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Sport Aid Outdraws the Competition by Holding Hands With the World

Second in a series of three articles assessing the continuing influence of mega-events like hands Across America on social issues.

June 18, 1986|DENNIS McDOUGAL and VICTOR VALLE | Times Staff Writers

What if you threw a mega-event and nobody knew about it?

It was called Sport Aid and, with an estimated 20 million participants around the world on May 25, it dwarfed Hands Across America in scope, purpose and achievement.

The Sport Aid spectacle was televised live, via satellite, at a cost of $600,000, to a potential audience of 750 million in 80 countries. The radio audience was believed to be nearly 2 billion.

Ken Kragen's incredible attempt to get 5.6 million people to hold hands from New York to California on the same day ran a distant second to Irish rock star Bob Geldof's even more incredible accomplishment. Sport Aid outdistanced Hands Across America in terms of money earned, total participation and global audience.

Hands Across America organizers set a $100 million goal last fall. They pared the goal down to $50 million in March and, so far, have actually raised about $11 million after $17 million in expenses. Organizers also expect to receive an additional $8.6 million in outstanding pledges.

The $100 million that Sport Aid is estimated to have earned will be split between United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and Geldof's Live Aid Foundation. Because UNICEF volunteered its small army of regular personnel in 119 offices around the world to help set up the 10-kilometer foot races that were the backbone of Sport Aid, the mega-event only cost about $1 million in overhead to stage, according to UNICEF public information officer Kristina Schellinski.

"It was a spectacular success," she said.

Yet few in the United States heard much about Sport Aid until the day it happened.

Sport Aid was singer Geldof's 1986 sequel to his hugely successful 1985 Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia.

Kragen said he picked May 25 as the Hands day as long ago as last September. He chose that day because it fell on a holiday weekend when the national weather picture promised to be sunny.

It came as something of a shock to Kragen when he had dinner with Geldof last December and discovered that Geldof also was planning a large-scale fund-raiser for Africa on May 25. At that point, Kragen said, Hands Across America had already been in the planning stages three months and could not be switched.

"I didn't want people to think there was a rift between us the way they did during Live Aid," Kragen told The Times, referring to a widely circulated rumor last summer that the two premier impresarios of pop charity were battling for media attention.

Geldof would not switch dates either, but not out of his rivalry with Kragen. He selected May 25 for Sport Aid because it was the Sunday before the United Nations General Assembly was scheduled to debate its long-term relief and development policy toward Africa.

When asked about conflicts between the two events, Kragen said simply that there were "none whatsoever."

In exchange for mutual endorsements, they agreed that Sport Aid would not interfere with Hands Across America and vice versa.

As a result, the U.S. Committee for UNICEF did almost nothing to promote Sport Aid in the United States. Most major cities along the Hands route, including Los Angeles, were purposely ruled out as Sport Aid locations. And American media were preoccupied with Hands Across America on May 25.

"In the best of all possible worlds, the two events shouldn't have been held on the same day," said UNICEF spokesman Don Allan. "But the United States is the world's biggest island. So I guess it's kind of expected."

Nevertheless, Sport Aid was a resounding success in most of the 78 countries where it took place. Millions of people in 274 cities around the world took part in Geldof's Race Against Time on Sport Aid Sunday.

"The self-sacrifice those people made makes Hands Across America looks like a self-serving publicity stunt," said a West Coast relief agency executive who spoke on condition of not being identified. "Sport Aid was a truly inspiring international event.

"And yet there doesn't appear to be any comprehension in the U.S. of the problems in Africa. And the U.S. was the only country that was not asked to find any room in its generous, spirited heart to participate (in Sport Aid)."

Officials of the USA for Africa Foundation, which created and oversaw Hands Across America, declared their event an overwhelming success too, even though it fell significantly short of its original goal.

Its chief success was measured in how it focused the U.S. media on the hunger problem in the United States, said USA for Africa Foundation Executive Director Marty Rogol.

"To be condemned because you're the only country focusing on your own domestic homeless and hungry issue on that particular day is, I think, a fairly shortsighted view," said Rogol. "We were propelled by faith and a belief that it (Hands Across America) would happen."

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