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The first runaway Olympian: how a Soviet athlete escaped from the dictatorship and what came of it

Decision of Belarusian athletes Christina Timanovskaya и Yana Maximova stirred up another story in my memory. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, one of the athletes tried not to return to his homeland. What came of it, said the publication Radio Liberty.

Photo: Shutterstock

Back in 1976, at the Summer Olympics in Montreal (Canada), the USSR won the medal standings. But this victory was not easy for the sports leadership. On the second day after the opening day, a scandal broke out at the modern pentathlon competitions. During the fencing tournament, the most titled participant and obvious favorite, Boris Onishchenko, was convicted of fraud: a button was found in the handle of his sword, closing the electrical circuit and thereby giving a false signal about the injection.

British pentathlete Jim Fox, during a duel with whom Onishchenko hurried to press the button, showing his opponent's sword, justified Onishchenko with the "monstrous pressure" that every athlete feels at the Games.

Soviet sports bosses explained the button trick as Onishchenko's personal initiative. He was sent home in shame, disqualified for life, took away all titles and awards and expelled from the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

And just a few days before the closing, the unexpected happened: the diver into the water, Sergei Nemtsanov, stayed in Canada. He was somehow missed by an employee of the State Security Committee (KGB), who was assigned to him.

There was a lot of noise in the KGB at that time: after all, only in Montreal itself there were as many as two generals from the committee, not to mention the lesser ranks. And among the athletes, there were enough of those who willingly collaborated with the KGB.

The sports committee was supervised by the Fifth Directorate, in which the general rank was then borne by two people: the head of the department, Philip Bobkov, and his first deputy, Ivan Markelov. Both, therefore, were in Montreal. Their mouths were full of trouble. The "sorties of Ukrainian nationalists" alone gave them a good nerve: on July 27, during the semifinal match of the football tournament between the teams of the USSR and the GDR, a man with the flag of independent Ukraine ran onto the field and danced a hopak, and then surrendered to the police. His name was Danilo Migal.

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And the next day after that, Sergei Nemtsanov disappeared from the Olympic village. Soon, the leadership of the Soviet team learned that he had asked for political asylum in Canada.

This was the first precedent in Soviet sports. In December 1956, when Soviet tanks drowned the Hungarian uprising in blood, 38 Hungarian Olympians refused to return home from Melbourne. Whole teams remained in the West, Cuban athletes. At the 1972 Munich Games, there was a record 117 defectors. Four Romanians have sought asylum in Montreal. But a Soviet athlete did it for the first time.

It was decided to declare Nemtsanov's disappearance a kidnapping. Vitaly Smirnov, a member of the IOC executive committee and vice-president of the USSR NOC, said that he did not believe that the athlete had asked for asylum, and called it "a typical abduction." He also noted: the athlete was depressed by his performance at the Olympics, so he is too unbalanced.

“This is a very young boy, and his parents are now in the Soviet Union. I cannot find any reason why this young man, who does not know English or any other foreign language, who has just finished regular school, why should he apply for political asylum? " - Smirnov was surprised then.

Ambassador Yakovlev handed a note to the Canadian Foreign Ministry demanding the immediate return of the fugitive. The Soviet delegation threatened to refuse to participate in the last two days of the competition and the closing ceremony of the Olympics. After negotiations with the IOC Executive Committee, the Soviet side removed this threat, but left in doubt the holding of the next super series between the NHL and Soviet hockey clubs.

This story fell into a period of a very sensitive phase in the development of Soviet-Canadian relations, or rather, relations in the USSR-USA-Canada triangle. Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, who headed the Canadian government since 1968, was known for his friendliness towards Moscow and a desire for economic and cultural interaction despite ideological contradictions.

Both Moscow and Ottawa were playing the card of their rapprochement with the Americans. For this reason, the US Embassy in Canada closely followed the events surrounding Nemtsanov's escape and sent reports to Washington on a daily basis. From these messages one can find out not only what the Canadian press wrote about the incident, but also what information the Canadian side considered possible to convey to the Americans.

