by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MOSCOW — See Ted run. See Ted run to Russia. See Ted shell out $35 million, put his arm around a Soviet official, and raise a vodka glass to their new sports festival.

“To Mr. Turner!” toasts the Russian.

“To my Commie buddy!” says Ted.

See Ted tour. See Ted tour Moscow. See Ted stop at Lenin’s tomb, go inside, view the embalmed body, and come back out.

“What do you think?” someone asks.

“He looks good,” Ted says. “A little pale, maybe. . . . “

See Ted Turner — R.E. (Ted) Turner, entrepreneur, millionaire, ugly American, busted millionaire. Is there anyone on the planet quite like him?

At last audit he was over a billion dollars in debt — yet here he is Friday on a Russian cruise boat, his shirt rumpled, his pepper hair mussed, and he’s shaking hands with top-ranking Soviets and laughing like a schoolkid.

Today marks the midway point of Turner’s latest brainchild, the Goodwill Games, a two-week sports competition between East and West — most notably the U.S. and Russia — that was created, according to Turner, to promote friendship between the super powers, while being aired on his super station — cable TV’s WTBS.

It’s losing a fortune. People aren’t watching enough back home. Stadiums are half-filled. Americans are calling Russians names. And nothing fazes him.

Nothing at all.

“What will you say,” a Russian reporter inquired, “if you go back to America and people ask if you are now a Communist?”

“I will say, ‘Nyet,’ ” said Ted.

See Ted laugh.

There are things in life you can’t do and things in life you can do, and just when you figure out which is which, along comes Ted Turner. How does he do it?

Here is a born troublemaker, a guy who burned down his fraternity’s homecoming float, a guy who’s loud enough to be heard in the next room, a guy who took over his father’s billboard company at age 24 and now, at 47, owns the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks, WTBS, CNN, more interest payments than several Third World countries, and the MGM film library. You want to see “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With The Wind,” “Ben- Hur”?

See Ted.

He is, as Bill Murray might put it, a knucklehead. The uncle who is too loud at Thanksgiving, the slob who gets blitzed at the office Christmas party. His clothes are perpetually rumpled, his conversation just a play-by-play of his brain waves.

Then again, he is shrewd enough to build a failing TV station into a satellite cable channel. Sportsman enough to defend the 1977 America’s Cup. Success is a cake with a lot of recipes, and Ted Turner, who is, above all else, no dummy, has apparently found one that’s 100 parts chutzpah. It is not just anyone who gets America and Russia to play in his sandbox.

“How did you pull this off?” someone asks of the Goodwill Games.

“I came over here and suggested it,” he said. “At first they looked at me like a nut. A do-gooder. But now we’re friends. We’ve gone hunting together. They kissed me — on the lips. I don’t even kiss my kids that way.”

“Why are you doing it?” asked someone else.

“We’ve got to trust one another,” he said. “If the U.S. and the USSR blow each other up with nuclear weapons, we blow up everybody on the planet. That means Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Switzerland, Sweden, India, Ceylon, or whatever they call it — they call it something else now, I don’t know.

“And what right do we have to decide the fate of mankind? All our history, all our culture, the artwork, the literature. And what have we done with the opportunity? Get ready to blow ourselves up! And not just ourselves! What about the elephants? And if you think about it, you know, a nuclear war, and what it can do and. . . . “

The elephants?

Well. Hmm. Is he serious? Who knows? He thinks it, he says it. He likes it, he buys it. Turner is tuned to his own frequency. Robert Wussler, executive vice-president of WTBS, tells this story: The two of them were crossing the street in New York City once and Ted was in the middle of a thought, gesturing wildly, not paying attention, and a car up and hit him. Ted rolled onto the hood, somersaulted off, and hit the ground running, without so much as interrupting his sentence.

You don’t believe it, right? Then again, maybe you do.

Especially if you’ve had the chance to watch Ted in action for the last few days here. To have heard him say “Howdy, darlin!” to a Russian washwoman, seen him wear topsider shoes to formal ceremonies, watched him borrow a pink sports coat and a purple tie to slip over his yellow golf shirt before awarding a medal to Edwin Moses.

