Getting to the Olympics is tough for any athlete, but 23-year-old Tomislav Cizmesija had to overcome more than his share of obstacles. Cizmesija, Croatia’s top male figure skater, should have been
immersed in training last fall for the Winter Games in Albertville. But instead of perfecting his double Axels and triple toe loops, Cizmesija found himself in a uniform guarding an army barracks in Zagreb, his home town, against a possible attack by Yugoslav soldiers. And there was worse. When Zagreb was blacked out for several weeks, power was cut to the arena where Cizmesija practices—and the ice melted. But when he carried his new country’s flag
at the Games’ opening ceremonies on Feb. 8, that was all forgotten. “To say it was wonderful doesn’t express the feeling,” he said quietly. “For us this isn’t just sport—it’s history.”
Not only the Croatians were making history at the Albertville Games last week. The new world order in international sports was on display at the first post-Cold War Olympics. Croatians and Slovenians, who once competed for Yugoslavia, proudly took part for the first time under their own flags. And athletes from the Baltic states—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—no longer battled for the glory of the nowdefunct Soviet Union. They were the darlings of the Games, winners even if they failed to capture a single medal. For the Russians, Ukrainians and others competing as the Unified Team of the ex-Soviet Union, however,
feelings were decidedly more mixed. No longer were they ambassadors of the world’s most successful sports machine, which captured 1,193 Olympic medals since 1952. Instead, without a flag, a national anthem and in some cases even proper team uniforms, they found that they were regarded with a blend of sympathy and condescension—and many of them did not like it. “You would think we were charity cases,” grumbled Nikolai Russak, the team’s leader. “It’s hard to swallow.”
The German team, competing under their flag for the first time since the 1936 Berlin Olympics, had some awkward moments as well. A day before the Albertville Games opened, a member of their bobsled team named Harald Czudaj confessed that he had spied on fellow athletes for the old East German secret
police, the Stasi, just before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It was the last thing that German officials—anxious to promote the team as a symbol of their newly united country—could have wanted. Fortunately for them, Czudaj’s teammates were in a generous mood, and last week they successfully asked that he be allowed to compete anyway. “One must be prepared to forgive,” said Klaus Kotter, head of Germany’s bobsled federation.
For many athletes, political upheavals made concentrating on sports virtually impossible. Cizmesija, the Croatian skater, has won Yugoslavia’s figure skating championship seven years in a row. Aside from the distractions of war, he did not know until Jan. 17, when the International Olympic Committee accepted Croatia and Slovenia as full members, that his new country would be allowed to send a team to Al-
bertville. “You can’t focus, you can’t train, you can’t do anything,” said Cizmesija. “It’s terrible to be the first to represent your country and be so unprepared.” Others had good reason to be grateful. Luka Klasinc, an 18-year-old figure skater from Slovenia, acknowledged that he would not have made it to the Games if he had had to beat out Cizmesija for a single spot on a Yugoslav team. “No way I would be here,” he
admitted with a broad smile after a practice session at Albertville’s Ice Hall. “For me, independence came just in time.”
For Janis Kipurs of Latvia, independence was a mixed blessing. Kipurs piloted the Soviet bobsled team to a gold medal in the two-man event at the Calgary Winter Games four years ago. Last week, as pilot of the new Latvian team, the 34-year-old Kipurs was in the Alpine resort town of La Plagne, where the Olympic bobsled and luge athletes—collectively known as “sliders”—had their headquarters. Virtually all the Soviet Union’s top bobsledders were Latvians, he explained, but they were forbidden in the past to advertise their nationality. Still, they managed to do it in a subtle way. In Calgary, they painted their bobsled the dark red that is the national color of Latvia, instead of the brighter Soviet red. “We always felt we were competing for Latvia,” said Kipurs. “Now we can do it openly.”
Machine: Not everything was as promising for Kipurs and his teammates. Of course, they no longer had KGB minders watching over them as they did in Calgary. But last year’s political revolution prevented the Latvians from competing internationally and disrupted their training, and Kipurs acknowledged that they will be hard-pressed to repeat their gold-medal performance this week; as it happened, Kipurs was eventually knocked out of the two-man competition with a strained calf muscle. In any case, being part of the Soviet sports machine did have its advantages. Soviet athletes never had to worry about paying for travel, buying uniforms or finding sponsors.
