East and West become one at the Olympics


Two winters. Two worlds.

A year ago, Agris Elerts stood behind a barricade of trucks, cars, buses, scrap metal and concrete. He was part of a human shield that protected the Parliament building in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

On one side were the Soviet troops, come to quash the breakaway movement. On his side were Latvia's farmers and workers and athletes. There were lugers such as Mr. Elerts, strong young men accustomed to sliding feet first down mountains of ice. There were bobsledders, too, including 1988 Olympic gold medalist Janis Kipurs.

"We were scared," Mr. Elerts said. "We heard gunshots. We saw people die. But I couldn't step back if all Latvian people were defending our nation."

If the Soviet troops had stormed the building, they would have had to kill Latvia's greatest athletes.

A year later, the troops are gone and the barricades dismantled.

The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Mr. Elerts is an athlete again, preparing to go on a world stage to represent not only himself, but his country. On Saturday, in a temporary stadium erected in the crossroads city of Albertville, France, he will march behind Latvia's maroon-and-white flag in the opening ceremony of the 16th Olympic Winter Games.

"I'm glad I am part of the future," Mr. Elerts said. "I feel I am an ambassador of Latvia. I'm going to put Latvia on the map through sport. Through luge."

After four years of revolutionary change, after the death of nations, after the end of the Cold War, an emerging world order will be displayed at the Olympics.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will compete at the Olympics for the first time since the Baltics were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union a half-century ago.

Athletes from Slovenia and Croatia will perform against competitors from Yugoslavia, mirroring a civil war that rages in their homelands.

And, of course, the two Olympic sports powers of the last three decades are shattered, their remnants casting jagged reflections of a changing world.

East Germany, a country of 17 million that produced better athletes than cars, is disbanded. Its best bobsledders, lugers, skaters and skiers now compete under a capitalist system in a united Germany.

The Soviet Union is divided into the Commonwealth of Independent States. Competitors representing the United Team of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will march behind the five-ringed Olympic flag and hear the Olympic anthem after they win gold medals.

So much has changed. Old images remain. New ones are being created.

In the lobby of the United States Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., hangs a poster of an American eagle, its talons ripping open the chest of a Russian bear. Above the picture is the inscription: "Taking the heart out of the competition."

A videotape of the U.S. hockey victory against the Soviet Union in the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," plays continuously at the Olympic Arena in Lake Placid. "Do you believe in miracles?" echoes in the hall. Outside, where flags of the Olympic nations flap in a winter wind, the Soviet hammer and sickle is no longer raised.

In 1984 and 1988, figure skater Katarina Witt was presented to the world as the symbol of East Germany.

Now she sips Diet Coke for dollars and will appear in Albertville as a television commentator for CBS.

Figure skaters from Russia and Ukraine who were once polished and pampered by a Soviet sports bureaucracy intent on victory now beg for sponsorship money.

"There are no good guys or bad guys in our sports," said Bonny Warner, a U.S. luger who will be appearing in her third Olympics. "The purpose of the Olympics is to do your best in a competitive situation. Just because some athletes compete under different flags doesn't change anything. They're still the same athletes."

Yet the dynamics of the Olympics have changed. Over 32 years, the Soviet Union and East Germany emerged as dominant powers. From 1956 to 1988, the Soviets won 73 gold medals at the Winter Games, while the East Germans won 43 and the Americans earned 25.

Then the Communist empires vanished.

While the last shard of the broken Soviet sports dynasty is expected to produce triumphs this winter in hockey, cross-country skiing, biathlon and figure skating, no one is certain of the future.

Gossport, the Soviet bureaucracy that once supported 23,000 coaches and athletes, is bankrupt. Athletes and coaches are going abroad to find jobs.

"They're farming themselves out," said Ron Ludington, the pre-eminent pairs skating coach in the United States.

Soviet athletes are following the lead of Sergei Bubka of Ukraine. The world record holder in the pole vault lives in Berlin, competes for a track club sponsored by a U.S. shoe company, Nike, and declares: "I am a citizen of the world."

Stanislav Zuck, who presided over the Soviet pairs' skating program in the 1970s, teaches in Japan and Greece.

Those left behind struggle for daily necessities and new identities.

