CNN founder Ted Turner established the Goodwill Games in response to the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia, and the Soviet Union’s boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
Turner envisioned the Goodwill Games both as a balm to soothe cold war tensions between the world’s two superpowers and as premium sports programming for WTBS, his Atlanta-based television station. Moscow hosted the inaugural Goodwill Games in 1986, with subsequent events hosted by Seattle, Washington (1990); St. Petersburg, Russia (1994); New York City (1998); and Brisbane, Australia (2001). A winter version of the games was staged in Lake Placid, New York, in 2000.
The games showcased nearly 20,000 athletes from 100 countries in its 6 meetings. Although Turner Broadcasting reportedly lost hundreds of millions of dollars by producing and broadcasting the competitions, Turner claimed that the friendships forged between athletes and officials of different countries, as well as the millions of dollars raised for such charitable organizations as UNICEF, made the games successful.
The 1986 Moscow games featured 3,500 athletes competing in 18 sports. Many American athletes declined to participate, citing concerns over the recent Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Competitors from Israel were not invited. Turner’s meeting with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev during the games was a highlight for the organizer, but few sports fans attended the fifteen-day event and even fewer watched the festivities on television. Turner reportedly lost $26 million on the charter Goodwill Games, but he was determined to carry on.
U.S. track star Carl Lewis and the U.S. women’s basketball team, which won a gold medal, made the 1990 Seattle Goodwill Games memorable with their performances, but the games again failed to attract a large audience and lost $44 million. The 1994 St. Petersburg Games lost about $39 million, again apparently due to lack of fan support.
The 1998 New York City Games scored a 25 percent larger television audience than did the St. Petersburg event. These games featured popular figure skaters Michelle Kwan and Todd Eldredge, as well as track and field athletes Michael Johnson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Dan O’Brien, yet attendance still lagged at the venues. The 1998 games were also marred when Chinese gymnast Sang Lan suffered a paralyzing spinal-cord injury during a practice session.
After the 2000 winter games in Lake Placid and the 2001 games in Brisbane, officials from Time-Warner, the communications conglomerate that had merged with Turner Broadcasting in 1996, decided to terminate the Goodwill Games.
Other world-class athletes who competed in the Goodwill Games over its sixteen-year run included figure skater Oksana Baiul, track and field athletes Marion Jones and Sergei Bubka, basketball player Tim Duncan, and boxer Oscar De La Hoya.