US amateur sports festival brightens summer doldrums

In the words of Ed Sullivan, the National Sports Festival should be a "really big show" -- even without Topo Gigio, Teresa Brewer, or the Moscow Circus. The in-house, Olympics-style competition moves east this year, with more than 2,500 amateur athletes in 33 sports expected to assemble in the Carrier Dome here during Thursday's opening ceremony. The strictly USA spectacle runs through July 29.

Only two other such festivals were ever held, both at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the summers of 1978 and 1979. Though successful in giving US athletes a taste for keen, large-scale competitions in non-Olympic years, the festivals went relatively unnoticed.

The press and the public couldn't get too excited about an event in which nothing was on the line. That basically hasn't changed, with participation more a shakedown cruise than a trial for Olympic hopefuls.

The feeling exists, however, that things are different this time.

For one, the festival has moved from a semi-isolated Rocky Mountain community to a city closer and more accessible to numerous media centers east of the Mississippi.

Concerned that some world-class athletes missed past festivals, the USOC has flown in 20 track and field performers who've been competing on the European circuit. Among them is Edwin Moses, the 1976 Olympic 400-meter hurdles champion and winner of 69 straight races.

Another differences is that the festival is obviously here to stay and will receive the respect accorded a fixture on the American sports scene. Enhancing its prominence this summer is the absence of major league baseball, which normally corners a lion's share of attention at this period.

With the baseball strike lingering on, sports editors are looking for "copy" elsewhere. Some 500 accredited journalists are expected to produce it in reams here, writing on everyone from 12-year-old figure skater Jill Frost of Walpole, Mass., to 66-year-old archer O. K. Smathers of Brevard, N.C.

Network TV coverage, while nothing unusual for the festival, is growing more ambitious. ABC, the "network of the 1984 Olympics," is scheduled to produce six hours of coverage. The first installment will be aired this Saturday at 5 p.m. Eastern daylight time, with a 2 1/2 hour-segment Sunday beginning at 1:30, and a wrapup Aug. 2. Olympic hero Eric Heiden will work as an ABC commentator, while former US hockey coach Herb Brooks assumes a similar position with Enterprise Radio. ESPN, the cable TV network, will even get into the act by showing replays during August.

By establishing the festival as a roving event, the US Olympic Committee has paved the way for wider public recognition and local support. Syracuse made a successful bid for the festival, out-tub-thumping Orlando, Fla., and Colorado Springs for the honor of playing host.

In making their pitch, organizers talked up the available facilities, which include everything from a minor league ballpark to a high school swimming pool to the 50,000-seat bubbletop Carrier Dome on the campus of Syracuse University. The college, which has handled an invasion of 6,000 athletes and officials during New York State's Empire Games since 1978, will house the athletes in what amounts to a ready- made "Olympic Village" of eight dormitories.

The athletes, who are chosen by the national governing bodies of their respective sports, began arriving on July 13.

To lend an Olympic aura to the proceedings, participants are divided into four regional teams, representing the East, West, Midwest, and South. These teams may provide the athletes with a feeling of esprit de corps, but they are rather arbitrary divisions that can hardly be expected to hold the public's interest. This is probably the chief weakness of the sports festival concept, albeit an almost unavoidable one.

Despite this drawback, NSF III should not lack for spectators. Advance ticket sales have run far ahead of last year's record of $120,000. Since the host city retains the ticket revenue, the Syracuse Organizing Committee has good reason to "sell" the event, which it has done with simultaneous torch runs from Buffalo and Albany and with publicity for the "mega-spectacular" opening ceremony.

Besides the traditional parade of athletes, the ceremony will include a laser light show and a performance by the Syracuse Symphony. Best of all, says organizing committee chairman John F. X. Mannion, "the ticket price of only $3 brings this event within the range of every family in the area."

Prices generally are a bargain, with most tickets falling into the $3 to $6 range and some events, such as cycling, rowing, and archery offering free admission. The most popular sports are track and field, basketball, gymnastics, and figure skating.

Besides figure skating, other winter pursuits on the agenda are ice hockey and indoor speedskating.

Spectators also have a chance to preview American prospects in the new Olympic sports of synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. Baseball and tennis, demonstration sports in 1984, plus Pan American Games sports such as roller skating, softball, and table tennis, also are included.

Next year Indianapolis hosts the festival, which moves on to Los Angeles in 1983.

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