SEATTLE, JULY 19 -- There never has been a more misunderstood, confusing and confounding sporting event than the Goodwill Games. Mention the name and people don't know what to think. Is it an Olympic Festival? Is it just track and field, or are there other sports? And, if goodwill is involved, can the Salvation Army be close behind?

The Goodwill Games, a sort of made-for-cable TV Olympics, with scores of wonderful participants and events, begin Friday in Seattle and the surrounding Puget Sound area. The Games will have 21 sports, from figure skating and ice hockey to swimming, basketball and boxing, and will run for an Olympic-length 17 days, through Aug. 5.

They have attracted most of the United States' best Olympians, including Matt Biondi, Janet Evans, Jill Trenary, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carl Lewis, and quite a few of the world's best too, including Soviet gymnast Svetlana Boginskaya, Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning and Chinese divers Xu Yanmei and Tan Liangde.

The Games are the creation of Ted Turner, who decided in 1986 to put on an international competition between Soviet and U.S. athletes to develop feelings of goodwill between the two bickering nations. He placed the first Games in Moscow and, although he lost a reported $26 million, his endeavor was deemed a success because it attracted many world-class athletes and brought together athletes of the world's two superpowers for the first time since 1976. (In 1980, the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics. In 1984, the Soviet Union returned the favor in Los Angeles.)

Turner and friends had four years to plan the second Goodwill Games, this time in Seattle. At least 2,700 athletes from 84 nations are expected for the biggest international, multisport event on U.S. soil since the 1984 Olympics. That it will be available to be seen on television only on Turner Broadcasting is insignificant. The event's the thing, and it's quite good.

In some sports, it could be an even better meet than the Olympics. You know it's not the Olympics because the Cubans are coming. Missing in 1984 and 1988 from the Olympics, the Cubans are considered the best in the world in boxing, baseball and women's volleyball. Competition in all three sports here should be better than it was in Los Angeles or in 1988 in Seoul, just because of them.

This will be one of the greatest track and field meets held on U.S. soil. The Soviets and East Germans are here, and so is a strong U.S. team, including sprinters Lewis and Leroy Burrell, both undefeated in 1990, who will race in the 100-meter dash Monday. Canada's Ben Johnson is still suspended for taking steroids and can't attend.

The men's 400 lost much of its luster, however, today after Steve Lewis, the Olympic gold medalist, withdrew because of illness, and Butch Reynolds, Lewis's runner-up at Seoul, also withdrew, citing an injury.

The marathons, to be run over the weekend, feature no big names. Marathons are out of place here; world-class marathoners run only two or so a year, and the Goodwill Games aren't one of them.

And, in men's basketball, the Soviet team will be without the Lithuanians, who accounted for 62 of the 82 points in the Soviets' 82-76 victory over the United States in Seoul. Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown is a member of the U.S. team.

The swimming meet, which begins Friday, even before the so-called "Welcoming Ceremonies" Saturday night, arguably is better than the Los Angeles Olympics swimming competition. Again, it is bolstered by the presence of the East Germans, Soviets, Hungarians and Poles.

For example, Evans, now two years older than she was in Seoul but seemingly just as fast, swims the 800-meter freestyle Friday and faces all three women who chased her on her way to the gold medal in 1988: East Germany's Astrid Strauss (silver medalist) and Anke Moehring (fourth) and Australia's Julie McDonald (bronze medalist).

"I'm really interested to see how the East Germans swim," Evans said today, referring to the uncertainty about the East German system in the wake of the dismantling of the government. "They were good and I think they'll still be good. This is a very important meet to me, the biggest of the year."

The first race of the swimming competition is the men's 50-meter freestyle, pairing the two fastest swimmers in history, Americans Biondi, who claimed five gold medals in Seoul, and Tom Jager.

Although he beat Jager for the gold medal in Seoul, Biondi said he believes this is Jager's race to win. Biondi's gold medals, probably four in all, will come later, in the 100 freestyle, two relays and the 100 butterfly -- if he can get by Surinam's Anthony Nesty, who upset Biondi in the 100 butterfly in Seoul and is back to torment him again.

Mike Barrowman of Potomac, the world record holder in the 200 breaststroke, also swims Friday against his top rival and training partner with the Curl-Burke Swim Club, Sergio Lopez of Spain and American University.

"This is a big meet," Barrowman said. "But a loss here wouldn't mean as much as a loss at the world championships. I'd like to win both, but this isn't as big as the world championships."