• U.S.

Sport: Losing and Learning in Moscow

6 minute read

At Spartakiad, a lesson was as good as a win

They journeyed to Moscow for the same reasons the first astronauts went to space, to test an alien environment and pave the way for more important missions ahead. Under these trying conditions, a team of largely unknown U.S. athletes performed creditably, though not often winningly, at Spartakiad, the Soviet Union’s quadrennial games. They also learned some lessons that should pay handsome dividends when it really counts: at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

The two-week competition was billed as a dress rehearsal for next year’s 22nd Olympiad, but it quickly became clear that most of the visitors’ roles would be played by understudies. Though some 2,500 outsiders were on hand to vie for medals with 10,000 Soviets, many foreign stars chose either to remain home or compete elsewhere. The U.S. track and field team, for example, arrived without such mainstays as Hurdler Edwin Moses, Miler Francie Larrieu, High Jumper Franklin Jacobs and Middle Distance Runner Steve Scott. Even the East Germans seemed to have better things to do, preferring to concentrate on this week’s European Cup track competition in Turin.

Track and field, the traditional centerpiece of Olympic festivities, showed Spartakiad at its comic worst and competitive best. In the heats of the 3,000-meter steeplechase, two runners from Guinea-Bissau came face-to-face with hurdles for the first time. The hurdles won. One of the Africans clambered over several hurdles using both hands but balked at a second encounter with the water obstacle. With the crowd egging him on, he stared at it for a moment, shook his head and walked away.

If the steeplechase was ridiculous, last week’s marathon was sublime. This hellish race, 26 miles and 385 yds., usually ends with one man running alone into a stadium, basking in the cheers of a crowd saluting his solitary achievement. This time five runners burst in together, bunched as tightly as they had been when they started 2 hr. 12 min. earlier. The marathoners were kicking like milers; indeed, they were moving nearly as fast as the 1,500-meter finishers had an hour before. With about ten meters to go, Leonid Moseyev, 27, the Soviet and European champion, shot into first place on his final two strides. His winning time of 2:13:20 was equaled by the next two finishers; hundredths of seconds separated them, but the marathon clock could only break seconds into tenths.

With many of their betters competing at the National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs, the U.S. track and field team felt like cannon fodder. Yet the 35-member team brought back America’s seven gold medals, including all three in the sprint relays. Gloated Benn Fields, silver-medalist in the high jump: “I’m tired of hearing what dogs we are.”

For the U.S., the brightest find of Spartakiad, both in ability and personality, was Carl Lewis, just turned 18. In only his third competition outside high school meets, the gracious, unassuming Willingboro, N.J., athlete won a gold medal for his leg in the 800-meter relay and a bronze in his specialty, the long jump. Lewis was disappointed with third place in the long jump, but Stan Vinson, 27, who won gold medals in the 400-meter dash and 1,600-meter relay, looked ahead: “I think he’ll jump 29 ft. before he’s 20 the way he’s going.” Bob Beamon’s 1968 world record is 29 ft. 2½ in.

The U.S. women’s volleyball team established itself as a contender for gold or silver in 1980. After defeating the Ukraine volleyballers and upsetting the potent Moscow squad, the American women narrowly lost a grueling, five-game match to the Russian Federation, the Soviet national team. The American women live and practice together six days a week in Colorado Springs, under the auspices of the newly invigorated U.S. Volleyball Association. Mostly in their mid-20s, they have interrupted college, romances and careers to serve and spike. Said Janet Baier, 24, an aspiring cellist from St. Louis: “I can play the cello till I’m 90, like Casals did, but I can only play volleyball now.”

The American men’s basketball team was an artistic success but a Scoreboard failure, finishing fifth. Hastily recruited from the second tier of amateur players—most of the best played instead in the Pan American Games—the youthful Americans were unschooled in international rules and woefully short on muscle and experience. Nevertheless, their fluid fakes and brilliant improvisations drew large crowds, even to their practice sessions. A bravura moment came when Herb Williams, 21, a forward from Ohio State, slammed home a fearsome dunk against Yugoslavia and shattered the backboard in the process. After a moment of startled silence, the Soviet crowd roared with laughter and cheers, and one straight-faced official quipped: “Please ask your player not to perform that play any more than five times—we only have six more backboards.”

Among Eastern bloc teams, the Soviet Union showed its usual depth and set two women’s world records. No new sports monolith rose from obscurity in the way East Germany did in 1972. But a tiny star may have been born. Natalia Shaposhnikova, 18, an 84-lb. Soviet gymnast, captured both the all-round competition and the fancy of onlookers; “Natasha” may well become the Olga Korbut of 1980.

The U.S. contingent was less concerned with rivals than with logistics. Language, transportation and communications in sprawling Lenin Stadium proved to be nagging problems. Said Track and Field Coach Jimmy Carnes: “Next year we intend to come here as self-contained as we possibly can.”

Track competitors had an especially frustrating time preparing for their races. Frequently they would warm up only to end up waiting in a cold concrete room for 30 minutes before the start of their events. Said Ron Davis, 22, a 400-meter man: “The Soviet athletes are used to being told to take off their sweats, then stand in the wind for ten minutes. We aren’t. Maybe we have to get used to it.”

U.S. coaches generally had warm praise for the Soviets’ willingness to iron out such problems. The coaches nonetheless will go through a series of formal debriefings on their return, and U.S. athletes will have lots of free advice for colleagues who stayed home. Some priority items for 1980: Tang (orange juice is hard to come by), sleep masks for Moscow’s 3:30 a.m. midsummer sunrise, heavier warmup suits for the cool evening air, and native American interpreters.

But the most important message will be that U.S. Olympians must learn a little Soviet-style comradeliness if they hope to fare well next summer. “It’s pretty cutthroat back home—you’ve got no friends when the gun goes off—but in Russia next year, we are going to have to put all of that aside,” said Stan Vinson. “We aren’t just running against other athletes, we’re running against a system. And nobody is going to look out for us but us.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com