Considering the volatile nature of world politics and the increasing numbers of sports boycotts, one might ask the question: what if they held an Olympics and nobody came?
But now, because of the bold vision of one of America's iconoclastic and richest men -- R.E. (Ted) Turner III -- it might be asked: what if they held an Olympic-sized non-Olympics and everybody came?
Ted Turner's going to do it.
Where Olympic officials have failed ever since the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, next year Turner plans to join the United States and the Soviet Union and about 40 other nations in an 18-sport competition with all the world watching.
The swashbuckling, 47-year-old broadcast executive, the man who sails yachts and owns baseball and basketball teams and creates superstations and makes hostile bids for television networks and buys himself about anything he wants, is going to stage his own Goodwill Games.
The man, when you come right down to it, is going to try to buy world peace. For several million dollars, it seems like a bargain.
Turner contacted the Soviets. Turner is paying the athletes' governing bodies. And Turner is televising the whole thing, offering 129 hours of coverage to U.S. audiences and 180 hours elsewhere and promising to do it again every four years.
If this guy doesn't broadcast with a swagger, then who does?
As the Turner Broadcasting System prepares for this precedent-setting event from July 5-20, 1986, in Moscow, several intriguing questions come to mind:
*How and why did Ted Turner even begin to coordinate an international sporting event of this magnitude with the Soviets?
*Why would the Goodwill Games seemingly be accepted by the two superpowers when the past two Summer Olympics were not?
*Why is a faction of the U.S. Olympic Committee so strongly opposed to the Goodwill Games?
Turner always has moved in bold, striking fashions, and he envisions his creation as a pioneering venture in global relations. He wants world peace as much as the next guy, but unlike most mere mortals, he actually thinks he can swing our destiny.
"I thought, how can we go back and undo the wrongs that occurred both ways (with the U.S.-led 1980 Olympic boycott and the Soviet-led 1984 boycott) and start all over again," Turner said after returning from the Soviet Union earlier this year. "We can best achieve global peace by letting the peoples of the world get to know each other better and learn to work toward common goals.
" . . . Maybe with the spirit of cooperation that the Goodwill Games can foster, we'll really be turning back the clock to start all over again."
Is Turner just blowing hot air on the Cold War?
"(Turner) really believes all that stuff," said TBS Executive Vice President Robert Wussler, a long-time CBS News and Sports executive. "He wants to bring about positive changes. He thinks he can make a difference . . . Turner is motivated by the history books."
Thus, one day during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Wussler said Turner walked into his office and asked him, "Why can't we do that and do it better?"
"I didn't pay attention to him at the beginning," Wussler said recently from TBS' Atlanta offices. "Then I went home one night and watched the women's volleyball. I said, 'He's right. We can do it better.' "
Subsequently, TBS began a lengthy series of negotiations with the Soviets. Wussler, 49, who has made 70 trips to the Soviet Union in 24 years in the television business, was Turner's point man. He leaned heavily on his relationship with Henrikas Yushkiavitshus, vice chairman of Gosteleradio, the Soviet Union's state committee for television and radio.
"The fact that the Soviets like Turner and the fact that they know me was critical," Wussler said. "They've never let me down and I've never let them down. I've spent a good chunk of my life there. It's a little like the salesman who visits Des Moines four times a year. You get to know the guy pretty well and you say, 'Let's buy him lunch.' "
Also critical to the talks with the Soviet's sport ministry (Soyuzsport) was the involvement of The Athletics Congress, the governing body of track and field in the United States. TAC's executive director, Ollan Cassell, who also has longstanding relationships with the Soviets, is serving as coordinator for the Goodwill Games at the request of TBS and the Soviets.
Wussler said a key was that Yushkiavitshus "knew I wasn't a guy off the street selling him an empty barrel." Finally, after more than six months of travels, talks and telexes, an agreement was signed Aug. 6 committing TBS to the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow and the 1990 Games in a U.S. city.
While Turner talks about history-making, he also knows a thing or two about profit-making. World peace, after all, might not mean as much to a man deep in debt. TBS spokesman Michael Oglesby said TBS should "come close to breaking even or making a marginal profit on the Games."
According to Oglesby, the cost of "staging the entire package" is $81 million, with Turner, Gosteleradio and Soyuzsport each committing $27 million. Wussler estimated potential advertising revenue could reach $100 million, which would be split equally among the three parties. Pepsi recently became the first large company to sign up, paying a reported $10 million to be the official soft drink of the 1986 and 1990 Games and to be exclusive sponsor of the gymnastics competition.
