Opening on a sea of goodwill

There was pomp aplenty at a big new sports competition in Moscow
July 13, 1986

Two huge, hydraulically operated giraffes peeked out of the tunnels at Moscow's Lenin Stadium last Saturday night and started lifting their heads slowly toward the sky. They rose up before 103,000 spectators and over a field swarming with dancers, clowns, sword jugglers and young Soviet athletes, until suddenly two teams of aerialists climbed out from under the giraffes' chins and began to perform, 120 feet above the ground. Up in his box, a pleased Ted Turner watched the opening ceremonies of the first Goodwill Games. "This ain't the Olympics; it's the Goodwill Games," Turner had been saying all week. "But it looks and feels like the Olympics, doesn't it? It looks, feels and tastes like it."

Turner's games had drawn some 3,000 athletes from 70 countries for two weeks of competition in 18 amateur sports, bringing in what probably was the largest influx of American visitors in 40 years. Turner kept insisting that the objective was to foster Soviet-American friendship, but he had to gloat over his creation of such a massive international sports event—one providing 129 hours of commercial programming to a worldwide television network linked to Turner's Atlanta superstation, WTBS, which shut out the major networks. "This is the biggest non-network event in the history of television," he crowed. "It's gotta be killing 'em back in New York."

The games seemed Olympian in several of the best and worst respects. The opening ceremonies were magnificent but laden with politics: An 11,314-member card section flashed moving cartoons, seascapes and birch forests, but there also were depictions of Lenin and nuclear mushroom clouds. National anthems were played during medal ceremonies. A cauldron was lit, rekindling memories of the boycotts that for 10 years had kept top-level U.S. and Soviet athletes from competing in multisport events. As during the '80 Olympics, Moscow was festooned with banners and flags, and its traffic inflow was shut off to reduce congestion. "Everyone here likes these kinds of festivals," said one Muscovite. "There is no traffic on the streets and plenty of nice goods on the shelves."

The early competition, however—most of it in swimming—was a notch below Olympian. Only the Soviets and a few Eastern European nations sent their best world-class swimmers, and through Sunday night the only record set was the 7:50.64 world mark swum by the U.S.S.R.'s remarkable Vladimir Salnikov in the 800-meter freestyle.

Such were the games' organizational difficulties—mostly a product of the language barrier and last-minute athlete recruiting—that few knew exactly who was competing in any given event until close to starting time. "I still don't know who was in there against us," said Maureen Custy of Denver after finishing seventh in the women's marathon in 2:36:44. The U.S. men's marathoners had heard that two top Djiboutian competitors might be in their race but weren't sure until race time. The Djiboutians didn't materialize, and Belaine Dinsamo of Ethiopia won in 2:14:42.

For a while, the games seemed downright star-crossed. On the eve of the competition, the U.S. Department of Defense threw organizers a diplomatic low blow by barring 11 members of the U.S. boxing team and one modern pentathlete from competing. The 12 are all either in or employed by the U.S. Army or Marines and the explanation for their exclusion came directly from their commander in chief, Ronald Reagan, who said they were prohibited from taking part in a "commercial endeavor."

Other problems were evident in the games' very first event, the women's 50-meter freestyle, on Friday evening. Six competitors climbed onto the blocks, bent forward and—bang! There went the gun, before the swimmers were set. The race starter, a Soviet, either did or did not say, "Take your marks" in English, as rules require. "If he did," said Angel Myers, one of two U.S. swimmers in the race, "it sure didn't sound like English."

"I heard 'Ah-uhhh,' " said the other American, Kathy Coffin, "and then I saw the girl next to me diving into the water, so I went in, too." Myers held a clear lead the entire race, but when she touched at the finish, the scoreboard gave no time for her and listed Coffin as the winner. The Americans looked at each other blankly, still disoriented from the quick start and unsure which of them had become the Goodwill Games' first gold medalist. Myers, 19, eventually was declared the winner.

By then, the men's 50 had gone off with an even worse start; the whole field was left standing. John Sauerland of the U.S. won the race, but the American staff filed a protest anyway. It was at first upheld, then overturned, at which point the U.S. appealed. "What are you telling me?" an incensed Sauerland asked head coach Peter Daland at the end of the evening. "Are you telling me I have to be ready to swim tomorrow?" Daland explained that he and the staff were trying to maintain the integrity of the competition. Sauerland was happier the next day when the appeal was denied and he was assured his gold medal.

The women's marathon on Saturday morning was another diminished event. The course, along the banks of the Moscow River, had no mile markers and only a few kilometer postings, and the water stations were inadequately stocked. There were 47 women in the field, but even that figure was misleading because only three countries—the U.S., Mexico and the U.S.S.R.—had entered. The balance of the field was composed of Soviets—maybe even a jogger or two—taking part in their national championship.

The eventual winner was 37-year-old Nadyezhda Gumerova of the U.S.S.R. in 2:33:35. The top U.S. hope, Julie Isphording, who had become ill the night before, presumably from something she had eaten, threw up six times during the race and placed 10th. "I'm an all-American kid who likes hamburgers and pizza," said Isphording, blaming her ailment on the native food.

The top performance of the games' first weekend was Salnikov's 800 free on Friday. Salnikov, the swimming star of the '80 Games, not only demolished his own three-year-old world record of 7:52.33 in the non-Olympic event with a mark of 7:50.64, but also showed he would be ready for Sunday's 1,500. (He easily won the 1,500 in 15:10.87.) It was a tremendous sight, Salnikov stroking smooth, powerful laps, each one adding a body length to his lead. "From the start I knew I didn't have any competition to go with me, so I swam with the clock," Salnikov would say later. "Every 100 meters I looked at the clock and imagined that my rival was swimming 7:52."

The crowd was eerily silent except for an instant at the end of each lap, when the P.A. announcer would say how far ahead of world-record pace Salnikov was. Then the spectators would explode into a five-second torrent of noise—and fall quiet again. It became a ritual: silence, Salnikov's flip turn, the announcement, a burst of noise, more silence.

Salnikov is 26 now, a decade removed from his Olympic debut in Montreal. His career seemed jeopardized by a shoulder injury last year, and he lost one of his world records (400-meter free) to West Germany's Michael Gross. But last fall Salnikov's wife, Marina, formally trained in sports medicine, became his coach, with superb results since. Is Marina now the boss? "As for training programs," says Salnikov, "we discuss them together and find compromise solutions."

Salnikov was buried in noise as he touched the wall. In a moment Marina was tossed into the pool, and the two shared a hug and a kiss. It was a sublime moment, the first, but likely not the last, at these inaugural games.

"The big problem about being here is I'm not going to see the television," said Turner. "I've got to watch 129 hours of TV when I get home." He smiled. "And you know, it's always better on TV."

PHOTOJOHN IACONORussian leader Mikhail Gorbachev (left) agreed that friendship was the message. PHOTOTONY TOMSIC[See caption above.] THREE PHOTOSJOHN IACONOKids, aerialists and balloons were only part of the spectacle that 103,000 saw. PHOTOTONY TOMSICFrom start to finish, Salnikov (left, in red suit, and above) was the show in the 800. PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN IACONOIt was a lonely but winning road that the 37-year-old Gumerova traveled in the marathon.