INDIANAPOLIS — Thousands gathered on the American Legion Mall to witness the opening ceremonies for the fourth National Sports Festival on July 23, 1982.
Ken Barlow of Indianapolis and Becky Liggett of Muncie were the final two athletes to deliver a torch carrying the Festival Flame, which had departed Pikes Peak earlier in the month. While United States Olympic Committee (USOC) President William Simon was the one who officially opened the festival, it was Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut who exclaimed, “Welcome to Indianapolis, the amateur sports capital of the country!”
It was the realization of a dream years in the making.
Ted Boehm was one of several people tasked by the Hudnut Administration with finding a way to make Indianapolis a more interesting place to live. Boehm recalls the group exploring all sorts of ideas, including changes like improving the city’s air service. But one area seemed to be a slam dunk.
“We quickly centered on a sports opportunity as a place that Indianapolis could establish a niche that no place else had,” Boehm said.
The not-for-profit Indiana Sports Corporation was created in 1979, with the goal of making Indianapolis an amateur sports destination. Boehm would become its first president and CEO.
“At that time, all we had was the NBA as a rookie franchise team," Boehm said. "And it was still financially struggling.”
The Hoosier Dome hadn’t been built, the Colts were still in Baltimore, and Indianapolis was dealingwith nicknames like “Naptown” and “India-no-place.”
But where others saw nothing, the Hudnut Administration saw an opportunity.
Going for the gold
The National Sports Festival, later known as the U.S. Olympic Festival, began in 1978. The premise was to celebrate and showcase athletes during non-Olympic years. Instead of individual scoring, athletes would be grouped by geographic region (North, South, East and West.)
The first two festivals were held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the home of the U.S. Olympic Committee, or USOC. There was no festival in 1980 because it was an Olympic year, however the United States boycotted the games in Moscow. When the festival returned in 1981, it was held in Syracuse, New York.
That’s where a recent college graduate by the name of Jack Berger first got involved with the USOC.
“I lucked out,” Berger recalls.
A recent graduate of Syracuse University, Berger remembers writing a flurry of press releases for the festival. His work was also noticed by a group of visiting Hoosiers.
“When the Indianapolis folks came to Syracuse to look around, they thought it might not be a bad idea to grab somebody that had experience, at least with this event, and bring them to Indianapolis.”
At the conclusion of the National Sports Festival in Syracuse, Berger loaded up his Chevy Monza and headed to the Hoosier State, becoming the promotions director for the National Sports Festival in Indianapolis.
The city of Indianapolis beat out Philadelphia to land the 1982 Festival. By the time Berger made his way to Indiana, preparations for the festival were well underway.
“Indianapolis was a huge leap forward. The new natatorium, the new track and field stadium, the velodrome, that level of venue just elevated everything,” Berger said. “When you have those types of sports facilities, and then you add it to an organization that knows basically what they're doing and how to promote, and on top of that, the corporate support of the city and the political support of the community, that was really almost 100 percent. Everybody thought, well, this is a great way to let people know about Indianapolis.”
If you build it, they will come
In order to land the fourth National Sports Festival, the city of Indianapolis had to prove it was capable of hosting the 33 summer and winter Olympic sports, and the 150 events that came with it. From archery to yachting, the city would need to make a substantial infrastructure investment to host the festival.
Through a combination of public and private funds, the city constructed a $21-million 5,700-seat natatorium, a $6-million 10,000 seat track and field stadium, and a $2.5-million 3,000 seat velodrome. Much of that funding was made possible by the Lilly Endowment.
“Lilly Endowment was, at that point, supportive of building major facilities and making major financial financial contributions to make it happen,” Boehm said.
Not everyone was sold on the idea of building sports complexes to drive economic growth. State senator Julia Carson scoffed at the idea in a 1982 WRTV report.
“I do not believe that you use taxpayers' money to become the national sports capital of the world while your cities suffer,” Carson said.
At the time, Indianapolis’ unemployment rate was around 9.6 percent, and the state of Indiana had an unemployment rate of 12 percent. Carson likened the spending to buying a Mercedes Benz while not being able to pay for diapers.
In the same report, Mayor Hudnut’s vision was unwavering.
“I’m convinced that the efforts we’re making to become the sports capital of the country, will in the long run contribute substantially to combating the outflow of talent and brains to the Sun Belt," Hudnut said. "It will give the people of Indiana and the country something to identify with.”
Hoosier curiosity leads to record-breaking crowds
The Indianapolis sports scene was a very different place in the early 1980s.
“Prior to the National Sports Festival, the only thing Indianapolis really had going for it were the Indiana Pacers, and honestly, the Pacers were struggling badly,” former WRTV sports reporter Brian Hammons recalled. “They were just fighting for survival.”
The National Sports Festival presented a unique opportunity to bring in a variety of sports, many of which were unfamiliar to most Hoosiers.
“Channel 6 had special programming every day and a lot of that was spent explaining sports to people,” Hammons said. “There were a lot of sports like that you'd never seen before that you almost had to explain, this is what you're going to see, and these are the rules, and this is what's going to happen.”
And Hoosiers showed up.
“Who knew you could sell out a fencing venue or rhythmic gymnastics?” promotions director Jack Berger quipped.
Many events saw record-setting crowds.
“I think the people of Indiana were curious, you know, what, what's this all about?” Brian Hammons said. “They showed up in droves to watch bicycle racing and rhythmic gymnastics and sports that you would never see here.”
Athletes with names you would recognize
The National Sports Festival also had more familiar Olympic sports like diving, swimming and track and field. It also had increasingly familiar names like Evelyn Ashford, Edwin Moses, Greg Louganis and Carl Lewis.
“Carl Lewis was a name that you'd recognize.” Hammons said. “Leading up to that competition [long jump] they were talking that he might beat Bob Beamon’s record because the times and the distances that they were going in this new facility were off the charts.”
Bob Beamon set the world record for long jump at 29 ft. 2.5 in., at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
While Lewis didn’t officially beat Beamon’s record, he did come close with a 28 ft. 9 in. jump. Lewis had one jump over 30 feet, but it was called a foul. Still, it didn’t dampen Lewis’ spirit.
“I had one jump over 30 feet,” Lewis told WRTV in 1982. “That’s what excited me so much beyond everything else, because I didn’t think I could do it at altitude. This is my day.”
Another compelling story line was in the men’s 10-meter platform diving competition. Twenty-two-year-old Greg Louganis was favored to win the event.
“Greg Louganis, kind of made his name here in Indianapolis and, and that was the first time we've really seen Greg Louganis perform as a diver,” Hammons said.
But it was diver Bruce Kimball who captivated the crowd. Kimball was severely injured in a head-on highway collision with a drunk driver the previous fall, suffering traumatic head injuries that left him near death.
While Louganis earned the gold, it was Kimball's second place finish that garnered a standing ovation from the crowd of 7,000.
"He really won today," Louganis told WRTV in 1982. "I’m so proud of him, his comeback, and he’s back strong."
Louganis would know, he and Kimball had similar competitive diving careers.
WRTV recently spoke with Louganis, who recalled being asked to look out for Kimball while at a competition.
"I think he was 8 and I was 13, or something, he was, he was really young," Louganis said. "His dad reached out to me before the trip and said, 'Keep an eye on my, my son.' We were connected way back."
It was likely that personal connection that contributed to the tears that filled Louganis' eyes as U.S. Olympic Committee President William Simon placed the silver medal around Kimball's neck.
"It was just so much for a young athlete to endure, and get through, and get to the other side of it," Louganis said.