What should result next July is sort of a stripped-down Olympics minus some of the pomp and pageantry. And because it's not quite the Olympics, officials hope politics won't overshadow athletics and that boycotts don't materialize.
"If someone has an ax to grind," said TAC spokesman Pete Cava, "they'll probably figure they can find a bigger place to do it, like the Olympic Games. It's just a sad truth about the Olympics."
"It's a gamble for us (because of a possible boycott)," Wussler said. "Turner and I have kicked it around . . . We think there is a general warming trend between the two countries. Could there be a problem? Sure. But we don't anticipate one.
"We're all Georgians down here. Jimmy Carter is a hero down here. But one of the mistakes he made was the (1980) boycott. If he hadn't boycotted them, they wouldn't have boycotted us."
Like the networks with the Olympics, Turner, who could not be reached for comment this week, knows the specter of boycott looms over an international event such as this. "When you deal with the Soviets, you have to try to protect yourself," Wussler said. As part of their contract with Turner, the Soviets would have to return "certain levels of money" to Turner through an arbitration service in Finland if they were to pull out of the Games. If the United States pulls out, TBS would be liable.
While the Goodwill Games will try to join 5,000 athletes in harmony, its planning is threatening disharmony between TAC and the U.S. Olympic Committee and challenging long-held notions about the control of amateur competitions.
The USOC has taken a lukewarm stand toward the Games for several reasons. First, some USOC members fear the Games might take away athletes and/or attention from the U.S. Olympic Festival (formerly the National Sports Festival), to be held July 25-Aug. 3 in Houston, just days after Turner's showcase ends.
The USOC, also in a turf battle with TAC, originally wanted to be the primary coordinator of the Goodwill Games. The USOC's executive board finally passed a resolution several weeks ago, appointing a committee to simply assist the governing bodies of the participating sports.
TAC will receive between $6 million and $7 million in fees and transportation costs from TBS, according to Wussler, and the money will be divided among the participating national governing bodies for each sport.
Most fervently opposed to Turner's involvement is Robert Kane, a former USOC president and chairman of the committee running the U.S. Olympic Festival. Kane believes the USOC should coordinate any U.S. involvement in international athletics and that commercial influences could be ruinous.
"Who will be the next Turner to come along?" Kane said.
"Bob is concerned that a commercial interest might come in and have a competition organized simply for a commercial entity," said USOC President Robert Helmick. "If the networks were running (the Olympics), they might dictate too much of the scheduling. Our underlying principle is to promote athletics and what's in the very best interests of the sports.
"I would be opposed in the future to a situation where a commercial interest was organizing events . . . We are not at all against the Goodwill Games. In this case, we are involved, step by step, in the planning process with the Turner organization."
In truth, the USOC's impact in these matters is largely limited. The USOC does not sanction any event outside of the Olympics other than the U.S. Olympic Festival.
"I don't think anyone really cares about what the USOC says about anything other than the Olympic Games," TAC's Pete Cava said.
"I would have liked to have seen the USOC come up with the idea (for the Goodwill Games)," said steeplechaser Henry Marsh, chairman of the Athletes Advisory Council, "but I credit Turner for being the one to come up with it."
Additionally, public opinion is shifting away from old-line thinking that amateur athletics and commercial money never shall meet.
"(Kane's) attitude reflects past glories rather than future realities," Wussler said. "Adidas has more to say on the Olympics than you and I can ever imagine. Those are the people who are picking up the bill. I'll be the first to agree with you that you can't let the commercial sector run wild. But you have built-in checks and balances."
WTBS, Turner's Atlanta-based superstation, will broadcast the Games, which also will be syndicated world-wide. Wussler estimated "we'll clear 95 percent of the country with this. In terms of the U.S., your only competition in July is reruns." It might be seen as perhaps another step in Turner's bid to create a fourth network.
"I'm absolutely certain in my own mind that between July 5 to the 20th next year, the networks are going to have the lowest ratings in their history," Turner said at a recent New York press conference. "The Goodwill Games are going to blow them away."
Like Turner, Wussler seems convinced that this gold-medal diplomacy goes a long way to stabilizing a very unstable world.
"It's not the end-all and be-all," he said, "but if the United States and U.S.S.R. could do three or four things like this every year, it would help the relationship. The more you have people like me telling funny stories at dinner parties about my last trip to Moscow, the better off the world would be."
Still, considering all the hurdles Turner must overcome -- dealing with the Soviets and getting other international clearances, smoothing over the USOC and TAC problems, making the financial commitment and setting up TV production, and finally, hoping everyone shows up despite any shifting political winds -- doesn't it seem like an improbable task for a broadcast group only a decade old?
"We're a very talented organization," Wussler said with a laugh.