Background image: Moscow's Red Square as I saw it in winter, with St. Basil's Cathedral in the center and the Spasskaya (Savior) Clock Tower gate in the Kremlin wall on the left.

1992 The Soviet Olympic Machine

 

A month before I arrived in January, the Soviet Union ceased to exist,

breaking up into Russia and 14 other former republics that were

independent countries when my flight landed in a blizzard.

 

With only a couple of weeks left before the opening of the 1992 Winter

Olympics in France, the question I was sent to Moscow to investigate was

what would happen to the world's most successful Olympic sports team.

 

The necessity for this story wasn’t unforeseen. Reform-minded Soviet

Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had been office for six years. He had

abandoned the war in Afghanistan, which prompted the U.S.-led boycott

of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, in 1988. The Berlin Wall was breached in

1989 and a year later Soviet republics were allowed to secede from the

USSR if their voters approved it by referendum.

 

In the fall of 1991 I was sent to the World Gymnastics Championships in

Indianapolis – not because I would cover the Olympics the next summer

in Barcelona – but to begin making contacts within the Soviet sports

establishment as groundwork for a trip to Moscow. I came home with

half a dozen business cards from government functionaries, coaches

and officials in the Soviet gymnastics federation.

 

Nothing in my weeks of pre-trip research prepared me as much as the

3½-hour flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Moscow.

 

My plane from New York was late, and I had missed my Delta flight in

Frankfurt. I was rebooked on Aeroflot, the Russian airline, and boarded a

definitely-not-Boeing Tupolev 134 with the bombardier’s glass blister still

in the nose. I stepped over piles of cardboard boxes labeled Sony and

Blaupunkt on my way down the aisle, precious purchases by wealthier

Russians just beginning to travel and shop in the West.

 

At Sheremetyevo Airport I was the sole passenger shunted into a

separate customs line. My clothing, which identified me as foreign, had

made me the object of a shakedown by security officers for cherished

American cigarettes.

 

In my hotel room I immediately began calling my collection of business

cards and soon had interviews scheduled with some of the kinds of

people I thought I needed for my stories. Once into their offices, part of

my work was getting contact information for more.

 

After a few days of phone calls and interviewing, I finally got a number

for Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, head of the Russian track and field federation.

The self-imposed pressure I felt finally began to ease. Ter-Ovanesyan, a

long jumper and five-time Olympian, lived in my memory from Games I

had seen on TV when I was a high school student.

 

It was his name more than his medals that had imprinted him in my

brain. I have relatives in California descended from immigrants from the

former Soviet republic of Armenia, and I knew names ending in “-yan”

were Armenian. We chatted about that in his spacious wood-paneled

office in a huge government building near Moscow State University, and

it seemed to loosen him up.

 

“Can you put me in touch with someone who competed on the first

Soviet Olympic team in 1952?” I asked him.

 

“Hmm.” He began to thumb through a worn leather address book and

speak to himself in Russian, which my interpreter mumbled to me.

 

“Drank himself to death.” “Too much vodka.” “Dead.” “Drunk.”

 

The theme was consistent as well as informative about the decline of a

powerful nation and Olympic sports machine. But a dozen or so names

into the list he came up with contact information for Vladimir Kazantzev,

who apparently met the dual criteria of being alive and sober. Kazantzev

had won a silver medal in the steeplechase in the Helsinki Olympics, and

he became the subject of the story headlined “Harsh Reality of ’92 Chills

Memories of ‘52” in the list at right.

 

After nearly two weeks in Moscow and its environs attending sports

events with ordinary Russians, spending time in the homes of past and

current athletes, roasting in the KGB’s sauna, lunching with retired

hockey players and fencers, and interviewing officials, I headed back to

Frankfurt. There I holed up in a hotel for three days to organize and

write the package of seven stories that were published over a three-day

period a week before the Albertville Olympics.

 

 

Selected Stories

 

Sport in Their Soul: Why the Russians Won’t Quit

MOSCOW – Times could hardly seem more grim in Moscow.

 

The city of eight million people – once capital of the world’s largest empire – lies shrouded by its winter-long cloak of gray clouds. The line for bread on Volochayevskaya Street is two hours long.

 

But there is a vitality that escapes first glance, welling up from the soul like bass voices in a Russian choir.

 

It is sport. ...

 

The opening of my Day 1 overview piece.

