Philip Barker ©ITG

Twenty years ago this week, a global multi-sport event was reaching its conclusion in the 2032 Olympic host city, Brisbane. The 2001 Goodwill Games attracted competitors from over 50 countries and featured many stars who had graced at Sydney 2000. Among them were swimmers Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim, javelin champion Jan Zelezny and 10,000 metres gold medallist Derartu Tulu. 

Yet despite the stellar cast, the Games were not a financial success and, within a few months, the curtain had fallen on the Goodwill Games for good.

They had been founded by Ted Turner, an Atlanta television magnate who founded CNN, who insisted that his Games "helped end the Cold War." They were to be an antidote to an era when political intervention had sabotaged the ambitions of athletes from both East and West.

In December 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. In the following months, American President Jimmy Carter led the protests, initially calling for the 1980 Moscow Olympics to be moved, postponed or cancelled. His position soon moved to one of boycott and the Americans stayed away.  Canada, West Germany and Japan followed suit.

Four years later, the Soviet Union snubbed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. They cited security concerns, but everyone realised it was retaliatory and most of the Eastern Bloc nations fell into line. 

Turner shared the frustration of many who were disappointed not to see American athletes compete against their Soviet counterparts. "There was no other outstretched hand to the Soviet Union," he reflected.

Television magnate Ted Turner founded the Goodwill Games ©Getty Images
Television magnate Ted Turner founded the Goodwill Games ©Getty Images

In 1985, he announced that his network, Turner Broadcasting Systems (TBS), Russian media company Gostelradio and the Soviet Sports organisation Soyuzsport were to combine their efforts and create a multi-sport event in the summer of 1986. 

"This agreement calls for the two systems to act in the spirit of friendship and goodwill to further international television cooperation," Turner said. "It is our hope that through programme exchange, we can further peace, understanding and friendship between our nations."

By now, Mikhail Gorbachev had become Soviet leader. At 54, he was significantly younger than his immediate predecessors. He had ushered in a policy of "Glasnost" -  or openness - which made sharing such events much more possible. 

Eighteen sports were included in the first Goodwill Games, which were to take place at 14 centres across Moscow. Double Olympic 400 metres hurdles champion Ed Moses insisted the Games were vital. "It is important we have contact with the Soviet Union," he protested. "We don’t know much about them, they don’t know much about us."

Over 60 other countries took part but there were no South Koreans, prompting concerns about Soviet participation at the 1988 Olympics. Israel was also excluded and there were accusations that Soviet authorities had refused their visas - organisers denied there was a ban but insisted participants were chosen based on international sports rankings.

An estimated 3,500 competitors included some 400 American athletes, but a Pentagon ruling blocked the participation of military personnel, a decision which veteran boxing official Don Hull, a retired army colonel, branded "morally and constitutionally wrong" and complained to President Ronald Reagan.

"That happens to be a commercial endeavour. We can’t use the military in that sense," Reagan responded.

USSR hero Sergey Bubka broke the world record at the Moscow 1986 Goodwill Games, the inaugural competition ©Getty Images
USSR hero Sergey Bubka broke the world record at the Moscow 1986 Goodwill Games, the inaugural competition ©Getty Images

The Opening Ceremony was held in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium (now known as the Luzhniki Stadium). From the moment it began with a recording of the Kremlin chimes, there were many echoes of the 1980 Olympics. Flash cards displayed the message, "Sport is the ambassador for peace". Two hands clasping an olive branch were shown. Other cards portrayed doves.

In 1980, International Olympic Committee President Lord Killanin called upon the world "to unite before the holocaust descends." Gorbachev’s message was similar.

"The very name of these competitions is profoundly symbolic," he said. "Manifestations of goodwill  are needed in relations between people and nations, states and governments, today more than ever before. We must talk, argue and vie with one another in honest competition, otherwise earth cannot be saved from the lurking catastrophe.

"We are trying to make the year 1986 a year of peace, to prepare the ground to start reversing the dangerous race towards the abyss."

