The map of Europe has been picked up and shaken like a rug, and amid the debris that has tumbled out are bewildered Olympic athletes from the war-ravaged nation of Yugoslavia, the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and the precariously reunified Germany. The events of the last two years have resulted in dramatic changes in the configuration of the teams competing in the Winter Games in Albertville—the most notable being that the heavily subsidized sports machines of the old authoritarian regimes have largely vanished.
The once powerful team of the Soviet Union, which accounted for 11 gold medals four years ago in Calgary, now competes under four flags. In Albertville most of the athletes from the former U.S.S.R. make up the hastily constructed Unified Team—representing Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—whose dispirited, 141-member contingent is competing under the Olympic flag. Eighteen former members of the Soviet hockey team have left for the NHL, and the once renowned U.S.S.R. bobsled team raced last week in the Olympics for Latvia, the republic that declared its independence from the Soviet Union on Aug. 19. "We have no flag, no money, no nothing," said Unified Team ski jumper Andre‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤ Verveikine of Kazakhstan.
The athletes of the former German Democratic Republic, which won nine golds in Calgary, have joined West German Olympians on a single German team. But former Last German champions are sensitive to slights by their new teammates and are disconcerted by the scramble for funds from capitalist sponsors. Though Germany marched as one nation for the first time since 1964, the gesture was largely symbolic; the task of reunifying the two erstwhile political foes is no more complete among the athletes than it is among their countrymen.
The nation that was Yugoslavia, now officially divided after seven months of bloody civil war, is represented at Albertville by the flags of Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia. A mountainous region of two million people in the eastern part of the Alps. Slovenia learned that it could compete in Albertville under its own banner on Jan. 15, the day the European Community recognized Slovenia's independence. The new country's athletes met with their political leaders before they headed for the Games to discuss ways in which they could focus the world's attention on Slovenia. The message to the competitors: "A medal would do more for us than all of the politicians," says ski jumper Francie Petek.
February 24, 1992
Nearly every Eastern European Olympian has complained about the new poverty that has accompanied the upheaval. Many of these athletes, once handsomely supported by their governments through "civil service" jobs, have been forced to seek real work or find creative means of obtaining support for their training. When the Slovenian ski jumping team ran low on money, it started a lottery. The prizes were a house or a car. The Unified Team received $800,000 in hard currency through a sponsorship deal with Adidas, and last week was also busy hawking Russian goods to make extra money. At the Notre Dame de Bellecombe Hotel near Les Saisies, site of the Olympic cross-country competition, the team's athletes set up a little market in the bar, selling vodka, caviar, dolls and ornamental pins at low prices or as barter for clothing.
The division of Yugoslavia and the crumbling of the Soviet Union have left athletes not only poorer but also confused and uncertain about their own allegiances, especially since they tended to be pampered heroes of the old authoritarian regimes. The anthem of the Unified Team, the Olympic theme, offends no one, but it does not inspire, either. On Feb. 9, when Lyubov Yegorova won the first gold medal for the Unified Team, in the 15-km cross-country skiing, she was the first Russian Olympic champion in 40 years to hear something other than the Soviet anthem played in celebration of victory, and she missed hearing it. "We are Russians and will always be Russians," she said. "But I always thought the Soviet anthem was our anthem and the Soviet flag was our flag."
Russian biathletes Anfissa Reztsova and Yelena Belova sewed hammer and sickle patches on their ski hats and wore pins bearing a picture of Lenin, "it is our old symbol," Belova said after winning the bronze medal in the 7.5-km individual on Feb. 11. "There is nothing newer. So we keep that one." Many athletes of the former Soviet Union have the queasy sensation that the changes in their land are far from complete, as states such as Kazakhstan may yet secede from the loosely organized Russian commonwealth. "I don't know. Yesterday that name, today new name, tomorrow another name," says Unified Team ski jumping head coach Youri Ivanov.
And yet symbols and identity have been adopted with a fierceness in places like Latvia, which displayed its flag at an Olympics for the first time in 56 years. The Baltic republic declared its independence from the Soviet Union in May 1990, and the following January, Soviet armored vehicles moved into Riga, the Latvian capital, in an ultimately futile attempt to put down the independence movement. Bobsledders Janis Kipurs, a 1988 Soviet gold medalist, and Zintis Ekmanis, a 1984 bronze medalist, were among the Latvians who manned the barricades during the conflict. "There is a joke, that we taught Boris Yeltsin how to build a barricade," Kipurs says.