All of which is funny; none of which makes up for his oversights. And there have been plenty here. From the start, these Goodwill Games have been marred by confusion, protests, complaining and general chaos — but they’ve looked OK on the screen. Like a made-for-TV movie set, the event has been largely a front with only the barest support behind it.

True, the opening ceremonies were spectacular. But the women’s 50-meter freestyle swim — the games’ very first event — saw the gun go off before the swimmers were even set. The same thing happened in the men’s version a few minutes later.

Many track and field athletes had little or no idea whom they were racing against and, in some cases, where and when. “We were dropped off at the hotel and told nothing about schedules, rules, times, nothing,” said Steve Scott, the American miler.

Carl Lewis accused the Soviets of being cheaters. The Soviet officials accused American journalists of being irresponsible. Communication has been simply awful. Access between press and athletes has been scattershot.

And Ted? On Friday, Ted was on the boat rolling up the Moscow River, shaking hands with guests from India, from China, from Ethiopia.

“Can we have a picture?” asked a group of Soviet press officers.

“Da,” said Turner, using the Russian word for yes. He grinned.

“Da, da,” he said suddenly.

He grinned again.

“Da da da da da da . . . ” he started singing.

So life can be a dream, sh-boom, sh-boom. The word is that Turner will lose
$20 million on these games. He had once figured to make that much in profit. But what’s a few mill to a man who once was $2 billion in the hole?

“Aren’t you worried about how much you owe?” he was asked.

“It’s just a matter of zeros,” he said.

Not everyone can take debt that calmly. But then not everyone tries to take over CBS, buys and sells MGM, and has been quoted as saying his life’s dream is to be “Alexander the Great — ride in on a white horse and save the world.”

Is he rich or poor? Philanthropist or egomaniac? How do you figure it out? Not by watching him. He is, in appearance, half Rhett Butler, half Rodney Dangerfield. He is, in action, half tyke, half tycoon.

He is, in words, uh, well. . . .

“My son bought a cat here,” Ted said the other day. “Now we’ve got a Commie cat. It purrs just like an American cat. The squirrels over here are just like American squirrels. They eat nuts.”


“The opening ceremonies here had the largest fireworks display on the planet,” Ted said. “They seeded the clouds so it wouldn’t rain. They can do that, you know. They did it for the Olympics. I told ’em, ‘That’s great. You don’t even need God over here.’ “


“You know Lenin, he was everything to these people,” Ted said. “He was George Washington and Jesus Christ rolled up into one. Really. . . .”

Everybody sing.

Da da da da da.

And on he goes. See Ted run. For better or worse, broke or more broke, his Goodwill Games are in full swing, and, barring a complete transportation breakdown — which is entirely possible here — they should wrap up next weekend as a complete event.

That in itself is an accomplishment. Bringing East and West into the same stadium — even if all the best American athletes weren’t here — is still something the Olympic Games haven’t been able to do in the last two tries. Like certain Beverly Hills dinner parties, the big trick here is getting the right guests to show up. So what if the soup is cold?

“I love my country very much,” said Ted. “And I love all people. We’re all brothers and sisters and we better start acting that way before we blow ourselves to kingdom come.”

What do you do with a guy who says that, then slips on a crimson pullover and says to the Russian Sports Minister, “Look, I’m wearing my red sweater. Ha, ha.”

Maybe he’s out to save the world. Maybe not. You figure at the very least, Ted Turner, for all his insanity, his southern drawl, his sneaker-chic and his sudden lapses into existentialist philosophy, is just having some fun.

And when he hits 90, and he’s on the porch in Georgia, rocking in his chair, he’ll be able to say, “Yeah, there I was on this cruise boat shaking hands with these Soviet big shots and I had 30 banks chasing my butt and half the world’s media on my case and I had caviar in one hand and vodka in the other. . . .

“And you know what?” he’ll say. “I had a blast.”

Not to mention the elephants. CUTLINE: Ted Turner: half Rhett, half Rodney.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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