There was a re-enactment of the 1975 Apollo Soyuz mission. Soviet cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov were reunited with American astronaut Thomas Stafford. And Leonov recited the words of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space - "Earth is big enough to live on but too small to fight on."

Children from America and the Soviet Union joined hands to remember Samantha Smith, an American schoolgirl who had written to Yuri Andropov, a previous Soviet leader in 1982 asking for peace. And for the grand finale, a giant tower of gymnasts created a vase formation similar to those seen at the 1980 Olympics, signifying the Flame of Goodwill that began on the field of the athletes and spread beyond. 

At this, the cauldron burst into life.

"The vast scale and flawless execution of the opening display reflected the huge effort the Soviet Union has invested into making the Goodwill Games the showcase the 1980 Olympics was meant to be," reported the New York Times. 

Not all were convinced. Dmitri Simes wrote of the "Goodwill Sports and Goodwill Sham" in the Christian Science Monitor and described TBS coverage as "flawed by any standard of objective reporting. It's anybody's guess whether it was done to please the comrades in the Kremlin."

When the sport began, the first world record came in the pool. Vladimir Salnikov swam 7min 50.64sec to break his own 800m world freestyle record. "A new world record for the Soviet treasure," cried the commentators. 

The Opening Ceremony of the 1994 Goodwill Games in Saint Petersburg ©Getty Images
The Opening Ceremony of the 1994 Goodwill Games in Saint Petersburg ©Getty Images

In the women’s heptathlon, American Jackie Joyner-Kersee produced an all-time best score of 7,148 points to win the first of four successive Goodwill Games titles. "Tonight you heard people pulling for an American to set the world record. That tells me something," she commented.

It was an era when pole vaulter Sergei Bubka was almost unbeatable. He cleared 6.01 metres, a world record. The men’s 100m was won by Ben Johnson, his first global title two years before that race at the Seoul Olympics. One sport was not even staged in Moscow - the men’s basketball World Championship was considered part of the Goodwill Games even though matches were held in Spain. 

However, as the Games ended, Turner conceded viewing figures were lower than expected. Fewer than one million homes watched the 129 hours of coverage on offer, even though it was transmitted on 62 stations across America. 

The next Games, in 1990, would be hosted by Seattle, with neighbouring cities Spokane and Tacoma also hosting events. 

But by the time they took place, Europe had been largely redrawn. The opening festivities at the Husky stadium were retitled as a "Welcoming Ceremony" and a Goodwill Games Humanitarian Award was presented to 92-year-old Armand Hammer, a businessman who had pioneered contact with the USSR in the 1930s and was described by Games executive Bob Walsh as "a living hero of the United States, the Soviet Union and the world community".

The 1964 Olympic 10,000m champion Billy Mills, then arrived with a native American "Talking Stick", containing messages from Gorbachev and American President George Bush. American and Soviet military jets flew over in another symbolic moment, while Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chairman of the President’s Committee for Physical Fitness and Sports, brought a further message from the White House. 

"Remember our President George Bush declared war on couch potatoes!" Schwarzenegger said. "Don’t just admire the great athletes, but get involved in some exercise programme yourself. Don’t just watch them on television and stuff your face with junk food."

Former President Reagan, who opened the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, formally welcomed the second Goodwill Games. "I had a similar role six years ago," Reagan said. "Think for a moment how much the world has changed since then. Freedom is on the march around the world and it cannot be stopped."

Even so, the US State Department had denied entry to Jose Ramon Fernandez, named Cuban head of delegation, because he was also a Government official, and goodwill was in short supply at the basketball when a fight between American Alonzo Mourning and Puerto Rican opponent Jose Ortiz saw both players expelled.

Leroy Burrell defeated Carl Lewis in the 100m at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle ©Getty Images
Leroy Burrell defeated Carl Lewis in the 100m at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle ©Getty Images

American teenager Oscar de la Hoya had a more legitimate use for  fists as he took featherweight gold in the early days of a glittering career. Anthony Nesty of Suriname once again overcame Matt Biondi of the US in the 100m butterfly, just as he had at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It was a crushing disappointment for Biondi - who had been after revenge- though he did at least win the 50m and 100m freestyle. 