Latvia was the site of the only luge run in the Soviet Union, but the Latvians lacked almost everything else, from hard currency to gasoline. The Latvians have bartered use of the run for plane tickets and hotel accommodations for foreign competitions, such as the luge World Cup in Lake Placid in January. Even so, the Latvians felt guilty for accepting what little money they did receive from their new government. "I feel uncomfortable that the money spent on us as a team couldn't be better spent at home," Ekmanis says.
For the Slovenes, Croats and Yugoslavs, who learned last week that shooting had disrupted the cease-fire in their civil war, former countrymen are not only opponents at Albertville but also could be blood enemies. Some of the athletes have seen military service, and biathlete Uros Velepec of Slovenia served for 14 days in June as a sniper assigned to protect government officials. "The people are not against each other, it's only political," he says. "When someone attacks your village, you have to defend."
And yet in the Olympic Village, the athletes from Yugoslavia and its former republics have been cither friendly or, at worst, noncommittal. "We are not responsible for this——, the politicians are," says Slovenia's Alpine-skiing director, Tone Vogrinec.
When Yugoslavia was divided, Slovenia, which had accounted for all four of Yugoslavia's medals in past Winter Olympics, retained virtually all of the top skiers, ski coaches and ski equipment. With the partitioning of the country, the Yugoslavs were left with almost nothing in the way of Olympic resources but still felt compelled to mount a team for Albertville. Vogrinec, in a gesture worthy of Olympic ideals, gave his former countrymen last year's downhill uniforms and has occasionally lent advice to the Yugoslavian team of inexperienced teenagers, who suffered some horrors on the downhill runs. Yugoslavia's Arijana Boras, 15, was the first woman down Le Roc de Fer in the women's combined event and crashed on the first turn, suffering a concussion. "I was part of that country for 50 years," Vogrinec says. "I have friendships. I don't understand how we break the connection in one week."
If Vogrinec sees Yugoslavia's ski coach Pasovic Ajdin in a restaurant, he sits with him. Natasa Bokal of Slovenia, a medal hopeful in the women's slalom, spent three years in the same club as several members of the Yugoslavian team. "I talk to them because I know them," Bokal says with a shrug. "I talk to them like before. They've never seen the Olympics either. We are friends." And yet the Slovenian skiers flatly refused to share a locker room with the Yugoslavian team.
Slovenia is so determined to express its national and cultural identity that it has already joined Italy and Austria in a three-nation bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics in which the Games would be cohosted by three villages: Villach, Austria; Tarvisio, Italy; and Jesenice, Slovenia. "This [division of Yugoslavia] is the future," Vogrinec says. "Some think this is just temporary, but they don't understand. For us it's forever."
For German athletes remarriage with their former adversaries is only slightly less painful. They are discovering that, in spite of a common language and a sense of national identity that was never entirely destroyed by concrete and barbed wire, hidebound political differences and divergent training philosophies are not easily reconciled. Former East Germans have been accused of rampant steroid use and, far more chilling, of spying. Four-man-bobsled driver Harald Czudaj confessed shortly before the Games that he had informed on his teammates for the East German secret police organization Stasi, which he claimed had forced him to cooperate by threatening to convict him for drunken driving. His three sledmates wrote a letter to the unified German bobsled federation supporting Czudaj's contention that he had never harmed anyone, and the federation agreed that Czudaj's role as an informant was irrelevant. But federation president Willi Daume says, "Any more suspicions could have a paralyzing effect on the team."
According to speed skater Uwe-Jens Mey, who won the 500-meter race for East Germany in Calgary and the 500 for Germany in Albertville, his status as a favorite afforded him ample funds and assistance in training, but he could not say the same for most of his former East German teammates. "No one wants to give sponsor money to East German athletes, because of fear that they are taking dope and may have worked for Stasi," he says. East German women reigned over speed skating for a decade but now find themselves struggling financially. Christa Luding, the gold medalist in the 1,000 meters in Calgary and the bronze medalist in the 500 two weeks ago, once had all the perquisites of a world champion, but her husband, Ernst, lost his job as a coach on New Year's Eve because of a lack of funding and went to Albertville in his camper. Skater Angela Hauck, an East German who was the 1990 world sprint champion, has been forced to take a job in a bank since reunification and has slipped in the standings. "After I do other things, practice is too much," she says.
The lives of these European athletes, like those of their countrymen at home, are changing drastically. The Olympic Games cannot cure poverty or stop war. But the athletes in Albertville can provide a lesson in harmony to the rest of the Continent. "The Olympics is a window," Vogrinec says. "Billions of people see it." Daume might have spoken for all the Albertville athletes when he said, "We must try to make sport the forefront."