THE Reagan administration was absolutely correct to ban United States military personnel from the Goodwill Games in Moscow. They are the brainchild of TV magnate Ted Turner, who, after failing to take over CBS in cooperation with Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, found a new associate in Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The whole exercise is a sham. Before the games had even started, their goodwill image received a blow by the Soviet refusal to admit the teams from Israel, South Korea, and South Africa. Not many Americans would be appalled by the exclusion of the South Africans -- treating them as pariahs is turning into a litmus test of international decency. But what about denying participation to a US friend, democratic Israel? And how about turning down South Korea, the host of the next Olympic Games and an American ally? Going along with the Soviet rejection of their athletes -- as Mr. Turner did -- is appeasement, pure and simple.
Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) coverage of the games was flawed by any standard of objective reporting. It's anybody's guess whether it was done to please the comrades in the Kremlin, with whom Mr. Turner has reached an agreement to stage another extravaganza in Seattle, or because of sheer incompetence. But how would you explain an experienced TBS Moscow correspondent failing to notice that the Soviet leader, who in his opening remarks used the word ``peace'' 11 times in less than 10 minutes, was exploiting sport for public relations purposes? How would you explain other TBS journalists providing unqualified praise of what the Washington Post has described as the opening ceremonies' ``pageantry'' without making any reference to heavy propagandistic overtones? The overtones were heavy indeed. They included flag-wavers' depictions of missiles marked with the Latin letter ``X,'' clearly projecting their Western -- read US -- origin. And there was a direct attack on President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative coming from a Soviet general.
Next day, during the marathon coverage, American TV viewers learned from sports commentator Curt Gowdy that the Moscow subway fare is just 7 cents and that students enrolled at Moscow State University do not have to spend ``a dime'' on their education. Both observations are technically correct. But out of context they are completely misleading, as misleading, in fact, as it would be to limit comments on the complex phenomenon of Soviet life to revelations that few people own cars and that it is increasingly difficult for Jews to win admission to the prestigious Moscow State University. To be fair, Mr. Gowdy was not attempting to cover up Russian sins. He mentioned, for instance, that Ivan the Terrible ordered the eyes of the St. Basil Cathedral architect cut out. The brutality that has occurred closer to our time and goes on today was not mentioned by Gowdy or his TBS colleagues. Nor did they notice that security arrangements were so heavy that Moscow was virtually closed to ordinary Soviets except for its registered residents. No wonder -- one is not expected to question publicly one's business partners. And the Soviet government was the partner of TBS in arranging the games.
But the greatest problem with the games is that they project an image of goodwill where there is none. The United States and the Soviet Union are adversaries. There are areas of overlapping interests created primarily by a mutual desire to avoid a nuclear war. But the instinct of self-preservation does not amount to goodwill. Otherwise, why are our missiles aimed at each other? Friends do not threaten friends with annihilation.
The goodwill concept implies that the US-Soviet hostility is a result of some unfortunate misunderstanding that can and should be bridged by more-extensive contacts. The concept is an illusion. Both sides, while frequently misreading the opponent's specific steps, are pretty realistic about the fundamental source of their conflict: incompatible global interests and contrasting human values.
Does anyone believe that the Kremlin feels goodwill toward the United States? If so, Moscow should be congratulated on hiding its affection extremely well. The Politburo, of course, would claim that its disagreement is with the Reagan administration rather than with the American people. But the Soviet leadership has had major disagreements with every American administration since World War II. And US presidents happen to be democratically elected. Disagreements with them are disagreements with the United States.
Nor is there much reason for Americans to feel goodwill toward the Soviet government. And top Soviet athletes taking part in international competition are all professionals and as much representatives of the regime as other state employees. If one needed a reminder of how the Soviets mix politics and sports, the Goodwill Games' opening ceremony should fit the bill. Would you approve Goodwill Games in Pretoria opened by President Pieter W. Botha? Would you buy the argument that this was just an innocent people-to-people exchange devoid of undesirable political symbolism if the games took place in the South African capital? Goodwill misplaced is not a virtue.
The Soviet Union is a great power. The United States should be prepared to compete with it in many fields, including athletics. But let's do it without pompous pretensions. Let athletes challenge athletes in the spirit of sportsmanship rather than in a nonexistent and unnatural love affair between two bitter antagonists. And TV networks should not confuse creating news with covering it. There is an inherent conflict of interest in reporting an event that you have masterminded and understandably want to present in the best possible light. Mr. Turner has to make a choice between responsible journalism and playing a private political entrepreneur. He can't have both.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.