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Ted Turner's festival was bedeviled by a general lack of interest nationwide. Now its future is in doubt

Everywhere you went in Seattle during the Goodwill Games, you felt a rising tide of goodness. The weather was spectacular. The competition was absorbing. Souvenir and hotel business was slow, but proprietors were sweet about it. And so, because goodness has all the drama of vanilla pudding, the future of the Games is now in doubt.

This is no fault of the athletes. Performances during the final week were consistently near-Olympian. Chinese divers Tan Liangde and Gao Min needed strong last dives to win springboard titles, and 11-year-old Fu Mingxia of China became in all likelihood the youngest athlete ever to earn a gold medal in an international meet when she won the 10-meter platform competition.

The U.S. women's basketball team tore joyfully through South Korea, the U.S.S.R., Australia and Bulgaria before winning the gold medal game on Sunday against the Soviet Union 82-70. Head coach Theresa Grentz of Rutgers started fire breathers like Stanford's Jennifer Azzi and former Georgia forward Teresa Edwards and let them fast-break to their aerobic limits. Then Grentz threw in Cynthia Cooper, Sonja Henning and the redoubtable Lynette Woodard and stood back and cackled. "Those are some of the best one-on-one players in the world," Grentz said. "I don't want to foul things up by running continuity offenses."

The real continuity was this: The U.S. women are now unbeaten in 41 games, stretching back to the 1983 World Championships. Meanwhile, U.S. boxers won four gold medals, compared with five for the U.S.S.R. and two for Cuba.

As well as athletes and coaches, 2,000 travel-innocent Soviet citizens arrived, blinking, in Seattle as part of 16 exchange programs. Some 3,000 Puget Sound families put them up and took them to apple farms and airplane plants, shelters for the homeless and clambakes.

Seventeen-year-old Heidi Kennedy's family took in Alexander Nickolovsky of Moscow. "He went crazy with the camera at Mount Rainier," said Heidi. "It was really neat. I mean, it made me look at everything again."

With New Eyes. That should have been the slogan of this gathering. Listen to Moscow art critic Vitaly Pasukov after a visit to a Seattle mall: "The store is theater. Shopping is an art in United States. It strikes me funny. It makes me think how in Soviet Union the philosophy is materialism, but there are no goods. And in U.S.A. the philosophy is idealism, but everything is .measured by material."

What wasn't good about the Goodwill Games were the meager crowds at certain venues and the disappointing TV ratings. The ratings averaged 2.6 during prime time, or about half what advertisers had been assured they would be. Furthermore, the Turner Broadcasting System's audience was curiously unstable, leaping to 4.2 for 45 minutes during the men's basketball final, which the U.S. lost to Yugoslavia 85-79. During the Carl Lewis-Leroy Burrell showdown in the 100-meter dash, viewership surged to 3.6, whereupon the TBS people, no fools, invited Lewis, Burrell and their Santa Monica Track Club teammates to compete three days later in the 400-meter relay. But TAC executive director Ollan Cassell, citing an agreement that only national teams can compete, spiked the idea. The TV ratings during the relay subsided to 2.7.

One TBS idea may have backfired. Anchorman Larry King, a splendid interviewer who was miscast in his role as traffic cop, had a clock in a corner of the screen that counted down the minutes to approaching events. This was humane TV, especially when contrasted with the broadcast networks' practice of teasing you through an hour of motorized bar-stool racing by repeatedly promising that a showcase event is "coming right up."

But we know how people watch TV in this age of 50-channel cable. Like pigeons fluttering outside a skyscraper, they free-fall—past movies, sports, Madonna swimming with mermen, Mr. Ed, that woman selling the same gold necklace, news, seminars on how to win big at real estate, Bill Cosby, blood-smeared gladiators—until something sticks, some previous interest is piqued, and a viewer comes to rest on the ledge of a particular window, there to gaze for a while, yet always poised to fly.

TBS's little clock gave the pigeons permission to switch away and only peek in for the events they cared about. No more can television, except during the Olympics, hold masses of viewers long enough to impart the facts that let them be moved by, say, team handball or water polo. There are to be few new eyes. Since the only way to build a constituency for an event is to teach people about it, the conclusion for future Goodwill Games is that, even with stronger entries in popular sports like track, ratings won't get much better than those at Seattle.

After the bills are paid and make-good time is given to advertisers, TBS's losses could total $26 million or more. So what? says TBS boss Ted Turner, almost nonchalantly. "In the capitalist world, it's not unusual to have loss leaders, or sales, to get the customers in," he says. TBS's goal is to have the Games become the best-known sports event in the world, after the Olympics and soccer's World Cup. And the financial loss, says Turner, is "a reasonable down payment toward an event that will grow in stature and at some point break even. We have a positive curve. TBS did five times the overall dollar volume it did last time."

A higher reason why it may be O.K. for the Games to lose money is that the best things in life are either free or in need of subsidies. Symphonies lose money. Buster Keaton film festivals lose money. Van Gogh died penniless. All college sports except football and maybe men's basketball lose money. To keep a society pluralistic, you have to take from the brutal and common and give to the refined and rare.

The question is how much money can TBS afford to lose? Turner's board has yet to commit TBS to the 1994 Goodwill Games, scheduled for Leningrad and Moscow. "We have a contract in place with the Soviets," said Paul Beckham, the Goodwill Games president. "But I can't obligate this company until the board says I can. In their minds it has to be fiscally prudent. That doesn't mean it has to make money. But it has to make sense."

"We'll poll the board and have an answer in six weeks," said Turner.

The Soviets, who have no vote on the future of the Goodwill Games, would hate to lose them. "We need this," said Pyotr Reshetov, deputy chairman of Gosteleradio, the Soviet radio and television agency. "We need it for our perestroika. The cultural exchanges are teaching our people what is going on in the world."

For perspective, listen to an observer who was stockpiling six pairs of his favorite running shoes as the Games drew to a close. "Everything good is discontinued," he said with a touch of melancholy.



Where was everybody? Certain venues didn't pack 'em in, and TBS's ratings were dismal.