Three-time Olympic gold medallist Janet Evans was supreme in Seattle. Her three victories included the 1,500m freestyle, a distance women did not contest the distance at the Olympics at that time.

Carl Lewis took the Athletes' Oath but lost to Leroy Burrell in the 100m. He did beat Mike Powell in the long jump but the competition gave no hint of their epic duel to come in 1991.

Although staged at the height of summer, the Games included ice skating with a star studded line-up. The list of gold medallists demonstrated the calibre, including Olympic and world champions Ekaterina Gordeeva and husband Sergei Grinkov in the pairs, Maria Klimova and Sergei Ponemarenko in ice dancing, Kurt Browning, dominant in World Championships in men’s singles and Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic champion in waiting, who won her first major international title.

It was less than a year after the 1990 Games that the Soviet Union disintegrated. Many now pondered whether the Goodwill Games would continue. Games President Jack Kelly insisted, "The most important thing is the people of Saint Petersburg want the Games, the American Federations want the Games and the Soviet Federations want the Games." 

Boris Yeltsin opened them on a sunlit afternoon at the Kirov Stadium in St Petersburg. Ticket prices ranged from 5000 roubles (approximately $2.50 ) to 36,000 roubles (approximately $10.00) but many locals felt they were too expensive.

Those who were present would have seen Michael Johnson set a Games record in the 200m. For the beach volleyball competition, A total of 7,000 tonnes of sand were moved to the historic Peter and Paul fortress, while water in the swimming pool had turned to what the New York Times described as "swamp like green" after problems with filtration equipment - double Olympic champion Alexander Popov remained unfazed. He completed the 50m-100m freestyle double when competition eventually began. 

The Games, though, once again lost eye-watering sums, this time $39 million (£28 millon/€33 million). By now, the cumulative deficit over the preceding four Games was reportedly $109 million (£79 million/€92 million).

Four American cities wanted to host the 1998 Games. New York City won from Dallas-Fort Worth, St Louis and South Florida, and the Games were redesigned to help the United Nations Children’s Fund and children’s charities in America.

In a new $30 million (£22 million/€25 million) "natatorium" built specially at Eisenhower Park in Nassau on New York’s Long Island, South Africa’s Atlanta 1996 double gold medallist Penny Heyns won two golds and a $10,000 (£7,250/€8,500) bonus for her world record breaststroke time over 50m. In synchronised swimming, silver in the duet went to  Kristina Lum and Bill May - mixed pairs were permitted in the Goodwill Games, but May was unable to compete in the  Olympics which include only women’s events.

New York City hosted the Goodwill Games in 1998 ©Getty Images
New York City hosted the Goodwill Games in 1998 ©Getty Images

Cuba’s mighty heavyweight Félix Savón won a third successive title in 1998, a feat he emulated in the Olympic ring, and television coverage profiled American sprinter Marion Jones, a victor in the 100m and 200m, as a prelude to Olympic success in Sydney two years later. Jones later lost all her Olympic medals after being found guilty of doping violations and her 100m victory at the 2001 Goodwill Games in Brisbane was subsequently annulled.

The Brisbane Goodwill Games - the final event of this fateful series - were moved forward a year to avoid a clash with the 2002 Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Despite this, ratings were disappointing again and the end felt nigh.

By now, the Turner networks were controlled by Time Warner and then AOL. The organisation focussed on basketball and other sports, and the Goodwill Games slipped into the peripheries.

"We determined that our viewers would be better served by reallocating the resources necessary to pull off the Goodwill Games to other sports opportunities," TBS chief executive Jamie Kellner said in a statement.

Turner himself insisted that he was "proud of the Goodwill Games", adding he appreciated "the contribution of everyone who made it a success."

But by this point, the Goodwill Games folded and they have never been held since. Many may feel that its founding philosophy - that sport is an ambassador for peace - is needed now as much as ever.