In the 1840s, Karl Marx famously wrote that “religion is the opium of the masses.” That’s no longer true; now it’s sports and I’m addicted. I’m a Cleveland Indians, Browns, Cavaliers fan; I root for the Ohio State football team unless they’re playing my alma mater Notre Dame, and then I root for the Fighting Irish; I root for the U.S. in World Cup soccer; I root for Ukraine in the Euro Cup. No doubt most of you reading this have your own favorites – religious affiliation notwithstanding.
I was an unremarkable athlete but a successful track coach in the Cleveland inner city junior high school where I taught in the 1970s. My athletes worked hard and our teams won three district championships in the four years that I coached.
My entire life I’ve religiously followed sports, especially track and field. The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich will always be remembered for the horrific massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. The Games nevertheless went on and I avidly watched on TV. For me, the sprint final with superstar Valery Borzov representing the Soviet Union was especially memorable. Introducing the competitors, ABC sports announcer Jim McKay pointedly noted that Mr. Borzov was not Russian; “actually, he’s Ukrainian.” I swelled with pride.
I soon learned that McKay had come by this information because of Osyp Zinkewych, founder and president of Smoloskyp Publishers, who had launched a campaign as far back as 1956 during the Melbourne Olympics to have Soviet Ukraine participate independently in international sports. Ukraine, he argued, was a member of the United Nations with constitutional guarantees for national sovereignty in the Soviet Union.
Those were hollow, of course, but Mr. Zinkewych called the Soviet bluff. He pointed out that a disproportionate number of athletes on the Soviet Olympic team were Ukrainians and it was inaccurate to conflate the USSR with Russia. Let Ukraine and other Soviet republics have their own teams, Mr. Zinkewych said, in Munich in 1972, Montreal in 1976, Lake Placid in 1980, and so on.
By 1976, I had become deeply involved supporting the Ukrainian dissident movement: translating documents, smuggling materials into and out of the Iron Curtain, lobbying Congress and the State Department. As a teacher, I had the luxury of having the entire summer off. And so, Mr. Zinkewych called, asking me to join the campaign for Ukraine’s independent participation in the Montreal Games. I gladly agreed. Not only would I be supporting Ukraine, I would get to be a tourist in the greatest sports event in the world.
And what an experience it was. I met world class athletes at a time when practice fields were open to the public. I also met Ukrainians like me. The Ukraine Olympics project was joined not only by Smoloskyp, but also by the local Montreal Ukrainian community, the Ukrainian American Youth Association (CYM), Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization, the Canadian Ukrainian Committee, the New York-based Committee for the Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners, Andriy Bandera and others. I met activists from the U.S. and Canada, then in their 20s or early 30s; many remain friends, though they are now old like me. We turned daytime advocacy for Ukraine into an evening festival in the squares of Montreal celebrating youth, sports and fellowship. Along with lawyer Andriy Semotiuk, I appeared as spokesman on Montreal television. The media there covered our press conferences and other public events.
A big question mark was Valery Borzov, the 1972 star of the Soviet team who had identified himself prominently as Ukrainian. A week or two into the Games, he was absent, silent, even as our demonstrations went on and gathered attention. Rumors abounded that Mr. Borzov had been cut, sent back to the Soviet Union as a dissident; he was being “re-educated,” etc. All untrue. I was in the stadium when he appeared for a qualifying 100-meter heat prior to the final a day or two later. The Soviet uniform that year was a red top with the hammer and sickle and white shorts, but the warm-up suit was blue with CCCP. Mr. Borzov? He showed up to the heat in a blue uniform, but wearing a pair of yellow long-legged pants. Was this a message? Yellow pants and a blue top? Was he echoing Ukraine’s flag? That’s certainly what we all thought. Mr. Borzov later became minister of sports for independent Ukraine. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet him to ask about the significance of the yellow pants, but I think I know. As a sports enthusiast, by the way, I marvel that he ran the 100 meters in 1976 for a bronze medal in 10.14 seconds, matching to the hundredth of a second the time he ran when he won a gold in Munich four years before.
Since independence, Ukraine has given the world many charismatic athletes. Figure skaters Oksana Baiul and Victor Petrenko electrified a global audience with their gold medal performances as Ukrainians in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
Serhiy Bubka won a gold medal for Ukraine at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and established a new standard in the pole vault, breaking the world record 35 times. He’s since been representing Ukraine on the International Olympic Committee. There are others, of course.
Addicted to sports as I am, my wife and I watched this year’s Ukraine-Sweden Euro Cup game and rejoiced at the incredible last-minute overtime goal to propel Ukraine into a quarterfinal game. England subsequently drubbed Ukraine, but that’s sports. There’s always another game. We will be watching the Tokyo Olympics along with friends, different this year because of the ongoing coronavirus. We’re vaccinated and encourage everyone to get their shots, but the pandemic will still unfortunately cast a pall on the 2020 (now 2021) Games.
We’re rooting for the U.S. and Ukraine, of course. As I watch, I’ll remember my friend and mentor Osyp Zinkewych who presciently recognized the link between sports and national self-determination. The era of winning independence for Ukraine with “weapons in hands” as émigré nationalists asserted was over, Osyp said. We’ll win independence for Ukraine with gold medals, and through mere participation in international sporting events and other gatherings. He never invoked that “sports is the opiate of the masses,” but he knew. I’ll be watching. And hopefully soon I’ll see the Cleveland Indians win a World Series, the Browns win a Super Bowl, and the Fighting Irish win a National Championship. It’s not opium, but I admit that I’m addicted.
Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is email@example.com.