In the first of these reports, Vitaly Smirnov is quoted in the Montreal Gazette as calling the Nemtsanov incident "a planned provocation against the Soviet delegation." With reference to another Montreal newspaper, French-speaking Le Devoir, American diplomats reported that the Soviet ambassador said that granting Nemtsanov political asylum would be "illegal, since he is a minor." Here, for the first time, the version was presented that the reason for the escape was Nemtsanov's romantic relationship with an American girl. The Canadian press talked about the headache the IOC gave itself by giving the right to host the 1980 Olympics to Moscow: "It is wrong to think that in a country where sports power is viewed as proof of the superiority of the political system, it is possible to hold a non-political super show." One of the newspapers followed the assumption about a possible "cleansing" of Moscow from dissidents: "Won't they put their troublemakers in the" Olympic Gulag "? As it will become known years later, this is exactly what happened in 1980.

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The Montreal Games closed on August 1. But the games around Nemtsanov continued: on August 3, it became known that the jumper's beloved turned out to be "the mysterious daughter of an American millionaire," whom he met at a competition in Fort Lauderdale (Florida). The Canadian immigration authorities decided the issue of the fugitive's incapacity simply: he was given a visa for six months, until January 31, 1977. And on January 23, Nemtsanov will turn 18, and he has become competent to make decisions on his own.

It was reported that Nemtsanov spoke on the phone with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who remained in Canada in June 1974.

The Soviet side tirelessly threw thunder and lightning. Deputy Chairman of Goskomsport Anatoly Kolesov, champion of Greco-Roman wrestling, said that he met with Nemtsanov in the building of the Montreal police department. Nemtsanov, he said, has all the signs of “brainwashing by professionally trained specialists”: “He was in an extremely depressed state. He was pale and repeated like a parrot, "I have chosen freedom." Coach Gerdt Burov, who was present at the meeting, confirmed: "He had a blank look, red spots on his cheeks and dilated pupils."

But the representative of the immigration department, who also participated in the meeting, denied this: "He looked very relaxed and in great shape."

Sergei Nemtsanov was born in the village of Leonidovo, Sakhalin Region. His father, a military pilot, served in Hungary, but regularly paid alimony. For what reasons his mother left him, it is not reported anywhere. The athlete was raised by his grandmother. They lived in Frunze (now the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the city of Bishkek), where Sergei began to engage in diving, but the section was closed, and the grandson persuaded his grandmother to move to Alma-Ata, because there were opportunities for serious studies.

Already in 1974, he won the USSR youth championship in platform jumping, and in 1975 - from a springboard and received the title of international master of sports. In May 1976, two months before Montreal, Nemtsanov took part in international competitions in Fort Lauderdale (Florida) and took second place there, losing one and a half points to the Italian Klaus Dibiasi.

It was in Fort Lauderdale that he met an American named Carol Lindner, who was then 21 years old. She also did diving, and her dad owned the Thriftway supermarket chain in Ohio. He accompanied his daughter on his yacht. As Nikolai Dolgopolov, who accompanied the Soviet team as an interpreter and later a well-known journalist and writer, recalled then, "all the brethren of jumpers and coaches from a couple of dozen states went out to feast in the ocean on his luxurious huge yacht." Carol, alas, did not pass the qualifying competitions and did not get to the Montreal Olympics, but she came there as a spectator and there again met with Sergey.

Elena Vaytsekhovskaya, who wrote a book about her sports career, knew Sergei very well and was an eyewitness to the Montreal scandal. She writes: “Since he trained, not a single person in our team could work. And in any other team too. He had little external data: a small, whitish, completely not curvy boy took exceptionally complexity and stability. When the rest of the athletes performed one hundred jumps per training day, Nemtsanov did three or four hundred. I came to the pool even on weekends: I stretched, swayed my muscles, worked out the entrances to the water. "

Thanks to his hard work, it turned out that Sergei began to win one tournament after another within the country, and almost always the competition turned into a game with only one goal, with Nemtsanov being XNUMX, forty, fifty points ahead of his rivals. Moreover, he himself was not mistaken even in small things.

So in 1976 he was brought to Montreal with full confidence that he must win gold, but it turned out that he finished ninth and did not make it to the final.

“I just burned out in anticipation of my first major competition in my life,” Vaytsekhovskaya believes. - Immediately after the morning performance, when Nemtsanov, huddled in an empty locker room like a homeless tramp, was shaking in sobs, one of the leaders of the Olympic team burst into the same place. For about fifteen minutes he screamed disgustingly, splashed saliva and stamped his feet. Then he muttered: "Well, wait, just let me return to Moscow ... It won't seem a little for you, you bastard!"

Naturally, the teenager got scared, and then there was a girl, yachts, walks.

