In a recent
CONVERSATION PIECE (SI, Feb. 6), Avery Brundage, the controversial yet highly
respected American figure who is president of the International Olympic
Committee, replied in answer to a question about the Soviets and their imposing
rise in sports that "their methods appear to be perfectly legitimate. And
according to Mr. Brundage, say that their athletes are "just like athletes
every place else. They train in their spare time. They say they don't have
special camps, except as allowed by the rules. I asked about some of these
fellows in the army. A great athlete seems to be promoted all the time. They
say, this man is a great athlete but he is also a good soldier. He does his job
well. He deserves his promotion."
What follows here
is the unembellished and closely checked story of an Iron Curtain athlete,
which casts considerable doubt on the credibility of Soviet claims. The athlete
is not a Russian—she is a Czechoslovak—and it is possibly true that Czech
Communists have carried the methods of their apostles to extremes. The fact
remains that political, economic and cultural ties between the Soviet-dominated
countries are so strong that what is true of one is, with slight variations,
generally true of the other. Communist methods, it is becoming all too clear,
are indeed impressive. Their legitimacy, to judge by the experience of one
young athlete, however, is open to serious question....
N�chodsk� was the pretty, 16-year-old daughter of a middle-class Prague
insurance company executive when the Communist coup of 1948 imprisoned
Czechoslovakia in the Russian orbit. But 1948 was meaningful to Miroslava only
because it was the year she became her country's third-ranking figure skater.
The Communist line meant nothing to her; it was just incomprehensible male
nonsense, which she happily ignored.
Today, in fact,
she much prefers to follow another line, the Dior line, which, incidentally,
becomes her. It is easy to see how this 125-pound, 5-foot 4-inch blonde
creature once earned a rating as one of Prague's best-dressed women. ("Even
so, I was shoddily dressed compared to a Western girl," Miroslava said
recently.) And it is also easy to understand how Miroslava's almost excessive
femininity was a constant affront to her Communist bosses. Her preoccupation
with dress and ornamentation inevitably oriented her toward the West, where
feminine vanity is still indulged. Equally inevitably, it made her resentful of
and rebellious toward a political regime that treated her as a cog in a machine
rather than as an exceedingly attractive girl. Some what ironically, however,
Miroslava has now discovered that although her dream city, New York, deifies
pretty girls it is also surfeited with them. "It is not so easy to shine
here," she says ruefully, "as it was in Prague."
In the beginning,
the new regime touched her life in only one important respect; when she
graduated from high school she had to meet a work norm. But she still remained
in competition as a member of Dynamo (formerly Slavie, one of Prague's oldest
amateur athletic clubs), and managed to get in a reasonable amount of practice
on the ice during lunch hours and in the early mornings, before she reported
for work in a state-owned chemical distributing firm.
It was only after
Miroslava—or M�la, as she is called—had won the national figure skating
championship of her country in 1951 that the government began to show an
interest in her existence. She first discovered her changed status in January
1952, when the State Committee for Physical Education and Sports cancelled her
scheduled trip through the Iron Curtain to Vienna, where she was entered as
Czechoslovakia's representative in the European figure skating championships.
The committee, it seemed, questioned her political reliability.
confused. How could she be politically unreliable when she had no politics, she
asked? Politics or no politics, the committee's agent told her, she was
nonetheless a significant segment of the political picture. And he quoted her
the new party line, recently laid down by Moscow's All-Union Committee:
"Physical culture and sports have ceased to be a matter of amusement and
have become a matter of state importance." Throughout the Russian orbit,
athletics were being given a new dimension; through them the Communists
intended to help demonstrate the supremacy of the Soviet socialist system over
"bourgeois" amateur sports clubs—the foundation of the Czech athletic
system—were abolished. Trade union clubs were established in their place, and
athletes were arbitrarily assigned to the clubs representing the industries,
mines or collective farms for which they worked. The strongest of the new
clubs—the �stredn� Dum Arm�dy, or "Central House of the Army"—was
formed for the sole purpose of enrolling outstanding civilian athletes under
the army's banner. For obvious psychological and propaganda reasons, the regime
wanted the army's UDA to be all-conquering.
As a national
champion, M�la naturally was "invited" to join UDA, late in 1952.
Captain Ji?� Sukop, a graduate of Moscow's Institute of Physical Culture and
UDA's chief coach, felt the club could straighten out her-difficulty with the
committee. Also, for appearances' sake, she would have to become a
"member" of the army, and it had already been arranged for her to be
carried on the Engineering Corps' payroll as a clerk. As M�la now recalls it,
"And he say openly I would have no work norm and don't have to go much to
the office. And I say to myself, better I join UDA, or I will no more get the
opportunity to do best skating."