SI Vault
John Lovesey
September 12, 1966
A Welsh broad jumper, a slew of East Germans and some swift Poles were the bright surprises in the rain-splattered European Championships that saw track and field and the Russians take a reactionary nose dive
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 12, 1966

Great Leap Forward—and Back

A Welsh broad jumper, a slew of East Germans and some swift Poles were the bright surprises in the rain-splattered European Championships that saw track and field and the Russians take a reactionary nose dive

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

In Budapest today something approaching traffic jams is beginning to gum up the streets. Buildings still wear a faded yellow air in most places, but there is a brightness here and there among the shops and along the boulevards that not even a recent hardening of the left—or, for that matter, the European Athletic Championships—can dim, although the games made a disspirited try.

"We wish the championships to remain an experience to be remembered by friends of track and field athletics throughout their lives," said the games' chairman, Arpad Csanadi, to a few hardy souls scattered around the huge, mausoleum-like People's Stadium. The championships, held every four years, were the vision some 40 years ago of a Hungarian, Szilard Stankovits. This was the first time that they would be seen in the country where they were conceived. But if Chairman Csanadi had hopes of wild, enthusiastic crowds rooting it up for the home forces, he has only rain to ruminate on despite a record entry of 30 nations. As one Hungarian remarked, the championships needed a soccer game to bring the people in or a track coach, like the defected Mihaly Igloi, who knew how to make Hungarians win.

The games seemed fossilized. Their atmosphere was set on the warmup field behind the stadium stands. Along both sides of the field were arranged groups of idealized statuary—soldiers, sportsmen, workers and dancers. The depressing effect of all this gimcrackery was the sort of thing that friends of track and field might want to spend the rest of their lives trying to forget.

The weather, fickle and usually cool, was no help either. Waiters brought around brandy to warm the chilly, and on the second day it rained from late morning on, making a lake of the track and causing the press section to sprout a patch of umbrellas. When a commentator announced that "at 6 o'clock the temperature was 59�, the humidity 90%," no one was prepared to doubt his word, although one spectator was goaded to explode into the damp air, "All we're getting is weather reports!"

About the only person who didn't complain about the weather was the Olympic broad-jump champion, Lynn Davies, who comes from Wales, where they are used to the rain. Davies won in Tokyo in the wet and did the same in Budapest, but his victory (following one also in the Commonwealth Games) underlined his quality as a champion among competitors. The Soviet jumper, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, led from the start and, until Davies' last leap, seemed assured of first place. The jumpers were leaving deep footprints in the runway which had been used the day before as part of the landing area for the women's shotput. As Davies got ready to go for his final try, he was signaled to stop because a victory ceremony was about to begin. Disregarding the sign, he ran down and leaped 26 feet 2� inches, four inches ahead of Ter-Ovanesyan's best jump. "I had the nervous energy, and I was ready," said Davies. "I knew the official would have been glad to put the flag down if I went."

Despite their lack of drama, the championships mirrored some intriguing changes in the pattern of European athletics. Not only was Ter-Ovanesyan down, but most members of the Soviet team seemed in the doldrums. One observer thought they had suffered a "spiritual collapse." In four days, and 19 events, the U.S.S.R. won only three gold medals, two in the women's events.

Many had concluded that the Russians, after withdrawing from the dual meet with the U.S. in Los Angeles (for which the Russians have now agreed to pay $100,000), would use the European championships as a showcase for this year's talent. To prepare and acclimatize their athletes, the Russians even established a training camp at Uzhgorod in former Hungarian territory on Hungary's northeast border. But that, as results were to show, proved of little help. Instead, two other Communist nations, East Germany and Poland, showed the boss how to do the job.

The U.S.S.R., it appears, is beginning to suffer from the effects of decentralization. The republics of the Soviet Union have won more say in the running of their own sports, and the top competitors are no longer obliged, as they once were, to live and train in Moscow. By strict contrast, the East Germans are, according to a leading Eastern European sportswriter, "now the most centralized and severely disciplined of all the teams."

According to this same reporter, the result has been a distinct psychological difference between the East and West German athletes. The East Germans have taken so well to systematized training that while they are proficient in events requiring technique and strength, they cannot improvise the way the West Germans do.

In Budapest, methodical East and imaginative West German athletes were competing for the first time as separate national teams. While walking may not be everybody's idea of an athletic event, it wins gold medals. East Germany's Dieter Lindner won the 20-kilometer walk, started after the opening ceremony, by forcing two Russians into second and third places. East Germany also won the 10,000 meters on the same day, causing Neues Deutschland to crow that what had begun in Utrecht, where the East Germans came away second with four gold medals in the European swimming championships, was being continued in Budapest.

Continue Story
1 2