In contrast, members of the Latvian Olympic squad had to divide their time between training and figuring out how to pay their bills. Some of the bobsled team’s money came from Canada’s Latvian community and Canadian businessmen sympathetic to their cause. Kipurs and his fellow bobsledders sported black-and-purple uniforms paid for by Canadian Agra Corp., an
agricultural management company based in Kincardine, Ont., that does extensive work in Latvia. A Calgary businessman with Latvian origins, Davis Maksins, rushed the uniforms to La Plagne just in time for the Games.
The longest faces were found on the Unified Team. Many still wore outfits bearing the nowobsolete CCCPand hammer-and-sickle logo. But they were just as likely to turn up in sweat pants advertising Adidas, the German sportswear maker that helped to pay the team’s way to Albertville. Even Russian athletes who won gold medals admitted to a letdown when the five-ringed Olympic flag was hoisted during the medal ceremony. “It was great to win the gold,” said Lyubov Egorova, who won the 15km women’s cross-country race for the Unified Team. “But it’s sad that we didn’t have our own flag and anthem.”
Others said they worried that the quality maintained by the disciplined Soviet sports machine will crumble like the country itself. Tamara Moskvina, who coached the gold-medal-winning figure skating pair of Artur Dmitriev and Natalia Mishkuteniok, said she feared that Russia’s economic crisis will make it impossible for the nation’s skaters to travel to international competitions. Airfare from Moscow to the United States, she noted, jumped from 4,000 to 96,000 rubles (or about $40 to $960) on Jan. 2. “Somehow the money will be found,” said Moskvina. “But if you have suggestions for sponsoring our skaters, we’d be delighted to have the address.” In fact, it is the attraction of Western money that may well break up what is left of the old Soviet sports empire. A dozen members of the Unified Team’s hockey squad have been drafted by National Hockey League teams. And Moskvina herself was busy behind the scenes in Albertville last week—talking to agents about an American tour for Dmitriev and Mishkuteniok.
Gene Ubriaco admits to having something of an identity problem. “I’m a Canadian who lives in the United States and coaches the Italian hockey team in the Olympics,” he said with a laugh last week. Ubriaco is not the only one whose national identity raises some questions. Fourteen of the 23 members of the Italian hockey squad competing last week at the Winter Games were bom in Canada. So were six members of the French team, five Swiss players and five of the Germans—including their star goalie, Karl Friesen of Winnipeg. Spectators at the Olympic hockey arena in the town of Méribel did not seem to care as they cheered on their teams with Italian, German and Swiss flags. But down on the ice, joked Ubriaco,
“We’re all saying ‘How’s it going, eh?’ ”
Most of the Canadians qualify for other nation’s teams by having links to those countries. Those on the Italian team have Italian parents or grandparents, and almost all have played for that country’s teams for several years. Forward Emilio Iovio, 29, was bom in Burlington, Ont., but is in his eighth season with the Italian national team after playing on junior teams in Hamilton and Niagara Falls. “I grew up in an Italian family with the pasta and everything,” he said last week just after the Italians crushed the Polish team 7-1. “Maybe I was bom in Canada, but I’m an Italian.” When he sees his parents, Iovio said, “I tell them they went to Canada to find work, and I went back to Italy for the same reason.”
On the ice and in the dressing room, team members say, they speak a mixture of Italian and English. Ubriaco, however, never learned to speak Italian well as he was growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. “For my parents, it was
Canada, Canada, Canada,” recalled Ubriaco, who coached the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1988 and 1989. “So I talk in English and my assistant coaches say it in Italian.” Still, the predominance of Canadian-bom players does cause some resentment among Italian hockey officials and fans, who would prefer to see more nativeborn players. “We have to take the best players to be competitive,” said Ubriaco. ‘ ‘But they want to have their cake and eat it, too.” The Italian-born players, though, say that having Canadians on so many Olympic teams causes no problems for them. And the Canadian imports insist that, despite the obvious rivalry, the possibility of facing off against the official Canadian team would be business as usual. Said Iovio: “These are the Olympics. It’s just athlete against athlete.”
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