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Goodwill Games were inadvertent tribute to Seattle and 1980s pop culture

LISTEN: Goodwill Games welcoming ceremonies were showcase for Seattle
Seattle's own Kenny G plays "Songbird" at the 1990 Goodwill Games "Welcoming Ceremonies" at Husky Stadium and for worldwide TV. (Feliks Banel)

Seattle hosted the second Goodwill Games in July and August of 1990. Thousands of athletes from nearly a hundred countries competed at local venues, including the UW, the Tacoma Dome and Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center (which was built for the games).

The Goodwill Games were founded by media mogul Ted Turner as a kind of less political alternative to the Olympics, and the first games were held in Moscow in 1986. In the years leading up to Turner’s efforts, amateur international sports had become a means of Cold War diplomatic reprisal.

After the US boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow – because the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan – the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

A local organizing committee here was led by entrepreneur and super-event organizer Bob Walsh, who passed away earlier this year.

While the impact of the Goodwill Games on the local economy was perhaps not as great as was promised, the anticipated traffic problems never really materialized either.

This Friday, July 21 marks the 27th anniversary of the “Welcoming Ceremonies” at Husky Stadium. Looking back at that part of the Goodwill Games in particular (through an old DVD copy of the live broadcast), it looks now as if the summer of 1990 was the perfect moment to celebrate 1980s pop culture and political culture, too (sorry Ted!).

Host for the live worldwide broadcast via TBS was radio and TV talk show icon, Larry King, doing his best to explain Seattle culture and help introduce the pre-Grunge, pre-Starbucks, pre-Amazon Northwest to the rest of the globe.

It was a picture perfect night, with a high temp of 94 degrees, boats bobbing on beautiful Lake Washington, and a glorious flyover by a giant Boeing 747. Seattle has rarely looked better on international TV.

Before the festivities began for the 70,000 or so on hand at the stadium, King questioned former Seahawk (and future congressman from Oklahoma) Steve Largent, who was reporting live for TBS from Spokane.

“OK Steve, first, that concept of Spokane being a second city,” King said. “Do they have a tough time living with that? When people think Washington, they think Seattle.”

“Well, you know Larry, it’s interesting,” the legendary wide receiver said. “Spokane is as different from Seattle as night and day. This is the Palouse Country, the rolling hills, the waving wheat.”

“And this city’s really a town,” Largent continued. “This town’s about people, it’s not politics, it’s not big buildings. It’s warm, genuine, sincere people.”

Ouch. Seattle’s unfriendly night, according to Largent, was the opposite of warm and welcoming Spokane’s day.

Later, as the ceremony was underway and legendary singer and songwriter Kenny Rogers gave heartfelt remarks about world peace, Larry talked over the top of him to explain the origins of the cheering phenomenon known as The Wave.

“During the break as Kenny Rogers was being introduced … watch this … this is the Wave it’s become international and it started here in Seattle,” King said, as the broadcast resumed after a commercial break.

“Why did it start here in Seattle? I’ll tell you why. Nobody knows why. But here they are they’re doing it,” King continued. “It started in Seattle. Some places they boo it now when it’s done by other people in the crowd but it was done for the Washington Husky football team. The … the … it is about to subside, no it’s not it’s sort of dying down. Here’s Kenny.”

Other stars at Welcoming Ceremonies included Reba McEntire, Ben Vereen, Soviet metal band Gorky Park, Bruce Jenner and Seattle’s very own Kenny G, who let loose with a brass-bending rendition of “Songbird.”

Even athlete (and future California governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger was on hand, telling the crowd, “You should all be inspired to get fit yourself. And what I mean by that is, don’t just admire those great athletes, but get involved in some exercise program yourself. Don’t just watch them on television and stuff your face with junk food.”

The keynote address came from perhaps the greatest 1980s icon of all, President Ronald Reagan. Reagan had finished his second term just 18 months earlier. The Cold War was almost over, and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse.

“It is my great privilege to officially open the 1990 Goodwill Games by saying good luck and God Bless you all,” the former president said from his Montlake podium. It was the same stadium where, almost exactly 67 years earlier, President Warren G. Harding gave his final public address.

But this time, Larry King got the last word.

“The Great Communicator taught ‘em a lesson here today,” King told the audience. “Terrific speech.”

Though the Seattle Goodwill Games were thought of by some as a test for possibly holding the Olympics here one day, the Seattle City Council scotched the last serious bid attempt back in 1998. The 2012 Olympics were ultimately awarded to London.

The Goodwill Games continued on for several more rounds, but athlete participation dwindled and the games garnered less attention. The final edition took place in Brisbane in 2001, concluding just two days before 9/11.

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