SI Vault
Kenny Moore
August 06, 1979
The Soviet Union transformed its Spartakiade into a dress rehearsal for the 1980 Olympic Games, and despite a hitch or two, it was evident that the stage is being set for a very professional show
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August 06, 1979

Raising The Curtain On Moscow

The Soviet Union transformed its Spartakiade into a dress rehearsal for the 1980 Olympic Games, and despite a hitch or two, it was evident that the stage is being set for a very professional show

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Moscow bristles with scaffolding. Its symbolic torch is not the gas flame floating above Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Stadium, but the welder's arc winking brightly ultraviolet out of cavernous unfinished buildings. Like a host carefully vacuuming before company comes, the great city proceeds down its checklist of improvements to display during the 1980 Olympic Games. That event looms as a watershed in Soviet history, a propaganda coup to be sure, but also an occasion for this rigid government and passionately enduring people to lift themselves from their traditional insularity to a new, self-confident civility; if not to the dissenters among them, then to visitors. There are signs they mean to try.

For one, it is now no more difficult to pass customs in Moscow than in New York. U.S. coaches and athletes happily discovered that as they arrived for the Soviet Union's seventh Spartakiade. That is the name of the nationwide sports festival in which more than 100 million people take part in the earliest preliminary rounds, the 10,000 best advancing through championships in their cities, regions and Soviet republics before reaching the finals, most of which are held quadrennially in Moscow, a year before the Olympics. All Olympic disciplines are contested, plus the Soviet favorites sambo (a mixture of karate and wrestling), modern gymnastics (an interpretive set of events, some with jump ropes, balls, hoops and ribbons) and chess, as well as tennis.

The word Spartakiade—combining Sparta, the ancient Greek city, with an Olympic-sounding ending and pronounced spar-tak-i-ad—sums up the rigorous and preparatory intent of Soviet training. "We must keep raising the international class of our sport," Leonid Brezhnev wrote in a message appearing in the Spartakiade program. "But the main thing is the mass character of our sport, the development of physical culture, encompassing all our youth...physical training of young men and women for labor and defense."

Because Olympic preparations were well along, this year the Soviet Union invited 80 countries to send 2,500 athletes to join in the Spartakiade finals and so have a chance to test the facilities and the Moscow atmosphere. Not all nations were welcome. New Zealand and Israel were pointed exclusions—New Zealand for its old rugby ties with South Africa, Israel for being Israel—a move the Soviets got away with because these games are run by a committee separate from the Soviet Olympic organization committee, which has promised entry next year to all countries in good standing with the International Olympic Committee.

Still, the prospects for solid competition seemed good until East Germany unexpectedly sent word it would concentrate on its own swimming championships, and in track chose to prepare for the European Cup Aug. 4 in Turin. Romania sent a steeplechaser but no Comaneci. As the U.S. brought none of its best women gymnasts, the finals became a showcase for the tiny bits of nerve and sinew and hair ribbon who will captivate the world next year for the greater glory of Mother Russia.

The world might not recognize Montreal gold medalist Nelli Kim, who has recently married and appears far more muscular with maturity. In the overall competition Kim hit her usual rock-solid landing in the vault for a near-perfect 9.9, but dropped unexpectedly from the balance beam and concluded her free-exercise routine by falling after a double back-somersault. Then Kim's Byelorussian teammate, Tatiana Arzhanikova, who in the free exercise played to the crowd with exuberant smiles of self-promotion, got up on the beam and fell right off, handing the gold medal to Natalia Shaposhnikova.

The 18-year-old Shaposhnikova would look a dreamy waif in any group of 12-year-old schoolgirls and appeared to love strutting her stuff, but after she descended from the victory stand her heavy-lidded brown eyes seemed to express an underlying sadness. She was a reminder that gymnastics is the most authoritarian of all sports. Because the judges are law, subjective differences in scoring, or even blatant prejudice, cannot be countered, as in other sports, with reference to objective heights, distances, times. Moreover, the Soviet coaches behave in loco parentis, assuming the bossiness of large adults over small children. Yet an 18-year-old world-class athlete is not a child, as much as it might enhance her appeal to seem so. The resignation in Shaposhnikova's eyes appeared to be an acknowledgment of her art's harsh requirements and, one hopes, a veiled intention to wait them out.

The U.S. fared best on the track during the Spartakiade's first week, after its slender but spirited team regrouped from a series of visa foul-ups, delayed flights and changed minds that meant luminaries such as hurdler Edwin Moses, pole vaulter Mike Tully and miler Steve Scott would not be in Moscow. Discus thrower John Powell won the first U.S. gold on the fifth day of the meet, which was run on the Olympic nine-day schedule, hitting 206'10�" on his final throw. Ten minutes later Wardell Gilbreath and Don Coleman went one, two in the 200, Gilbreath winning in 20.84; and the contingent of U.S. athletes in the stands sang The Star-Spangled Banner "like the Tabernacle choir," said Stan Vinson, who later that day had it sung for him after winning the 400 in 45.70.

What turned out to be a glorious day had begun far less auspiciously for the two 200 sprinters. Along with Olympic long-jump silver medalist Kathy McMillan, they had been unnerved when, finding that the stadium bus had already departed from their hotel, they were shunned by Moscow's taxi drivers.

"We must have tried 10 cabs," said Coleman, who is also a wide receiver for the University of Oregon. "They all said nyet and took off to pick up some Japanese or Indians." Team manager Bob Newland finally got an Intourist car for the three athletes, but no explanation. "They had U.S.A. uniforms and they were black," said Newland, "so you'd imagine the problem was one of those facts, but no one else seems to have been hassled." Perhaps the incident was an illustration of the wildly alternating extremes in Soviet deportment. Taxi drivers in thoughtful repose, playing chess on the back fender one minute, are capable the next of producing "a catatonic contraction state of paralysis," said Assistant Track and Field Coach Jim Santos shortly after he left one cab. "That man had no regard for his life, my life or the pedestrians," said Santos. "Twenty yards from a stop light and crosswalk jammed with three rows of people, we were going 60 mph and the driver was making change, dollars to rubles. Pass the Valium."

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