As the Goodwill Games ended last night, one question will override the dozens of others that have been bandied about during the 17 days of competition: Was this a one-time, thanks-for-the-memories extravaganza?
Or, was this the beginning of something that will grow bigger and better as the years pass?
Less than one year ago, Ted Turner went to his top people and, in the words of his No. 2 man, Robert Wussler, said, "Do this."
And so they did. In 11 months, they pieced together the first major Olympics-style games in 10 years that featured U.S. and Soviet athletes. They put the deal together with the Soviets, put it on the Turner Broadcasting System and attracted a good deal of attention by the very fact that it came off.
There were even some sublime moments: Sergei Bubka's world record in the pole vault; Ben Johnson's stunning 9.95 100 meters; Vladimir Salnikov's world-record 800-meter swim; the U.S. women's basketball team's stunning 23-point victory over the seemingly unbeatable Soviets.
For moments like those and others, the Goodwill Games were significant. But there were also problems, not the least of which was that interest in the games, even in the Soviet Union and in the United States, was limited.
The rest of the world had no reason to care much. Although Turner and the Soviets bragged about the 77 nations that were represented, this was little more than a dual meet, as the medal count proved. The Soviets dominated and the United States was second. The two countries won more than 80 percent of the medals.
But even in the United States and Soviet Union, the public interest level was minimal. Most of the events took place in half-filled arenas here and the TV ratings in the United States were awful. Turner's people had hoped the games would catch on at home as they went on, but the schedule was so stacked in the first week -- track, swimming, basketball -- that there was little to attract viewers in the second week, especially with U.S. gymnasts and boxers getting badly beaten.
If the Goodwill Games proved anything, it is that the Soviets are way ahead of the Americans in preparing for the 1988 Olympics in most sports. They were overwhelming in boxing, wrestling, water polo, gymnastics, team handball and women's volleyball. The United States looked strong in men's volleyball and women's basketball, did well with a second-line swimming team and was respectable in track and field.
Turner had a tough time selling advertisers on these games. Only Pepsi-Cola ($10 million) took a big plunge. Other advertisers who got in later will be entitled to some of their money back because of the low ratings.
In 1990, when the games are scheduled to be held in Seattle, the U.S.-Soviet matchup will be no novelty. All indications now are that the Soviets will agree to participate in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. If that happens, why would advertisers, TV viewers and the media be interested in the Seattle games?
"Because we'll have four years to get it put together," Wussler insisted. "Eleven months is not a lot of time to do something like this. Sure, we're disappointed by the crowds here and the ratings at home. But remember, there were 30,000 empty seats at the first Super Bowl. I wonder how many people showed up at the first World Series.
"We will sell most of the tickets for the Seattle games by 1988. And, we'll get the advertising sold, too. Will the Soviets come? I think so. If they don't, we have an arbitration mechanism that would be settled in Helsinki. But I don't think it will come to that."
Turner remains gung-ho for the concept. The Soviets also are gung-ho. Their athletes performed well here, they reasserted their dominance in many sports and the propaganda value of the games seemed endless.
Every day it seemed Pravda or Tass had at least one story quoting various people praising the Goodwill Games, the superb organization by the Soviets, the hospitality, the brilliant performances by all the athletes.
Without a doubt, there was good reason for these games, even if amidst all the talk of peace and harmony the bottom line for Turner was money and publicity and the bottom line for the Soviets was propaganda.
Perhaps U.S. boxer Harvey Richards, after being knocked silly by one of the Soviet boxers, explained best why all this was worthwhile. "This is disappointing to lose this way," he said. "But you know, I still can't believe that I'm actually in Moscow. You know what I mean? With all that's been said and all the bad feelings between us and the Russians, here I am in Moscow. I'm glad I got the chance to do it."
The next major event on the Olympic calendar will be the October meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, to decide 1992 Olympic sites.
Representatives of candidates for both the Winter and Summer Games were here, handing out public relations messages and posters. Most observers now think that the Barcelona-Paris fight over the Summer Games will be resolved with Barcelona getting the Summer Games and Albertville, France, getting the Winter Games as a consolation prize.
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who is Spanish, badly wants to deliver the Summer Games to Barcelona. Giving France the Winter Games now appears a likely way to keep the French from fighting too hard to try to wrest away the Summer Games.