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Goodwill Games are more show than significant competition

Three rhetorical questions tell you all you need to know about the Goodwill Games, the Olympic look-alike currently taking place in Moscow: 1. Do they have any athletic significance, or are they a meaningless, made-for-TV spectacle?

2. Regardless of the answer to No. 1, are they the sort of event the general public gets excited about?

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3. Will they really do anything to accomplish their alleged purpose of furthering world peace?

As for the implicit answers to these questions, let's take them one at a time, starting with significance.

The idea of these games was to give US and Soviet athletes a chance to compete in a multisport, multi-nation summer spectacle -- a chance they missed in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics because of boycotts. Nothing wrong with that. But the absurd effort of the promoters to make these games seem so much bigger than they are (Ted Turner even called them ``bigger than the Olympics'') cries for an impartial reply.

To begin with, athletes from the two countries have competed on hundreds of fronts since 1976 -- including two Winter Olympics, a decade of world championships in numerous sports, and a variety of meets, exhibitions, and tours involving track, swimming, gymnastics, basketball, hockey, etc. The only thing different about this competition is that it gets a lot of them together, in a variety of events, at the same time, and in the summer.

That's worth something, to be sure. But it takes more than a gathering of athletes to make any competition significant. It takes important championships, history, and/or tradition -- none of which these games possess.

Furthermore, some 1986 events that do offer such incentives -- the world basketball and swimming championships and the Commonwealth Games, to cite three -- are taking place either in direct conflict with the Goodwill Games or too soon thereafter for the athletes to compete in both.

There is a pretty good track meet going on in Moscow. Even critics of these games have to concede that. It's part of the Grand Prix circuit, and thus a bona fide competition offering championship-type incentives and featuring many big names, including Olympic gold medalists Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, and Evelyn Ashford.

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For other sports, however, it's just another swimming meet, or cycling race, or boxing tournament, or whatever -- all of which happen to be taking place in the same city and at the same time.

The only international competition of any real signficance going on right now, in fact, is the world basketball championship -- and the way this event is being hyped as part of the Goodwill Games says it all. The basketball competition is in Spain, and has nothing whatever to do with the Goodwill Games. But Turner, the Atlanta sportsman-TV tycoon-entrepreneur who put the games together, bought the television rights to the basketball, too, then included these games in the Goodwill package as though they were part of his show.

The reason is that the rest of the show is just that -- a show. There are some good US athletes on hand, mainly because they are being paid by Turner via their national federations. And of course the Soviet bloc is well represented. But it's not the Olympics, or the world championships, or any kind of championships -- and therefore lacks any real excitement or dramatic appeal.

Which brings us to Question No. 2. Once every four years we say the magic word, ``Olympics,'' and the US public gets all excited about a lot of events it ignores the rest of the time. Or at least it gets excited about American athletes vying for Olympic medals. But then these sports quickly recede into obscurity again.

This doesn't change for collegiate championships, national championships, the Pan-Am Games, or even world championships. So don't expect people to get worked up over the judo, wrestling, rowing, team handball, etc., in Moscow. In fact, without that magic word, don't even expect them to pay much attention to such Olympic biggies as swimming, gymnastics, or track and field.

Ah, but even if these games have no sigificance and create minimal interest, they're for a good cause -- right? Well, yes, except that objectively one has to wonder about this premise, too.

The idea of sports bridging the gap between nations and fostering people-to-people understanding is as old as the Olympics themselves. Unfortunately, however, the world doesn't have any fewer problems now than it did when all this started in Olympia back in 776 BC.

Thus the obvious question: How much does any ``goodwill'' carry over beyond the arena? In fact, how much nation-to-nation fellowship exists during the actual course of competition? Oh, there are smiles, and handshakes, and nods of respect -- even a few halting words in a foreign tongue. And there does develop the occasional well-publicized international friendship -- or even romance. But these are relatively rare exceptions.

A far more common experience for such athletes is to spend practically all of their time with teammates -- for the simple reason that they speak the same language and share the same interests. This isn't speculation; it's what I've been told by a number of Olympians.

Of course those promoting these events would have us believe otherwise, but as 1960 basketball stars Jerry Lucas, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson once told me, the supposed camaraderie is pretty much an illusion.

``I guess they like to think it because in places like the dining hall, you see a bunch of Americans sitting here, and a bunch of Czechs a hundred yards away over there, and a bunch of Russians over in another area,'' Robertson said. ``But there's very little contact, really.''

So there you have it for significance, interest, international understanding. That doesn't leave much except a made-for-TV spectacle -- sort of like ``The Superstars,'' or ``Celebrity Bowling.'' Which, when you get right down to it, is pretty much what these games are.

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