SI Vault
Pat Putnam
August 03, 1970
That is the advice the U.S. track team got in Leningrad. The Yanks hated the rooms, hated the food—and most of all hated losing to the Russians for the second time
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August 03, 1970

Don't Drink The Water

That is the advice the U.S. track team got in Leningrad. The Yanks hated the rooms, hated the food—and most of all hated losing to the Russians for the second time

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For the most part, the trip to Leningrad was awful. When it is raining, which seems often, the city is cold and gray, with matching people. It's easy to understand why Russians suck up vodka by the gallon. The daily routines of normal living, from making a phone call to eating, are challenges. The crowded buses are murder; the normal alternative, a taxicab, is almost impossible to find. To this setting and much more, the U.S. track team came last week.

It was perhaps most fitting that the hammer and sickle fell first on Ollan Cassell, the AAU track chief, and on Howard Schmertz, one of the team managers. They decided to go in two days ahead of the team. Before leaving Germany they bombarded Russian officials with telegrams telling them that they would be arriving early. Nobody met them at the airport, where they discovered their American money was no good. And since it was Saturday, all the money changers had gone home for the weekend. After a few hours of argument, a Russian relented and gave them rubles—just enough—to take a taxi to their hotel. Then they discovered the hotel restaurant accepted only rubles. They went to bed hungry. Russians don't lose many arguments in Russia.

On Sunday, Cassell and Schmertz finally managed to make their way to a unique Russian institution known as a "Dollar Restaurant." These restaurants accept only foreign currency—no rubles. Since they are always the best places in town, that means when a Russian wants to take his girl out he has to take her to some café which will accept his rubles. At night the Russians gather outside the doors of the Dollar Restaurants and hungrily watch the tourists eat the food they can't get. Like caviar.

The team arrived on Monday and was bused to the Hotel Sputnik, which is both four years old and a relic. Dr. Jerry Bornstein, the team physician, turned on the water tap in his room and recoiled in alarm. "For the love of God," he ordered everyone, "don't drink that stuff."

"Hell, I wasn't going to drink it," growled George Frenn, the hammer thrower. "I was going to eat it."

It was two days before Wayne Collett and John Smith could coax hot water from their tap. And when it came, it came in a great deep dark brown flood. "Hey, Smith, come look," Collett yelled. "The sink's bleeding."

The team arrived minus four sets of luggage, Vaulter Sam Caruthers' pole—now how can even a Russian airline lose a 15-foot pole?—and Long-Distance Runner Ken Moore's wife Bobbie. The AAU had managed to foul up her visa application and she had to be left in Helsinki. Moore was slightly shaken. He is stationed in the Army at Fort Lewis, Bobbie is a student at Stanford, and they had been saving all year for the trip, calling it the Leningrad fund. To save money, Moore had been cooking his own meals.

"Why didn't you let me know she wanted to come so badly," Cassell asked.

"What the hell," Moore stormed, "I applied for a damn visa, didn't I?"

Cassell tried calling the Russian Embassy in Helsinki from Stuttgart, but he was ignored. Bobbie decided to stay and fight. They said goodby at the airport.

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