To its growing list of contributors, the U.S. Olympic Committee this week had added major league baseball. That was awfully considerate of the owners and players to prolong the strike and thus assure the maximum amount of attention possible for the National Sports Festival.
After its third year, the gratifying realization is that there will be a fourth festival, that the celebration of amateur athletes very likely has become rooted enough for it to eventually become a significant part of American sport. Maybe the great body of Americans sometime will care deeply about Olympians longer than a few weeks before and after the Games.
"It's grown to the point that now we have a chance to lose the purpose of the festival," said Mike Moran, assistant director of communications for the USOC. "Do we want just the best athletes, such as Edwin Moses (who did not participate here)? Or do we want to spotlight youth?"
There was a nice mix of both here. With a world record-tying effort, Skeets Nehemiah used this event to announce his return to the top of the 110-meter hurdle class; team handball got another chance to show its potential, that it is not two players batting a ball off four walls but in fact combines elements of basketball, soccer and lacrosse while emphasizing two American sporting staples, speed and violence, in a area about twice the size of a volleyball court.
Enough people here dropped by often enough for most officials of most obscure sports to leave satisfied, if not entirely pleased. But basketball and boxing were a bust. Two sports that have wide appeal here and had wonderfully gifted, although still young and as yet unheralded, athletes did not draw crowds half the expected size.
Financially, the USOC did not break even. But the added exposure will help immeasurably in the future.
"It's kind of like spring football," said Baaron Pitzenger, festival director since it began. "We never had it before. Out of season, we're getting some publicity. When has the Olympic Committee held press conferences that as many writers came to?
"It gives us a place where the media is gathered and a chance for a higher level of knowledge and appreciation of what the Olympic Committee is doing and the ongoing nature of the Olympic effort. Heretofore, it's not existed to the same degree, because there was no focal point."
There was controversy here. More important, although hardly to those involved, lots of people paid serious attention to it. Athletes and media had to be begged to come to the first festival; three athletes threatened suit to compete here. There were some Lake Placid-like snafus. But the coordination about 2,500 athletes in 32 sports seems to have worked and showed that it can survive beyond the USOC turf of Colorado Springs. Eighty reporters received credentials the first year, 229 the second and 612 this time.
"In '79, we did it essentially with a seven-month lead time," Pittenger said. "There were many levels of detail going into the festival which we didn't even have time to address. . . But the thing that made the first festival such a success was that everybody involved wanted it to work; the athletes, the committees. There was a spirit about that festival that was unique and probably will never be totally recaptured."
The ultimate purpose of the festival is to allow as many potential Olympians as possible the chance to participate in high-intensity, high-visibility competition and under conditions close to what they will experience in the Games.
"The system has worked well for the athletes," Pittenger said, "and the way the festival is going to grow is for the athletes to perceive this as something that they want to do. I think the word now in the athletic community is: 'Hey, you get a chance to go to the sports festival, go.'
"I may be crazy, but I tend to think that enough of these people who were here and who will be in Indianapolis next year (and Los Angeles in '83) are going to be on the Olympic team. So when we go to the Games there will be a an esprit de corps among our team that may never have existed before, because so many athletes will have had an opportunity to meet and know each other.
"There will be a base spirit there."
There clearly seems to be a support base for USOC to build upon.
"I see the festival growing into a really major event," Pittenger said, with a lot more splash and dash than we have now. I see the festival as the most Olympic-oriented activity a community can undertake . . . that over a period of time it will grow to an event that commands the kind of attention and has the stature of the World Series or Super Bowl. That's not going to happen overnight."
The USOC decided the festival was not ready to invade professional sports-oriented cities such as Philadelphia, with its four successful franchises, next year. But it might be by 1985. L.A. in '83 is the year-before shakedown for the Games.
"I hope that in the next quadrennial (after the L.A. Olympics), we will be able to find the resources to have regional festivals," he said. "Not necessarily as qualifying events for the national festival, but to broaden the participation base. Give the young athletes a similar experience."