East and West become one at the Olympics

February 02, 1992|By Bill Glauber

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.

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