There are still folks in the Midwest who refer to this city as India-no-place. And one Chicago columnist regularly warns his readers that the riskiest thing about driving through this city--best known for its professional car crashes--is the danger of being bored to death. But today, with the opening of the National Sports Festival, the city looks like what it has spent millions of dollars trying to become: the sports kingdom of the Heartland.
"We are showing America that we are big time now," says Sandy Knapp, one of Indianapolis' professional boosters who helped persuade the U.S. Olympic Committee to hold its annual amateur sports extravaganza here. "Indianapolis has grown up."
The sports festival is the USOC's way of keeping amateur competitive fires burning bright in the years between Olympic flames. It began in 1978 with about 1,500 athletes and a budget of $1 million. This year's nine-day festival will feature 2,600 athletes in 33 sports, at a cost of $4 million.
Between tonight's opening festivities, headlined by Bob Hope, and the gold-medal game in men's basketball next Saturday night, there will not be an hour from dawn to dusk when someone isn't whacking a ball, rolling on wheels or otherwise breaking into competitive sweat. On Sunday, for example, a spectator could begin rubbernecking at 8 a.m. watching fencing, swimming or rowing, then spend the rest of the day jumping from track and field to yachting, field hockey, figure skating or judo.
More than 700 reporters are here for the Sports Festival, not including the 150 people ABC Sports has dispatched to film a few hours of highlights. Today it seems as though everyone in this city is either answering questions or asking them. Ping-pong players who have never seen a reporter are being interviewed by Sports Illustrated and The New York Times.
When the Sports Festival began in Colorado Springs, even some of the athletes invited were reluctant to attend.
"We had athletes who didn't know what they were coming to," says Mike Moran, the USOC information officer who spent the last year sending out press releases aimed at drawing attention to the festival. When that didn't work, he sent scolding telegrams to indifferent sports editors.
"You have to sell this thing," says Moran, whose job was made easier by the coverage the games received last year in Syracuse. And for that, Moran thanks the baseball players strike.
"Papers all over the country had all this blank space to fill. A lot of them filled it with us."
While the USOC was doing its selling job, so was Indianapolis. First, the city had to persuade the USOC that it was better suited than Philadelphia to host the games. There were plans to submit, a dozen on-site inspections to endure and not a small amount of money to raise to prove that the city had more than hospitality to offer.
Indianapolis is responsible for about half of the $4 million cost of the games. One million dollars in local corporate donations is already in the bank, along with $540,000 from advance ticket sales. The rest of the money is expected to be raised from the sale of tickets and souvenirs. And if the city comes up a little short, folks here say it will be a good investment in the long run.
"You cannot buy the kind of exposure we're going to realize in the next 10 days," says Knapp, the executive director of the Indiana Sports Corporation, a nonprofit entity set up two years ago to attract national sporting events to Indianapolis. "We don't have mountains or seashore so we have to become destination-oriented. We have to give people a reason for coming here."
In the last 10 years, Indianapolis has spent $100 million building five new sports arenas, including a swimming and diving complex, a bicycle velodrome and a domed stadium. The stadium is for the major-league baseball team and NFL franchise the city hopes to gain.
This year, Indianapolis will be the site of national championships in figure skating, tennis, swimming, golf, judo and drag racing. Two weeks ago a dual U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. track meet was held here. It is all part of an aggressive campaign to change the city's image, and earn some tourist dollars in the process.
"They are using sports to get their image out of the tar pits," says the USOC's Moran.
The Sports Festival is the biggest coup yet. There are some internationally known names in track and field, such as high jumper Dwight Stones and sprinter Carl Lewis. And there is promise that others will run from obscurity into the spotlight.
Whatever the outcome of the games, the selling of them has been an olympic production. Two days before the festival began, spectators were packing into synchronized swimming practices and team handball workouts.
"We've got this town so psyched up," says Knapp, "we could sell tickets to tiddlywinks."