A decade and more ago, when students seemed more immediately concerned with this kind of thing, there was a popular dorm-room poster that contemplated the question: Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?
Then, as now, the answer remains elusive. But through the miracle of modern technology, we can at last answer a similar question: Suppose They Gave a Grand, Glorious Multi-National Sports Festival Just Like the Olympics, and Nobody Came (or Watched)?
Ladies and gentlemen, the Goodwill Games.
Plenty of great seats left. (How many you need, 10,000?) The Soviet people are obviously having more fun elsewhere. Where do you suppose they are? Church? Synagogue? Gorki?
How much good will are these games creating if nobody cares enough to watch either live or on television? You're smarter than I am -- you're not watching. The TV ratings in the Washington area are almost into the minus pool, so dreadfully low that I suspect the few Nielsen Families who do tune in are using Channel 50 as a grow light for their indoor plants.
I watch this stuff night after night, confident it won't continue to be so dull. But night after night it is. Nothing about it shines. And since events on the prime-time show are all on tape -- it's nearly dawn in Moscow -- this is the show they could jazz up. The sound is bad; half the time the audio seems to be coming from inside the Lincoln Tunnel. The picture is distant; where did they set up the cameras for basketball, Bulgaria? The format is disjointed; the show careens from sport to sport without context. There isn't an overall sense of the Games. Two straight nights, the promos for the next day's coverage gave away the outcome of the game in progress. What does WTBS stand for, Won't Turner Be Steamed?
Setting the tone in the studio are the host and hostess, Bob Neal and Mary Anne Loughlin. Neal is vaguely reminiscent of SCTV's fictitious news co-anchor, Earl Camembert, the kind of guy who might get his head stuck in a pail. On Tuesday, while googling in anticipation of "the big Michael Bent fight" (which was long since over), Neal forgot the name of Bent's Soviet opponent, Vladimir Balai. Embarrassingly for Neal, Balai had won. Loughlin's husky, earnest manner is surely studied. Her interviews are soft as fur. She asked Soviet gymnast Yuri Korolyov, "How do you manage to be so good in all your events and still keep such a good family life?" Earlier in the week she interviewed cosmonauts in deep space and gushed something like, "We'll be pleased to welcome you back to our new home in Moscow." Who is she trying to be, Mary Poppins?
In the hours I've seen Neal and Loughlin, they've been light on journalism and heavy on friendly features on Soviet life. If Ted Turner wanted happy-talk game show hosts, he picked a fine pair. You don't have to worry about these two solving the puzzle with "Gulag Archipelago."
"The idea of the Goodwill Games," said Turner Broadcasting executive Arthur Sando, "is not to be politicized, but to open new lines of communication between the United States and the Soviet Union."
Athletes can be diplomatic catalysts; "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" helped open up China to the United States. But at the risk of being a kill-joy and spoiling this swell Mother Russia kiss-kiss coverage, might I point out an untrivial fact, that the Soviet Union is a totalitarian state and most assuredly not a generous place to live in terms of personal freedom. Turner bought these Games for his own purposes: commercial, political and moral. But what price good will? Would you spend two weeks in South Africa covering a sporting event and not report on apartheid? Television fails us all when it glosses over real issues and chooses to endorse the demonstrably unreal context of sport without society.
I pine for Jim McKay.
(I'll deny this under oath, but the other night I actually pined for Keith Jackson. Oh, to hear him say one time: "Fum-ble! I do believe the Rooskies have recovered.")
Beyond the TV coverage, though, is a more elemental reason why the Goodwill Games are failing to find an audience: The Games themselves are not compelling. If you do watch, you can turn off the set and not feel you're missing anything. If you haven't watched, why start?
Sometimes you can succeed by simply being derivative. Sometimes you can't. Vic Damone wasn't Frank Sinatra. "Charlie & Company" wasn't "The Cosby Show." Sometimes flattery will get you nowhere. The Goodwill Games were created on the assumption that the American television audience was starving for the Olympics. Give Americans a sports spectacle on a global scale full of pomp and pageantry, and even if the sports themselves are obscure -- like volleyball and team handball and pentathlon -- the audience will be there, as it is for the Olympics.
The mistake was the failure to understand that the Olympics is sui generis. Once every four years we change our viewing habits and our sporting preferences for it. Turner's attempt to recreate the Olympics has succeeded thus far only in elevating them. Apparently, volleyball in any other setting -- no matter how heavy the hype -- is just volleyball.
On the other hand, I have gotten two important things from these hours with the Goodwill Games. After 35,000 of their commercials, I now know how to apply Lee's Press-On Nails should the need arise. And I have found the sport of the '90s: It's motoball, soccer on motorcycles played with a huge ball, the perfect blending of technology and stupidity.