It was a hot Montreal day, one of many during the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. The men’s 100-m final was about to begin, and, in a dressing room below the Olympic Stadium, the world’s best sprinters waited to be summoned to the track. In the room were two Americans, a Jamaican, a Panamanian, a Bulgarian and an East German. But there was also a Trinidadian, Hasely Crawford, and a Soviet, Valery Borzov. The defending 100-m Olympic champion, Borzov—whose gold medal in 1972 prompted the New York Times headline “The fastest human is a Commie”—waited stoically as Crawford started his act. Employing every psychological ploy he could conjure, Crawford sang random phrases from calypso songs, interspersed with wild scatalogical outbursts accompanied by menacing looks and finger-pointing at his rivals. The routine worked, almost. “The only person I couldn’t move was Borzov,” recalled Crawford in a recent British television interview, who eventually won the gold, while Borzov took the bronze. “He just kept looking at me, making a kind of hissing noise, but never once taking his eyes off me. It was weird. Like he wasn’t in the same world.”
In the 1970s, most Western athletes, and their governments, shared Crawford’s perception of the Soviets. The era of “openness” and “restructuring” had not yet dawned, Leonid Brezhnev was at the helm in the Kremlin and ironfisted Yuri Andropov was running the KGB. And every four years, there were Soviets at the Olympics who resembled alchemists’ creations—mountainous men, huge women and precocious children—all of whose vocabularies consisted of “Nyet.” But since Montreal’s Games, times, politics and popular conceptions have changed. On the eve of the Seoul Olympics—the first appearance of Soviets at a Summer Olympics beyond their own borders since 1976—it is the hour of glasnost, of Gorbachev and perestroika. In 1988, Rambo is redundant and the men and women wearing the letters CCCP on their uniforms do not look, or act, much differently from the rest of the competitors.
The Soviet athletes of the xxiv Summer Games are like Tatiana Samolenko, who won the 1,500and 3,000-m events on the track at last year’s world championships in Rome. Pert and pretty, the 27-year-old with doe-like eyes rarely stops giggling, but cried when presented with her medals. And they are like polevaulter Sergei Bubka, the best of the current generation of Soviet athletes— having elevated his own world record eight times since 1984—who discusses the day’s events with the Western media in English. No translator—in regulation wide-lapel suit—sits at Bubka’s right hand to oversee the party line.
As the Western world’s business and government leaders struggle to adapt to the new Soviet Union, the nation’s athletes—like most citizens—have yet to experience the trickle down from perestroika.
Soviet teams travelling outside the country still eagerly search out such otherwise-inaccessible items as stone-washed Levi’s 501s, Sony Walkmans and Nike sneakers, the hallmark of privileged Soviets. In turn, they barter either the “hard” foreign currency given them by their government when they travel, or kilo tins of caviar and bottles of sweet Georgian champagne. ‘PerestroikaV’ asks Bubka, a man for whose appearance the Soviet Athletic Federation commands at least $10,000 from European meet promoters. “Yes, in sport, too, there will be change. But in how long? There are people who have been in their jobs for 30 years. When will they change?”
The question is gradually being answered. Borzov, who retired after the Montreal Games, is now deputy director of the state committee for physical culture and sport in the Ukraine and the Soviet delegate to the European Athletic Association. And Soviet teams travelling abroad are now accompanied by relatively young people—often former competitors—serving as
chaperons. In swimming, Vladimir Salnikov, triple Olympic gold medallist in 1980—and still only 28—has escorted Soviet teams to Europe this year as team manager. Olga Morozova, age 39—singles finalist at Wimbledon in 1974 and national women’s champion—travels with the tennis team.
But the youth movement at the coaching level is not simply a byproduct of Gorbachev’s vision. It owes as much to another phenomenon of the 1980s—the decline in Soviet sport. After years of harvesting gold medals, the Soviets suffered setbacks at recent world championships. Indeed, the nation of 286 million people, a sporting superpower since its Olympic debut in Helsinki in 1952, has struggled just to keep pace with the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a nation with only 16.7 million citizens. In 1983, Soviets won only six golds at the world track-and-field championships. The GDR won 10. At the 1986 world swimming championships, one Soviet swimmer won two golds; the East Germans won 14. At last year’s world track-and-field championships, the East Germans’ 10 golds topped the Soviet’s seven.
Indeed, there are now three sporting superpowers. The days when the Summer Games were merely a dual meet between
the Soviet Union and the United States are over. Moscow’s boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, in reciprocation for the Washington-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, ended their traditional sporting rivalry for a generation of Olympians. “We both lost,” says Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, chief U.S.S.R. track-and-field coach. “It wasn’t like we had missed one Games each. We had both missed two Olympic cycles because the other had not been there. The athletes did not feel fulfilled.”
In the Soviet Union, nothing else in sport matters as much as the Olympics. To the Kremlin, Olympic results provide a measure of the nation’s well-being and global stature—like the number of days astronauts can stay in space and the size of the grain harvest. “Our Soviet athletes must win the team competition at the Summer Olympics,” said sports committee deputy chairman Anatoli Kolesov.
