As the second Goodwill Games opened in Seattle last week, history was unfolding in ways that made you want to rare back and squeal. The Germanys were amiably merging. Communist party chiefs in the U.S.S.R. were being stripped of their limos. A dissident playwright was president of Czechoslovakia. And Jesse Jackson was shouting the most compelling words in any language. "The war is over!" he cried last week during a speech at the Pepsi Friendship Center in Seattle. "The war is over! Peace is upon us."
The Goodwill Games sure must have worked. Four years ago, at their Moscow inaugural, originator (and owner) Ted Turner went about town remarking that the squirrels in Gorky Park are neither capitalist nor communist, just squirrels. Dogs are just dogs. People are just people, laboring under systems of varying humanity.
To connect those people and to warm Soviet-American relations, Turner, assisted by longtime television executive Robert Wussler, conceived and produced a great sporting festival—with mixed results. Pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee and swimmer Vladimir Salnikov set remarkable world records in Moscow; sprinter Ben Johnson muscled into prominence. Yet those first Games strained for an identity, were limply broadcast and lost $26 million. Moreover, Turner's approach to international relations was often derided as kissy-face, hands-across-the-sea na‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤vetè.
But lo, even superpowers mature. Now, the countries that have held nuclear shotguns to each other's heads for 40 years are beginning to squirm and sweat and sense that they look ridiculous. Eastern Europe bubbles within a great chrysalis of rearrangement. Suddenly Turner's simplicity has become vision.
July 29, 1990
While not even Turner asserts that the 1986 Games set all this in motion, the great changes are cause for relief and partying, and there happens to be no finer place for that celebration than sleek Seattle on soft summer evenings. It is unfortunate that our age of peace probably won't be kind to the event that was conceived as a catalyst for its creation. "There is something missing from these Games," said Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan. "It's the dramatic tension imparted by the cold war. People have to go back to cheering for athletes, not countries."
The Games were also not widely publicized—or explained—aside from spots on the various channels of the Turner Broadcasting System. (Alaska Airlines sold but half of the 3,000 Games tour packages it expected to sell.) And there were critical changes on the Turner team. Wussler left last summer to become CEO of the video enterprises division of COMSAT, the company that last year purchased controlling interest in the Denver Nuggets. "He was so much of the heart and soul of the event," says Goodwill Games general manager Rex Lardner. Turner, with peace at hand, passed on to environmental concerns during the months preceding the Games. In his absence, his executives concentrated on trimming losses.
The Seattle Organizing Committee reached the eve of the Games several million dollars in the red but with the hope that late ticket and merchandise sales would close the gap. Turner will do well this time to lose no more than $13 million.
The first evening in the pool allowed a look at how the East German swimmers are coping with their nation's upheaval. None was especially sharp, but all were eager. Good swims, it turned out, could help win them sponsorships from West German companies such as Mercedes.
"The changes at home have had an influence on the team," said Anke Moehring, silver medalist in the 800-meter freestyle. "We're allowed to decide for ourselves what to do." Then her smile became a sunburst.
What must it be like to have your nation coalesce with an old rival? "I can't imagine swimming for a united Germany," said Moehring. "But I look forward to it, yeah."
The nature of the Goodwill Games, a quarter the size of the Olympics, is still hard to define. They are a boon to some sports, a yawn for others. It has to do with alternatives. The best marathoners can earn five times as much money by running in events in Boston, London or New York. Few European track stars could be lured to Seattle from the rich Continental meets or from preparing for next month's European Championships.
Yet in those sports without professional expression, those that remain truly amateur, athletes have structured their whole seasons to reach their peaks in Seattle. Swimming is one of the most money-free major sports—a fact that rankles some of its best performers, such as Matt Biondi and Tom Jager. So it was only fitting that the swimmers were the ones to first jolt these Games into perspective.
It's common, every four years, to imagine that life in an Olympic Village somehow anticipates a more mature society in which we'll all be a little more childlike. Turner-like. It is tradition, too, that athletes redeem, by sheer performance, the acrimony that precedes every Olympics.
In Seattle, all that the athletes had to rise above was the harmony of the times. As you proceed you'll see that they did so with waves of purpose that made the Goodwill Games feel grandly familiar.