. "A little pale, but not bad."

The disparity among the sports at the Goodwill Games was illustrated at the indoor stadium of Moscow's Olympic sports complex, a cavern that can hold 40,000 for soccer. During the games a great steel partition divided it in half. On one side was boxing, the concussive world that was dominated by the Soviets—they won 11 of the 12 gold medals—after the Pentagon's unexpected ban on U.S. military athletes prevented nine boxers from competing. On the other side was the music and light of women's gymnastics, and here were truly Olympian performances. The U.S.S.R.'s co-all-around world champion, Oksana Omeliantchik, all 4'9", 85 pounds of her, enraptured the crowd. In the end Omeliantchik would fall from the uneven bars and her 17-year-old teammate and co-world champion Elena Shushunova from the beam, presenting their teammate Vera Kolesnikova with an unexpected all-around championship.

But on the first night of competition Shushunova wrapped up the Soviets' team title with a perfect 10 on the uneven bars. Her landing was as solid and joyful as that of a child jumping in a mud puddle. She crouched there for a moment of smug triumph, then ran off through a multinational ovation. Not a Communist athlete, just a magnificent athlete.

Seattle plans to stage these games in four years. With organization and Turner money to coax in a wider range of nations, they can certainly improve. Yet since engendering goodwill is their avowed mission, four years seems a long time to wait.