Ted Turner Stages His Own Olympics—and Tries to Rescue the Planet
It’s not as though Ted Turner has nothing to do besides sit around and think about nuclear war. At 47, he is the owner of a global cable network, a domestic SuperStation, two sports teams and a very expensive chunk of MGM. This month he is staging the largest private Olympiad in history—the $100 million Goodwill Games in Moscow—and he undoubtedly is hatching a plan for yet another bold-stroke acquisition. At this moment, however, he is less concerned with his billion-dollar empire than with the notion that he would be as dead as the rest of us if the bomb were dropped.
Three o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and Ted’s mental tape loop is coming around again to his dead-of-night fears. The setting is his aerie at Turner Broadcasting’s becolumned Atlanta headquarters, a den that befits a monied rakehell: silver sporting trophies; stuffed mallards, mounted fish and snakeskins; oils of great yachts; a war bonnet casually draped on a coat rack; and a velvet couch that converts into a bed. On the massive desk are significant bibelots: crystal dice from Tiffany and a plaque that adjures, “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.”
Playing to an audience of one, the dashing, mercurial Turner (in shirtsleeves and a CNN tie) is delivering a manic soliloquy. “This is the most powerful antinuclear statement you’ve ever seen,” he announces, brandishing a video cassette. “It’s so beautiful it’ll blow your mind.” Sliding it into one of the VCRs stacked on the carpet, he punches a button with his foot, stands before the oversized TV screen and sweeps his arms up in a let-there-be-light gesture—introducing Trumpet of Conscience, a treacly WTBS paean to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolence. Scenes of dying soldiers, steaming warships and goose-stepping Hitler Youth are interspersed with shots of a multiracial children’s choir warbling a spiritual. Foxholes, bombers, parachutes, jackboots, gunfire, strafing. “It’s…” begins his visitor.
“Don’t talk, just watch,” commands Turner, who has settled into his chair.
Finally, a great blossoming mushroom cloud, a firestorm and a hellish post-bomb Nagasaki. “It goes on about the civil rights movement and everything,” says Turner, leaping up to snap off the machine. He sighs briefly, then seizes a photograph from the bookshelf. “See these Russians with their big smiles?” It is a photo of a recent hunting party in the U.S.S.R. with Ted and son Teddy IV, 23, among comrades. “I mean, these people are people. The Russians are just human beings and nobody’s taken the time to KNOW ’em. So we’ve got different political systems, so WHAT? That’s just like saying all the Jews should be dead, you know, because they don’t believe the way we do.
“When you see mothers walking down the streets in Russia pushing their children, you see it’s the same over there, and then you think there are 20,000 nuclear warheads pointing at each other, then you wonder—why do we need nuclear weapons?
“A nuclear war is only gonna happen once. I’ll tell you, just stand back from it and look at it dispassionately, like you were an extraterrestrial being that was flying over this beautiful planet, and you’d say that we’re mad. M-A-D.”
Ted Turner, you see, is thinking on a global scale these days. Not content to tend to his own aggressively capitalistic business, he is masterminding grandiose events on the order of the Goodwill Games—a 15-day exercise in athletic diplomacy. Reasoning that a nuclear exchange is less likely between countries whose jocks have met on the playing fields, he is making a major investment to bring Carl Lewis and Debi Thomas together with athletes from 60 other nations and beam the lovefest around the world. Never mind that he will probably lose money, or that most people doubt it will become the quadrennial affair that he envisions. Ted reckons that you can’t put a price on peace—or, for that matter, on a reputation as a man for whom no move is too audacious.
Robert Wussler, executive vice-president of Turner Broadcasting and Ted’s pinstriped aide-de-camp, shouldered the task of actually mounting the Games. During the 1984 Summer Olympics, says Wussler, “Ted walked into my office and said, ‘We’ve got to do this better…. The Russians should be there.’ ” Four days later Wussler flew to Moscow to present the idea to a Soviet broadcasting official. And while the initial reaction was “nyet, nyet, nyet,” Wussler gradually changed that to “da.” The Soviet sports and broadcasting agencies agreed to organize and co-sponsor the games, contributing $70 million to Turner’s $35 million. The Games (which will be broadcast on WTBS in the afternoons and evenings, and on other stations nationally and overseas) were scheduled to open at the revamped Lenin Stadium on July 5.
While Turner flew to Moscow to preside over his Games, it is unlikely that the execution of his scheme will prove as thrilling as the act of putting it in motion. High on hubris, haunted by the notion that life is finite, he is “more excited by the hunt than by the kill,” according to Taylor Glover, his stockbroker and hunting companion. “MGM, for example, is absolutely history with him,” says Glover. “He’s gone on to no telling what else now. I think he’s in a hurry to get everything done. He says, ‘I’ll rest when I die.’ ”
The scope of his empire testifies to Turner’s voraciousness. Turner Broadcasting (which includes WTBS, CNN and his sports teams) is valued at more than $1 billion. Having incurred a $1.6 billion debt to purchase MGM/UA, Turner already has agreed to sell most of the MGM studio back to United Artists and its real estate to Lorimar for a total of $490 million. The only part of the studio Ted will keep is MGM’s phenomenal library of 3,650 films, from Gone With the Wind to The Wizard of Oz to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Annual income from the MGM library is expected to match the $100 million that the cable networks will bring in this year. “I’ve never seen a deal that was too bold for him,” says Mark Bedner, one of Ted’s Atlanta bankers. “Every time one of his ideas comes up it’s on the edge of the financial envelope.”