Maybe he dreamed of a spark of mutual sympathy, because what did he see in his 17 years? Or maybe the girl's father, seeing that his daughter was at the center of an international scandal, decided that it was time to get out. And on August 4, a statement by Richard Lindner appeared in the press: “There are numerous rumors that my daughter is somehow connected with the escape of the Russian diver Sergei Nemtsanov. She met him in June at an international competition in Fort Lauderdale and hosted a party with my wife and I, to which he came along with other jumpers from several countries. She knows him no better than any other member of our diving team, and it was just a coincidence. I asked her personally if they talked about not returning, and she replied: "No." In fact, when she read about it at home in Cincinnati, she was shocked. "

There was also information that Carol sent a letter to Sergei, in which she wrote: if he stays because of her, then you should not do it.

Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Ottawa reported to Washington that it had received a telegram from Mr. and Mrs. Yuryevs, who live in Palo Alto, California. Spouses Yurievs offered to adopt Nemtsanov. This couple is notable for the fact that Alexandra Yuryeva was formerly called Voronina and was the wife of Vidkun Quisling, the head of the collaborationist Norwegian government during the German occupation. Her second husband, a native of Zaporozhye, was a famous architect and head of a construction company. The telegram was forwarded to the Canadian immigration authorities, whose representative told the American diplomats that the desire of Messrs. Yuryevs did not change anything.

The US State Department received a message from Valery Chalidze - a human rights activist, co-founder of the Human Rights Committee in the USSR, since 1972 - an immigrant and publisher, including the periodical Chronicle of Human Rights in the USSR. Chalidze, an authoritative person in Sovietological circles, was worried: did Canada intend to satisfy Nemtsanov's request for asylum? Donald Cruz, the deputy director of the Canadian affairs department, replied that he was worried: Canada gave Nemtsanov a visa by the end of January.

However, the situation soon changed radically. Already on August 16, Nemtsanov, accompanied by his lawyers and "Canadian friends", met with representatives of the Canadian immigration authorities and told them that he was considering the possibility of returning to the Soviet Union, but asked to give him time to think until morning. The next day, at the Holiday Inn, a new meeting was held with the same composition, at which the fugitive announced that he had finally decided to return. After the Canadians were convinced that Nemtsanov had made the decision of his own free will and without outside pressure, he and his accompanying persons went to the Soviet consulate.

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Then a representative of the Canadian Immigration Service told reporters that the only reason for returning was concern about the health of an elderly grandmother. The Soviet consulate in Montreal confirmed that Nemtsanov was on the territory of the consulate, but "very tired and will not make any statements."

The KGB generals, in turn, knew how to put pressure on the young man, and at a meeting with him they turned on the dictaphone - Sergei heard the voice of his grandmother calling out to him: “Who did you throw me at? Now I am completely alone ... ”And since he did not have a closer and dearer person, he decided to return.

In mid-September, the athlete was already in Moscow. He gave an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda, in which he almost word for word repeated the Greco-Roman champion Kolesov. This issue of the newspaper is not available online. In order to avoid distortions of the reverse translation (the New York Times quoted the interview), I quote: “I must say that something strange was happening to me, some kind of incomprehensible itching all over my body, my head ached, my legs and arms were like cotton, even now I can’t remember the details of those days, everything was like a fog, and my whole body ached ”.

And even admitting that he was brainwashed in Canada did not help. Sergei Nemtsanov was no longer allowed to go abroad. But they were allowed to play inside the country. In 1979, he won the USSR Ski Jumping Championship and got a ticket to the Moscow Olympics. But again he failed to win, he took only seventh place.

This was the end of Nemtsanov's career in sports. Elena Vaytsekhovskaya writes:

“The last time we saw him was in the mid-eighties. I came to Alma-Ata to comment on the diving competition and, naturally, asked the local coaches about Serezhkina's fate. The answers were vague: he seems to be working at some gas station as a handyman. Drinks ...

Later, Sergei took up his mind, opened his own car repair business. When his son grew up and went to study in America, his father followed him with his second wife. They write that now he has a car repair shop in Atlanta. "

Sports journalist Anton Pilyasov, in his essay on Nemtsanov, wrote that Carol Lindner could not forget Sergei for a long time - in the 1980s she came to the diving competitions in the USA and asked Soviet athletes how Nemtsanov was. She even asked me to tell him that she still loves him. One thing is certain about this: in the obituary of Richard Lindner (he died in 2010 at the age of 89), Carol appears under her maiden name. Therefore, at the age of 55, she most likely has never been married.

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