"A few months ago, athletes were being treated like everyone else," said Jack Kelly, executive director of the 1994 Goodwill Games, which will be held in St. Petersburg. "They had to go through the same process of an average Russian citizen, standing in lines, waiting for food."

Tamara Moskvina, who coaches figure skaters in St. Petersburg, said that after the Olympics, her practice rink will be closed and converted into an ice house to store meat.

Russian skiers were stranded in Zurich for several days before Christmas, waiting for flights home. Aeroflot jets bound for Moscow were filled with foodstuffs, not passengers.

Soviet skaters who attended last month's European Championships were initially told by representatives that they were to compete for something called the Confederation of Independent States.

"We would prefer to skate for Russia," said Sergei Ponomarenko, an ice dance performer.

On the ski jump circuit, other athletes now walk up to the Russians and ask: "So, what country are you skiing for today?"

"They don't even know where the money is coming from anymore," said Jim Holland, the top ski jumper in the United States. "They kind of laugh about the whole thing. What else can they do?"

In Germany, life is not as grim for all the athletes.

Wolfgang Hoppe, a two-time bobsled gold medalist from the East, now drives a Mercedes Benz. Corporate sponsors line up hTC to bestow gifts upon sprinter Katrin Krabbe, a double gold medal winner at the 1991 World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo.

Yet even as east and west merge in Germany, cracks have

appeared in the sports' foundation. There is an awkwardness on most of the combined teams, with coaches from the west and some of the athletes from the east.

The vaunted East German training schools, which churned out champions, are closed and discredited. The old system was fueled not only by hard currency, but also by drugs, as track and field athletes and swimmers were pumped up with steroids.

When the Berlin Wall was chopped and hammered into history, East German coaches were released by the score. East Germany once had 200 speed skating coaches; now there are 25.

"It's like someone threw a wrench in the spokes," said Peter Mueller, the U.S. Olympic speed skating coach, who spent the last three years working in western Germany.

The German technological edge is now flowing west. The East German company that once fashioned the finest bobsleds in the world for the greater glory of communism will sell its products to all comers. Hans Rinn, a two-time gold medalist who built the world's best luges for East Germany, now designs BMWs.

Despite the changes, traumas and triumphs of the last four years, not everyone expects the Olympics to become an idyllic setting for sport. A century ago, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France sought to revive the ancient games of Greece, he wanted to create an event at which warring nations would meet in peace.

The modern Games have been interrupted twice by World Wars.

"It will always be country against country," said Dick Button, a two-time Olympic men's figure skating champion. "Isn't it Coca-Cola against Mercedes, in the end, anyway?"

Yet there are times when athletes and sports can not just rise above politics, but can also lead the world.

Hear the story of Viktor Petrenko, a skater from Odessa in Ukraine, the reigning Olympic men's bronze medalist. A year ago, he was preparing to perform at an exhibition in his home arena when an American pairs team of Katie Wood and Todd Reynolds tumbled to the ice.

Ms. Wood sustained a serious head injury, and as she was carried away on a stretcher to a dirty, forbidding hospital, her coach, Bob Young, asked Mr. Petrenko for help.

A few hours later, Mr. Petrenko showed up at the hospital bearing food, blankets, syringes and needles. He came back each day and finally saw Ms. Wood off at the airport.

Last November, Mr. Young was at a pre-Olympic competition in Albertville. There, he received a message from Mr. Petrenko's coach. Mr. Petrenko could not train for the Olympics. In the whole of the crumbling Soviet Union there was not one pair of skating boots that could fit a champion.

Mr. Young promised he would get the boots to Mr. Petrenko. And he delivered. So in the Olympics, there will be a skater from Ukraine competing with a pair of boots from America.

There will be other stories of east and west blending as one.

Hear, too, a cry of freedom from a bobsledder named Zintis Ekmanis. He is an Olympic bronze medalist who once raced under the flag of the Soviet Union. Now he will race for Latvia.

"When a slave has done his work, he is free," he said. "We have done our work."

And finally, hear the voice of a dreamer, Agris Elerts, the luger who faced tanks with rocks, who spent nights along barricades. Now, he will have his winter days in the sun in the French Alps, sliding for himself and his country.

"Two years ago, I would not have believed this," he said. "But. . . . "

Two winters. Two worlds.

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