SEATTLE, AUG. 4 -- What do you say about an event that had its most historically noteworthy moment a day before it officially began?
That, in brief, was the problem of the Goodwill Games: too much too soon, not enough the rest of the way. One Turner Broadcasting insider called it "the 'Ishtar' of athletics." Big build-up, few results.
The Games end Sunday. They will have cost Ted Turner perhaps as much as $26 million more than budgeted. It should come as no surprise that they might not return, at least in this present form.
When Mike Barrowman of Potomac, Md., swam to an incredible world record of 2 minutes 11.53 seconds in the men's 200-meter breaststroke more than two weeks ago, no one imagined that would be the record-setting highlight of the Games. His performance occurred in the first hour of competition, a day before the Welcoming Ceremonies were held.
It happened at the swimming venue, a 90-minute drive from Seattle even in pre-rush hour Friday traffic. Most of the reporters assembled from around the world to cover Turner's second attempt at an Olympic-style event missed it; they were waiting for an interview with superstar swimmer Matt Biondi in a tent outside the natatorium, and had no idea what had happened.
There were other stunning and stirring moments here, including the losses by sprinter Carl Lewis, swimmer Janet Evans and the U.S. men's basketball team (twice), and the victories of the U.S. wrestlers, U.S. men's volleyball team and U.S. women's basketball team. But, from almost the moment they began, the Games started to drag and ratings began to sag.
Turner Broadcasting, which lost $26 million on its attempt to thaw the cold war in 1986 in Moscow, could lose that much again this time, prompting questions about a third go-round in 1994. Turner himself maintains the Games will go on in Leningrad and Moscow, but it is up to the Turner board of directors to decide.
Good things have come from the Goodwill Games. Perhaps most important of all has been the exposure, cable and otherwise, given to athletes whose sports aren't popular and who toil in relative obscurity from Olympics to Olympics.
"This is great for swimmers," Biondi said. "We don't get this kind of exposure. We can use it to help promote our sport."
There also was some fine, significant competition in sports such as swimming, diving, volleyball and boxing. There was a festive atmosphere and a fabulous run of good weather in Seattle, where locals are worried about visitors getting this crazy idea to stay. And there was, sappy as this sounds, a measurable feeling of camaraderie between U.S. and Soviet athletes and their fans, which is new and different for international sports.
But in many ways the event just wasn't what it was hoped it would be. Ratings and ticket sales never met expectations. TBS had projected 5.0 ratings and received an average 2.6. About 810,000 of the 1 million tickets available were sold, the Seattle Organizing Committee said. Ticket revenue was $15 million; $17 million was the goal before the Games began.
Perhaps it was too much of a good thing.
This is not the Olympics, yet it runs 17 days, one day longer than the 1988 Seoul Games, which were, arguably, the most action-packed Olympics -- on the playing field and off -- in history.
In comparison, the Goodwill Games were lengthy and boring. They ran out of steam once track and field and swimming ended. Figure skating sold out the Tacoma Dome this weekend, but all the competitors said it was simply an exhibition, not a competition.
What was worse, there was no clamoring from the hinterlands for more, because much of the hinterlands couldn't see the Games. Either they didn't have cable or their cable company chose not to pay the $1 surcharge per customer for the Games.
Although TBS advertised it was "Uniting the World's Best," it really wasn't.
Only 41 percent of the world's top-five-ranked athletes in each track and field event showed up. Ollan Cassell, the executive director of The Athletics Congress, was in charge of getting track and field athletes here. Organizers who asked not to be named said he failed, despite a reported $500,000 budget.
"He really, really let us down," said one TBS official. "It could have given us such a bang."
Zoya Ivanova of the Soviet Union won the women's marathon two weeks ago and said, "The leading runners in the world were not here. These were second-class runners."
Other sports had troubles too. Most of the men's basketball coaches said the Games were preparation for the world championships. Most of the baseball coaches said the Games were a warmup for the world championships in Edmonton. Most of the women's basketball coaches and players were coming off vacations after their world championships.
Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley put it this way: "It's as if the world has come to Seattle for spring training."
This seemed to be the perfect place to judge the performance of the changing Eastern Bloc, but it was hard to do even that. Unlike an Olympics, when we know everyone is ready, different athletes had different agendas here.
For example, much was made of the poor East German showing in women's swimming. East German women swimmers won just three gold medals here, compared to 11 for the United States. This was not like the East Germans. At the last two Olympics where everyone came, they won 11 of 13 swimming golds in Montreal in 1976 and 10 of 15 golds in Seoul.
While it may be true that they have slipped because of the political changes in their homeland, it also is true the European championships were coming up and they were more important to many East Germans.
Nonetheless, it wasn't just the Americans who were taking notes on how the East Germans did.
"We have noted a difference in the performance of the Eastern Bloc nations here," said Anatoli Kolesov, deputy chairman of the state committee for physical culture and sport in the Soviet Union. "For example, the swimmers from the GDR, we have noted some great changes there. Perhaps the transition period forced by the uniting of the two federations was to the detriment of the sports performances, but I'm sure they will be among the best athletes in the nearest future."