Isinbayeva Jumping for Joy
Isinbayeva Jumping for Joy

Even as the 14th IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Moscow reached its first crescendo yesterday with Yelena Isinbayeva’s thrilling win over American Olympic champion Jen Suhr in the women’s pole vault, I was reminded of how much I miss – athletically – the old Soviet Union.

I mean, they were Frazier to our Ali, the very definition of who we were in opposition to them.  If only life could be so simple again, so binary.  With the Soviets around the whole understanding of life was so concise: Us versus Them, good versus evil, simple, direct, understandable (even if totally simple-minded).

The ethos flowed easily through the military industrial complex.  Of course, we couldn’t actually fight one another, because we had built up our atomic arsenals to such a height to use them would have been perfectly m.a.d. (mutually assured destruction).  It was one big game of liar’s poker where neither side could call the bluff of the other.  Instead we sublimated our battles on the fields of play, none more so than through athletics (track & field). 

Last night while watching ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary, Runner by Shola Lynch, that showcased the Mary Slaney – Zola Budd tangle and fall at the 1984 L.A. Olympic 3000-meter final, I was taken back to what may have been the most thrilling track race I’ve ever attended, the 1983 World Championship women’s 1500-meter final in Helsinki, Finland.

Slaney over Zaitseva, Helsinki `83 1500m
Slaney over Zaitseva, Helsinki `83 1500m (Getty Image)

It wasn’t just the race itself, which was a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes battle between an eyeballs-out Mary Slaney of the USA, and a crash-and-burn Zamira Zaitseva of the Soviet Union. No, it was the Us versus Them aspect of it all.  Coming on the heels of America’s 1980 Olympic boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan —  and preceding their retaliatory boycott in L.A. `84 — the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki were rife with political pungency, never more so than in the women’s 3000 and 1500 meter finals.

With Slaney at the peak of her powers — she’d already won the 3000 earlier in the meet — and the Soviets at their juiced-to-the-gills best, the sport itself was never more eagerly followed, even by average Americans.  Now we know that America’s Sweetheart, whether fairly or not, would eventually be tainted by her own failed doping test, making the goodness and evilness of either side a lot less obvious in reflection.  But we wore the blinders of political naivety in those days, and sport was the winner.

Nowadays with Russia no longer the Evil Empire and China still on the rise, but well short of a Soviet-like counterweight to America’s Superpower monopoly, the inevitable fragmentation of America’s political cohesion in the absence of a defining Other has stripped our games of their surrogate’s role. Instead, they must live and die on their own merits.

Today’s athletes are as good (and evidently as drugged) as ever, but without the political undercurrent to heighten the consequences, I guess you just never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  Who would have thought we would miss old Leonid Brezhnev and the boys behind the Iron Curtain?



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  2. For Bob Bright.
    THe USA female Marathoner was Mary Ann Dickerson. A bad back injury ruined her career.
    Finn winning the Javelin on her last throw was great.
    I too was there in Helsinki.

    Cy Quinn

  3. I was there for the entire meet just playing with your memory a little.

    I hope you and Salazar are right about this young woman. Statistics don’t support your thinking.

    Mo, Ritz and Galen are not adolescents and have long training stinks in Oregon.

    I hope she wins a medal and then we will see how good Coach Salazar is.

  4. My memory is better than yours and I’m 111 years old. We were roommates at the Continental Hotel for the entire meet.

    To run at a world class winning level the mind and body need to be a the same page.
    If her mental developement is lagging behind her physical development this could lead to problems.

    The athlete might look the part but the mental competitive maturity is key.

    1. Wait a minute. My original recollection was that you were there in Helsinki, then you wrote, “I wanted to attend but had to settle for reading about one of the great track meets ever held.”

      Then, again, I’m easily confused.

      Just back from Falmouth and Joanie’s race in Maine the week before. Like old home week. In Falmouth we stayed with Mike and Kelley Roche who have a home in North Falmouth. Played golf Monday with Mike, Randy Thomas, Mark Duggan, and other GBTC types who are about to celebrate their 40tth anniversary this Saturday night at B.C.

      As for Mary Cain’s head/ She is a natural racer, not just a precocious runner. As you know, some athletes have a gift for interpreting races in motion, and have a knack of putting themselves in the right position over and over again. She is one such young lady. Comes from smart parents, and yet she still seems to have lots of fun throughout the training and racing. Her elders embrace her, and she has everyone rooting for her. Yet she seems well-grounded, not a tortured soul, but a fun-loving youngster who happens to have IT.

      All the mistakes that Alberto made during his career he has corrected with Mo, Ritz, and now Mary. American running looks like it’s back on the right foot.

  5. Also, I remember reading that the best event was Tina Lilac (Finland) winning the javelin and setting the woman’s world record on her last throw under a perfect star filled August evening. Did you see that event?

    An American also won a medal on the first day in woman’s marathon. Do you remember her name?

    1. I recall the Tina Lilac javelin win very well, cause I had to bail out on the bus ride in from the athlete’s village with Will Albers, cause I got sick to my stomach. So I only heard the deafening roar from the nearby stadium as I laid sick in my bed. I’m sure it was similar to yesterday’s Moscow approval of Isinbayeva in the women’s pole vault.

      Yes, I do remember the silver medalist to Grete’s gold in Helsinki. We traveled home on the same flight with Mary Ann Dickerson, who never again reached such heights of acclaim. But what a one race to have, huh?

  6. Wow Tony, you were in Helsinki. I wanted to attend but had to settle for reading about one of the track meets ever held.

    Back in those days Running and Athletics were on a positive move. Now you have half stepping, politically correct, light -weights directing the action.

    Read where the Salazar trained Mary Cain has advanced to the 1500 final. Bravo.

    History tells us that precocious adolescents racing in world class competition are short lived.

    You probably know some.

    1. Bob,

      Thought for sure you were there in Helsinki, at least for a while. Maybe that was the `85 season. In any case, after the horror of Munich `72, the African boycott of `76 and our Carter-led boycott of 1980 Moscow, the coming together of every nation in the world (except South Africa which was still suffering from the banishment of apartheid) was what made the inaugural World Champs so special. Helsinki was the perfect site, not too big, not too small. We stayed at the Continental Hotel and walked to the stadium each session.

      After watching the Mary Decker – Zola Budd ESPN show last night you could really see how different Decker was from Mary Cain. Mary was a little girl, while Cain is just young. Watching her race to the finals in Moscow this week, you couldn’t really tell who the 17 year-old in the pack was. She’s if not fully, then at least close to fully grown. Alberto speaks rapturously of her talent, and says she’ll be the best there is in short order. Very disciplined family, lovely sense of humor and good cheer. We can only hope for the best for her as she moves forward.

  7. Toni,
    I am with completely with you on old Soviet/DDR athletic teams.
    The Soviet/USA Dual Meets with Dick Bank on the P.A. were great.
    I saw the first meet in Philly, and sat in the largest non Olympic track meet
    crowd ’62 at Stanford.
    As far as Mary Decker Slaney goes, her greatest day was the Helsinki double.
    The third runner behind Mary and Zaitseva was Yekaternia Pozdnyakova
    who many years later pipped Mary for 1,500 WC (i) for Gold Medal.

    Cy Quinn

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