That conviction is reflected by the Soviet approach to the sport of tennis. In the 1970s, Soviet tennis players did not compete in major championships abroad because state funding was directed to sports with Olympic status. But starting in Seoul, tennis will be a medal sport—and the Soviets have been
gearing up for four years. Already, Natalia Zvereva, 17, is ranked eighth in the women’s singles. And in the men’s division, Andrei Chesnokov, 18, is ranked 19th.
The Soviet tennis federation also has appointed the Washington, D.C.-based agency ProServe to negotiate endorsement contracts for its players. And to enable the federation to collect money won by players on the international tennis circuit, in May, top Soviet women players were declared professionals. The men are still technically amateurs. Zvereva alone earned $100,000 for the federation this spring by defeating Martina Navratilova to reach the French Open final. Yet, even after her triumph, coach Morozova commented, “Everything this year is practice for the Olympics.”
Those who fail to scale Olympus pay dearly. The 1988 national coaches of track and field and swimming succeeded men fired for poor results. But the rewards for success are commensurate. Outside Bubka’s apartment on University Street in Donetsk, a city in the Ukraine 600 km southeast of Kiev, stands a new white Volga car. The average Soviet citizen endures a 10-year wait to earn the right—and the money—to buy even less-prestigious vehicles such as a Lada or a Sputnik. And, unlike most Soviets, Bubka and his wife do not have to share accommodations with other families. Their apartment is a three-bedroom suite, with kitchen and private bathroom.
Their two sons play a video war game on his largescreen Sony television, purchased, Bubka explains, with his “foreign earnings.”
It is with an eye to Olympic triumphs in a foreign land that the Soviets have prepared for Seoul. Explained Ter-Ovanesyan: “The mistake administrators made when I was an athlete was saying ‘now,’ always ‘now.’ They would say we were preparing for an Olympics, but first this or that competition must be won ‘now.’ I tell my athletes that there is only one program—to train for the Olympics.”
The standards Ter-Ovanesyan has established for qualifying for the track-andfield team are daunting. “It’s not enough to be first, second or third in competitions in the Soviet Union,” he says. Ter-Ovanesyan demands that his athletes at least match the performances of the bronze
medallists at last year’s world championships. Even so, at least 90 athletes will make the team. “It will be a bloody fight,” Ter-Ovanesyan admits. “The three great countries of track and field—the Soviet Union, the United States and East Germany—have about equal chances of winning between 14 and 18 gold medals. It will depend on who will be in the best shape on the day.”
Not surprisingly, the Soviet coach expects Bubka to be in top form. The 24year-old master of the Fiberglas vaulting pole boasts two world championships, has
raised his own world record eight times and holds a vaulting margin of 6.7 cm over his nearest rival, American Joe Dial, 25. “He is the best,” Ter-Ovanesyan states simply.
The Soviets are also the best in the hammer throw with the five top-ranked throwers. Natalya Lisovskaya holds the world record in the women’s shot put, and Galina Christyakova, the record in the women’s long jump. On the track, the Soviets are led by the striking Samolenko— outstanding at the 1,500 m—who may also run the 3,000 m. And Olga Bryzgina is the defending world champion in the 400 m. In the pool, the Soviet tradition of strength in the breaststroke endures. Dmitri Volkov and Alex Matveev have recorded the secondand third-best times in
the world this year over 100 m. And Igor Polyansky won both the 100and 200-m backstrokes at the 1986 world championships.
But even deputy sports chairman Kolesov admits that the Soviets are not the Olympic force they once were. “It is the GDR which is the best in the precision sports like swimming and track and field, where results are counted in seconds and centimetres. Our forte is gymnastics and other sports that call for more subjective judgment. We must aim to win by a large margin of medals in those.”
And they likely will. The Soviet men’s gymnastics team is ranked first and they have something to prove. Dmitri Bilozerchev and Juri Korolev say that they should have shared the medals between them in Los Angeles. In their absence, the Americans, Chinese and Japanese each won eight. Bilozerchev had won the European and world titles in 1983, taking three individual golds and one silver in the worlds with three perfect scores of 10. At 16, he was the youngest ever to win either title. And last year, Bilozerchev took the overall world title and gold medals in the pommel horse and high bar, while Korolev was second overall and won the gold in the rings. “We feel we have been waiting four years for something which is ours,” said Bilozerchev.
Another outstanding Soviet Summer Olympian is the weight lifter Yuri Zacharevich in the 110-kg class. At 25, he is considered an old man in his sport, but Zacharevich still set four world records at this year’s European championships, bringing his world-record collection to 33. He would have missed the 1984 Olympics without the boycott because of a dislocated elbow. But a Moscow surgeon rebuilt the elbow, strengthening it with synthetic tendons.
And the Soviets have medal chances in judo, boxing, rowing, volleyball, water polo and wrestling. In fact, the list of Soviet golden possibilities is so long that Kolesov may be fantasizing only slightly when he says, “We could win 53 gold medals.” If so, it will be a triumphant Soviet return to the full-scale Games of Summer-one that would please Borzov, and not surprise Crawford.
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