 

 

 

Harsh Reality of ’92 Chills Memories of ‘52

... There are toasts of vodka from tiny crystal goblets bought during Kazantzev’s travel abroad as an athlete and later as a national coach. On fine china are pickles, pirogies, bacon and the cabbage Anastasia Kazantzev salted last summer.

 

The Russian winter warms. ...

 

The day after my visit in the apartment of one of the Soviet Union’s stars from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Vladimir Kazantzev invited me to accompany him to the KGB’s private Dinamo Sports Club. As a retired World War II soldier in the KGB’s Kremlin Guard, he was an honored member. There, after swimming with the children of current KGB workers, we played poker and chatted naked in a sauna with old sports buddies who had fenced, played hockey and wrestled in previous Olympic Games.

 

 

 

Athletes Join Real World as Support System Fades

... It’s Daddy’s day to watch 4-year-old Ksenya, and Sergei Bazarevich, 26, a member of the national basketball team of the former Soviet Union, is like any other father. He has his hands full trying to talk, dress and get his daughter ready for the drive across the city [to Babushka’s house – her grandmother].

 

Irina Bazarevich left earlier from the apartment, which is 18 floors up in one of the city’s newest, finest and most depressing buildings, a co-op partly owned and occupied by KGB employees. She teaches aerobics two days a week and will be back at 6 p.m. to enjoy an evening alone with her husband. ...

 

The main reason to spend a day with Bazarevich was to get an idea of what a Russian Olympic athlete’s life is like and to place it in a context that American readers can understand. As he drove Ksenya and me to Babushka’s, we heard what sounded like gunshots and Sergei floored the accelerator to get away. Were we in actual danger? Driving fast on snow-covered streets, yes. From the Russian mafia? That’s what Sergei said.

 

 

 

Divided, They Fall: Independence Could Hurt Medal Efforts at Olympics

... The Commonwealth of Independent States – what’s left of the old Soviet Union – will send a unified team to compete under the five-ringed Olympic flag in France. By this summer’s Barcelona Games, the united commonwealth team may have multiplied into a dozen separate teams representing individual republics or groups of republics. ...

 

Valentin Sytch, then head of the Russian basketball federation, argued for the right of former Soviet athletes to play professionally in whatever country they wish in my interview with him. Five years after this story, he was killed and his wife seriously wounded when gunmen opened fire on them as they walked to their car. News media sources in New York and Moscow blamed the Russian mafia and speculated he was the object of an extortion plot. Russian sports officials were known to profit from special government licenses ostensibly issued to allow them to import goods to help fund Russian sports organizations.

 

 

 

Welcoming Change: Figure Skaters’ Coach is Prepared for Transition. She’ll Cash in as Their Agent

NOVOGORSK, Russia – Under communism, Soviet citizens weren’t allowed to exploit another individual.

 

That was the state’s job.

 

Soon it will be Tamara Moskvina’s. ...

 

Moskvina, still an active coach in St. Petersburg, Russia, has coached more gold medal-winning pair skaters than anyone in history. Later in the spring of 1992, when the World Figure Skating Championships were held in Oakland, she visited Emily and me at our home in San Jose where we cooked hamburgers on the grill in the back yard.

 

 

 

They Still Keep Caviar in the Fridge. But Training Center Isn’t a Spa

NOVOGORSK, Russia – Tonight’s meal for the Commonwealth of Independent State’s future Olympic heroes is mystery meat in special sauce, buckwheat, cabbage, cold fish, purple juice and choice of black or white bread.

 

“In the old days we had caviar at night,” a coach complains.

 

The Novogorsk Olympic Training Center 20 miles northwest of Moscow is no longer the luxury spa it once was for Soviet athletes. ...

 

 

 

Sports Daily Faces New Problems

... From a rundown office building next door to the only remaining synagogue in Moscow, with a view of the former headquarters of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and a short walk from the KGB prison on Lubyanka Square, the paper’s 80 editors and writers turn out four pages a day in addition to a weekly section sold separately called Plus Eight.

 

From 52 printing plants scattered across the old Soviet Union, 2 million copies of the daily are sent to subscribers and 500,000 are printed for single-copy sales at newsstands. Plus Eight sells an additional 348,000 copies. ...

 

While I interviewed Sovietsky Sport editor and publisher Valery Kudryatsev in his office, he was also interviewing me. His story about me, accompanied by a photo of me taking notes, was published on the front page. I don’t remember what my interpreter said the story said, but I do know that my name spelled phonetically in Cyrillic letters is Джоди Мичем.

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© 2020 by Jody Meacham