Sorry folks but on the eve of the Olympic Games…every Olympic Games…I get the chance to say that I have been to an Olympics. To be honest there is no point in being at an Olympic Games, especially behind the old Iron Curtain if you dont use the opportunity to bore your friends with the “I was there” story. Alas I am now retired so I cannot bore colleagues and my family has heard all the stories so now it is the Blogosphere’s turn to be bored.
Back in the late 1970s, the big thing for me was to get out of West Belfast (and then Dungannon) and head for the safe haven of Dublin for a weekend. GAA at Croke Park, athletics at Belfield, football at Dalymount Park, boxing at the National Stadium.
In the summer of 1979, an advertisement in the Sunday Independent. Ten days at the Moscow Olympics or for a lot more the full sixteen days. Both were expensive but I opted for the ten day package. Paid in installments, I paid the last one at Christmas 1979. Within days, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and the whole expensive trip was in jeopardy. The Americans under President Carter decided to boycott the Moscow Games and things looked a bit tight that the Irish and British might follow suit.
As it turned out, individual Irish and British sports such as Equestrianism decided not to go but for the most part, most athletes did decide to go, resisting pressure from the governments.
Before going I was treated to two lectures, delivered by my employer. One was standard fare. Be careful behind the Iron Curtain. The KGB are ruthless and might try to get me in a compromising situation. Give them information or they might send photographs of me to newspapers………..eh? Am I actually listening to this? Well yes because it was amusing and especially when she used the phrase “homosexuals are especially vulnerable”. I assured her that if compromised it would be a strictly heterosexual experience and she said it isnt funny.
The second lecture…which to the immense credit of Miss S***** she apologised for reading was a statement from the British Government urging me to think about the oppressed people of Afghanistan and to consider not going. Well……I went to Moscow. Actually there is a sickening hypocrisy here…..Colin Mynihan and Sebastian Coe went to Moscow and later became Tory MPs while Thatcher was still Prime Minister. Now they are prime movers in the British Olympic movement.
On the Friday morning, we set sail. Or more precisely boarded an Aer Lingus plane at Dublin Airport to fly to Zurich and then by Swissair to Moscow. At check in, I stood beside a Chief Inspector from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He was wearing his Irish Team uniform and carrying an Irish passport. His sport…..you guessed it…..pistol shooting.
And in the early evenening we reached Moscow. Basically when a Soviet border guard (from Central Casting) mispronounces your name when he looks at your passport, you dont argue. We had already filled in forms aboard the plane detailing the worldly goods we were bringing in to Moscow….cash, jewelry, cameras etc. We were warned not to lose this. It was serious stuff. This was needed when we changed our “sterling” into roubles and back again. Currency Exchange was tightly controlled. Of course I cannot remember the exchange rate but lets say £20 got 100 roubles…..I only changed maybe £40 the whole time I was there. A ride on Moscows underground was maybe 5 kopeks (ie 0.05 of a rouble), a pack of playing cards just 15 kopeks. A taxi journey maybe 50 kopeks….but the taxi driver might try and persude you to give him two dollars. No way matey!.
There were of course hard currency shops, catering for tourists and the diplomatic community. At one such shop, the Irish Embassy car pulled up. Well stocked shop with Cadburys and Kerrygold butter and all the good stuff. I was there to buy film for my camera. As it turned out they had no film and I ws directed to a regular Russian camera shop……East German cameras……..very cheap and as it turned out totally crap.
The journey from the airport to the Hotel Baikal was interesting. Our guide was pointing out the great achievements of the Soviet Union. The magnificent statues but we all seemed fixated on the people of Moscow, most of whom seemed extremely drunk. Some Moscow cliches of course. Middle aged heavily built women digging roads and driving garbage trucks. And men in the early 60s or slightly older with be-medalled chests who did not look to happy at our presence. ..and the celtic cross around my neck got strange looks.
We were told or had read that the young folks in Moscow had all been taken out of the city and put into summer camps while the Games were taking place. Seemingly the Russian authorities feared them meeting westerners and being contaminated. In actual fact young people got disapproving stares from their elders if they engaged in conversation….showing off their knowledge of English.