As friends see it, Ted’s impulse to chisel a place in history was fueled by the early deaths of his father (who committed suicide at 53, when Ted was 24) and only sister (who had succumbed to lupus a few years earlier). His passion for the classics was similarly important. At Brown he immersed himself in Virgil and Homer and came to see himself as a kind of latter-day Odysseus, whose life is being spun out by the fates. “Ted really feels his life will end before its time—probably by assassination,” says Gerda Dymsza, his college sweetheart.
Turner is not one to discuss such stuff. Armchair psychoanalysis makes him peevish: “I don’t want to look back,” he says. To Ted, death and doom fall into the broad category of Bad News—something he abhors. One of his heroes is the ever-optimistic Jiminy Cricket. Like Jiminy, Turner often bursts into snatches of upbeat song: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative…and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”
By all accounts, Turner’s perpetual search for new conquests extends beyond the boardroom. He has been wed to second wife Janie Smith Turner for 22 years, and “the marriage has seen more than its share of tests,” says a friend. Turner’s sexual ambition is said to be boundless, and he takes little trouble to conceal it. In 1983, for example, a Playboy interviewer was invited to accompany Ted and traveling companion Liz Wickersham (a onetime model, now a CNN anchor) on a flight to Las Vegas.
Turner doesn’t deny the tales. But he won’t confirm them, either. “That’s my private life,” he explains.
“We all make compromises, and I think long ago Janie accepted Ted for what he is,” says Peter Dames, an Atlanta businessman who is Turner’s best friend. “They both get something out of the relationship. Ted needs that place to go.”
Their lives together are peripatetic: Turner owns a lake house in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, the 5,000-acre Hope Plantation (a moss-hung domain with a menagerie assembled by Ted) and an island, both in South Carolina. Janie is most often found at the family seat, the 8,000-acre Avalon Plantation near Tallahassee, Fla. On weekends, Ted also retreats to Avalon in his six-seater Merlin IIB airplane. Plantations and the private plane aside, theirs is not an extravagant existence. Turner—who proclaims, “I nearly got run over the other day trying to pick up a dime in a revolving door”—saves money by having Janie cut his hair, banning air conditioning in his houses and driving a Toyota. He often wears unremarkable clothing given to him by Hathaway and other manufacturers whose goods he has promoted. In May he signed a million-dollar-plus contract with Simon and Schuster to dictate an autobiography—partly, he says, because “I need the money.”
The Braves trail Pittsburgh 6-0 in the sixth, but Turner is shouting only token insults at his team. In his open-air enclave at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he is simultaneously enduring photographers, playing to a coterie of family and friends and delivering pronouncements on the state of the planet. He is not, however, too busy to keep watch on the bottom line: When a foul ball plops into the stands nearby, he calls to a souvenir hunter, “Hey, give that back.” (The man does.)
“My hobby? Peace and population control,” he is saying. “I’m putting on the full-court press now—to stop the arms race, control the population, protect the environment. I want to be successful with business so I can communicate with people. God, how can that fat slob pitch?…Hey, that’s a joke.
“It’s true that everything I do is a war. It’s a war between the forces of good and evil, hatred and stupidity, greed and materialism versus the forces of light.”
Son Beau leans over to ask, “Hey, Dad, is that a hole in your shirt?”
“It’s an old shirt,” says Turner. It can’t be a fresh burn: Ted claims to have given up smoking on a bet last fall.
A telephone is brought to the box; daughter Jennie and Beau want to call Hope Plantation, where pet bear Yogi has just gone on a minor rampage. “Bill it here,” Ted commands.
This leads to a soliloquy about farming. “We raise our own rice. We eat everything we kill on the farm. Waste not, want not. Write that down.”
Which segues, inevitably, to the arms race: “If we don’t stop the arms race, you don’t have to worry about the population and the environment and the water supplies. But we’re the same people who created the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and if we can make it through this crisis, we’ll make it through anything. I’d say our chances of pulling out are 50-50. But that’s better than nothing.”
Turner takes a sip from a sweating plastic cup (“Atlanta’s water, with chemicals and piss in it”) and watches as the Braves score their first run. In the bottom of the seventh, it is Braves 1, Pittsburgh 8. “Rally, rally, rally!” he yells, but the Jiminy Cricket boosterism is reflexive. The Braves may win or lose, but Citizen Turner is still playing against time.