Why Olympic Sports Festival was a missed opportunity for the Triangle

Athletes gather at Carter-Finley Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies of U.S. Olympic Festival-’87.
Athletes gather at Carter-Finley Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies of U.S. Olympic Festival-’87. Courtesy of U.S. Olympic Festival

At first glance the 1987 Olympic Sports Festival was a stretch for the Research Triangle region, where the four major municipalities had fewer residents than contemporary Raleigh (395,959 vs. an estimated 438,896).

The results proved otherwise.

By most measures the festival, the largest athletic event in North Carolina history, was a great success. Attendance and income exceeded records set at the other 13 Olympic festivals – run-ups to the Summer and Winter Olympic Games – held nationwide over a 17-year span. “It was the first genuine regional collaborative effort,” recalls Tom White, active in Triangle economic development since 1978 and currently director of the Economic Development Partnership at N.C. State.

Still, other than tickling a sense of shared pride and spawning a handful of lasting spinoffs, the festival failed to generate a unifying regional vision for sports while there was still time to make it work.

Three thousand American amateur athletes came to the Triangle in ’87 to compete in 34 sports from July 13 through 26, attracting 464,000 spectators, almost double projections, at venues in Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh. Ice skating and hockey went to the Greensboro Coliseum, a setup that left festival attendees needing “a road map as much as a program,” according to The Christian Science Monitor.

The festival served as trials for the Pan Am Games or the Olympics in many sports. Among the young standouts at the ’87 event were diver Greg Louganis; track stars Willie Banks, Valerie Briscoe-Hooks, Gail Devers and Rod Woodson; and tennis player Pete Sampras, who swept every set, dominating the final in 100-degree heat.

Festival organizers were granted access to athletic facilities at Duke, N.C. Central, N.C. State and the University of North Carolina. The brand-new Dean Smith Center at Chapel Hill sold out for gold medal competitions in basketball and gymnastics, as did venues for swimming, diving and equestrian events.

“If you think about our region, if you can mash everything together, we probably have one of the greatest arrays of major sports facilities in the country, maybe in the world,” says Hill Carrow, then president of the festival.

Fireworks display at the closing ceremonies of U.S. Olympic Festival-’87 at Wallace Wade Stadium. Courtesy of U.S. Olympic Festival

The festival generated an uncommon spirit of cooperation, starting with 10,000 volunteers. “What was new for me was that we had the regional Chambers (of Commerce) meeting, we had all the universities cooperating using venues everywhere,” says Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of Capital Broadcasting, the first corporate sponsor of the Olympic Sports Festival. “I got – and I’ve actually been on it since then – the notion of how important it is that the Triangle works together, that the total is greater than the sum of the parts.”

To smooth the way for the festival, construction of I-40 was expedited to reach uninterrupted from Raleigh to Chapel Hill. Work on a terminal at RDU airport accelerated to accommodate an influx of passengers. Festive flower plantings at interstate interchanges greeted visitors. A rudimentary regional bus system was established connecting the host facilities. Fiber optics linked festival staff, introducing “email,” a new communication method.

Held in an era when the state lacked major-league professional teams and the region commanded a modest place in America’s sports consciousness, the festival drew sustained national media coverage. “For North Carolinians,” reported the L.A. Times, “this is the Olympics and the Super Bowl all in one, and they intend to soak in every thrill, whether it be on the unfamiliar field of team handball or the oh-so-familiar basketball court.” That enthusiasm was evident at the festival’s opening ceremony, where Tar Heels athletes April Heinrichs and J.R. Reid, contestants in soccer and basketball, respectively, along with a deputation of Mercury program astronauts, led the procession of participants into Carter-Finley Stadium before a welcoming crowd of 52,700 spectators.

Yet, for all its groundbreaking effort and estimable achievement, the 1987 festival fell short of changing perceptions. Offshoots endure, which Carrow, now CEO of the Triangle Sports Commission, readily catalogs: the State Games of North Carolina, the Bull Durham Blues Festival and the N.C. Amateur Sports Foundation, among others. “I think that a whole lot of people figured it out because of the festival,” agrees Goodmon. “We’ve got the Triangle Y, the Triangle United Way, Triangle multiple listing service, Triangle J Council of Governments.”

But some level of efficient collaboration was inevitable in the growing area. More significantly, the well-executed, inclusive vision the Olympic Sports Festival represented, offering an enduring, centralized focus in one of the country’s most sprawling metropolitan areas, had little effect on the trajectory of regional development.

Goodmon was a leader in trying to alter that trajectory. He pushed hard over several years for a centripedal force he called “Triangle Central Park” that would blend an arena, convention center, ballpark and soccer stadium, hotels and other amenities on 100 optioned acres astride the Wake-Durham county line not far from RDU airport. He thought the facilities could be funded jointly by the same Triangle cities that hosted the Olympic Festival, a questionable prospect in a state where locally-generated tax revenue is rarely shared across jurisdictional lines.

“We still miss not having a central gathering place, not pulling people together with additional facilities that could pull people out in the center of things,” says Carrow, recently inducted into the Sports Tourism Hall of Fame. “We still don’t really have something good for that.”

Goodmon offered his version of New Jersey’s Meadowlands Sports Complex before sports tourism was a recognized moneymaker, before Raleigh and Durham built separate civic centers, before the RBC Center was constructed near the state fairgrounds, before the Durham Bulls settled downtown.

In fact Goodmon, whose company purchased the Bulls from visionary owner Miles Wolff, was ready to establish the team as an “anchor tenant” at his prospective complex after Durham voters rejected a 1991 bond that included funds to build a new downtown home for the minor league club. “So I thought, ‘OK, Durham decided they don’t want to build it, we’ll move it,’ ” Goodmon says. “As I like to say, I wasn’t going to Indianapolis. It was four or five miles down the road.”

But Durham leaders conjured a plan to circumvent the expressed will of the voters and erected a new downtown ballpark closer to N.C. 147, an interstate-type highway. The move ultimately was a key to the city’s revitalization. “I had to play the cards that I was dealt,” concedes Goodmon, whose firm has invested heavily near Durham Bulls Athletic Park. “I did work hard on Triangle Central Park. Of course I was disappointed, but I couldn’t have had a better partner than the City of Durham.”

The Page Road land is no longer available, leaving only speculation on the impact of a multisport complex at the region’s geographical core over the past quarter-century. A more integrated focus might have resulted, similar to what Research Triangle Park now envisions for its future. Surely the complex would have attracted robust public transit and festival-like events long ago. Or it might have choked the road system that much sooner and retarded development in other areas, at least initially.

One thing is certain. When MLS officials visit the Triangle this week to evaluate the bid for a franchise by North Carolina Football Club owner Steve Malik, there won’t be a ready-made site waiting, not in the scattered confines of what Carrow calls “Triangle De-Centralized Park.”