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ANALYSIS : Anyway That You Spell It, Games Have Big Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ice inside the practice rink is so slushy that figure skaters can barely stand on it without sinking to their ankles, and there is some question about whether the ice inside the main rink will be ready in time for tonight’s short track speed skating competition.

The pool was so murky that the swimming competition was postponed for a day; computers used to calculate scores in women’s gymnastics were not programmed correctly; transportation has been an adventure, and the only things more numerous than athletes’ and coaches’ complaints have been empty seats.

Yeah, so what’s the problem?

Ted Turner, chairman of the board and president of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., and founder of the Goodwill Games, sat at the head of the table in a conference room of the Grand Europe Hotel on Monday and appeared as if he did not have a care in the world.

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Actually, he did acknowledge one.

“My No. 1 concern is that ‘The Mask’ opened this weekend, and I have to find out how that did,” he said. “We’re in the movie business now.”

As for the Goodwill Games, he said: “I can tell you right now, I think the Games have been a huge success.”

Many would argue otherwise, but Turner does not have their perspective. In an effort to share his, he invited a few reporters here for the Goodwill Games to join him for an hour.

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Turner mentioned during the course of the session that he once had a habit of “talking before my mouth was fully engaged with my brain,” as if that was no longer a problem for him. It could be suggested that he occasionally has relapses. But amid his ramblings, there often is a glimpse of the big picture that he sees.

For instance, a reporter asked about the glitches in the Goodwill Games.

“What glitches?” Turner replied.

“The pool,” the reporter said.

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“That’s one glitch,” Turner said.

“The scoring in gymnastics,” the reporter said.

“I missed that,” Turner said. “There’s glitches everywhere. If you recall, in Munich, people were killed. A team was bombed. Is that a glitch? In every one of your newspapers, there are a couple of misspelled words every day. How many years have you been doing it? Hundreds of years.

“Why focus on this? When everything goes right, that’s expected. When it doesn’t, that’s news. Look at all the great things O.J. Simpson did. Now, nobody focuses on them. It’s CNN, too.”

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He paused to catch his breath, looked at the reporter who asked the question and continued.

“You did say glitches, not a disaster? Teams being killed at the Olympics, that’s a disaster. A scoring problem in gymnastics, that’s like a misspelled word in the newspaper.”

Well, yes, when put in the context of the 1972 Olympic Games at Munich, where Israeli athletes and coaches were massacred by Palestinian terrorists, virtually every sporting event before or since should be considered a roaring success.

But when put in the context of other international sporting events, it is the responsibility of the sporting press to report that the third edition of the Goodwill Games is not a significant improvement over the first in 1986 at Moscow, or the second in 1990 at Seattle. The class of the athletes here is better than it was in either of those, but the quality of the venues and the efficiency of the organization have taken giant steps backward since Seattle.

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The sporting press has a point, Turner acknowledged. But he said that it should not be overlooked that these Goodwill Games are occurring in Russia while the country is in transition to a free-market economy after more than 70 years of strangling Communism. In other words, a dirty swimming pool is not the worst of St. Petersburg’s problems.

“Considering the turmoil this country has gone through, there was a lot of skepticism that the Games would take place at all,” he said. “They had trouble financing it. The country is not in the greatest financial shape in the world.”

Although it has been widely speculated that the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York will be the last, Turner said that he would like to return them to Russia in 2002. He is flying today to Siberia to see a potential site that the Russians have suggested.

He said in 1986 that he created the Goodwill Games to promote friendship and cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union after the boycotts of the 1980 and ’84 Summer Olympics. Now that the Cold War has ended, he said he wants them to continue because he believes they are a plus for the Olympic movement.

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“It’s not just another sporting event,” he said. “It’s the only other international sporting event of a global consequence (besides the Olympics).”

But if the Goodwill Games are to survive into the next century, Turner must sell them to his board of directors as a sound investment for TBS. After the event lost $44 million in ’86, $27 million in ’90 and a still undetermined amount this year, he has some convincing to do.

“I’m personally committed to it,” he said. “We’re televised in 117 countries, so we’re getting there. It would be crazy not to preserve it.”

He acknowledged, however, that he is disappointed because so few in one of those countries, the United States, are watching.

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“That’s the only bad news,” he said of the most recent ratings. “Still, we’ve got millions of people watching it. That’s about as many as you have readers.”

After answering the last question, he stood and thanked the reporters for coming.

“Thanks even for writing about the glitches,” he said. “Just spell our name right: G-O-O-D-W-I-L-L.”


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