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.
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?