The guides we met were mostly English language students attached to the hotel for the duration. They were watched over by unconvincing senior Tour Guides at the Intourist desk. Our running joke was that this was a KGB man and woman (Central casting again!) but I think they were actually keeping an eye on the Russian students.
I think we all had a residual fear of the Iron Curtain. But for the duration of the Games, there was a kinda truce. With hindsight I think that the hard men in the Kremlin must have expressed doubts about the Olympics. Probably Kremlin “doves” argued that it would be a good thing. Probably the “hawks” argued against it all. And probably the western boycott meant it was a failed experiment and the “hawks” could claim that “we told you so”.
Certainly I would never want to endure another Olympic Opening Ceremony. It was maybe 90 degrees and uncomfortable and went on for ever. Yes I saw Brezhnev thru binoculars and he looked as if he was already dead. The great parade of athletes was a disaster….an anti climax. Those western nations which attended had agreed to carry an Olympic Flag (an would have an Olympic anthem at medal ceremonies) and as it turned out no athletes from western nations paraded at all……just a lone flagbearer. In Irelands case this was Ken Ryan, Vice President of the Olympic Council of Ireland. And so it was with Britain, Norway, Denmark …..maybe thirty nations with just an Olympic Flag and no “team”.
Meanwhile back in the Hotel Baikal, we were making friends under the gaze of the Intourist/KGB types. I left my Irish National Flag at home in Dungannon but one of the guides arranged that the hotel seamstress run one up for me…..a bit small and a bit too “gold” but I treasure it.
I wish I could remember the Guide’s name. Nice guy who had obviously read the KGB Guide to Ireland…..our newspapers Irish Press, Irish Times, Daily Worker and our political parties Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Communist Party of Ireland.
He took a group of us to see Lenin’s tomb. And laughed about it on the bus. Two priests were with us but as one explained he just wanted to make sure the old bastard was dead.
Nice guy. He collected coins. I collect stamps. And I gave him some Irish coins and he was very touched. He had never even held an Irish coin before. Next day he gave me a book of Russian sports stamps in an Olympic cover.
And thats how it was. Our instructions were that the waitresses and chambermaids in the hotel could not take tips but they welcomed gifts of tiletries, tights etc. And they warmed to us and we warmed to them. The local Communist Youth Club challenged us to a football match and we foolishly accepted. They beat us 3-1 and gave us a plaque with the badge of their club……and we couldnt find anything to give them…..except an Irish souvenir tea towel.
I probably should mention the Sport. Essentially we had to have a minimum number of tickets for events but there was always a kinda informal swap going on. People were more interested in sight-seeing than Volleyball or whatever. The Olympics is for the most part divided into three distinct sessions……Morning, Afternoon and Evening with bus journeys to and from hotels and venues. My tickets were for Athletics which is in the second week of the Games and I only got to maybe two sessions….Boxing (I was there most days) and Rowing (one very early morning session).
The last night of my time in Moscow I went for a walk. It might sound cliched but two Russian youths offered to buy my jeans. Starting off at ten roubles, they kept writing numbers in the sand….no offer was acceptable. The thing is what would I do with fifty roubles on the night before coming home. No point in having roubles outside the Soviet Union…..and no point bringing it to the official exchange desk in the hotel. After all I could not change the roubles into more sterling than I had actually handed over some days previously.
The Sport…….ah well…..Barry McGuigan, I was there the night he got beaten by a guy from Tanzania. Hugh Russell went on to win bronze. I was there the night John Treacy collapsed from heat exhaustion after he led the 10,000 metres heat.
Yet surprisingly perhaps…..its the non-sporting things I remember most. Because in truth the best way to follow the Olympic Games on TV. Maybe in two weeks time 60,000 people will see Usain Bolt cross the line in the 100 Metres Final……but a hundred cameras trained on him will pick up every nuance, every glance.
After ten days most of us flew home. The lucky minority who had paid for the full package stayed in Moscow. On board the Swissair flight we saw our first “western newspapers”. An obituary to Peter Sellers who had died unknown to us…….and some strange news from Poland…….where in the city of Gdansk, there was some unrest in a shipyard.
Enjoy it folks.
And Good Luck Ireland!