The Moscow Games
1500 METER FREE STYLE RACE, OLIMPIYSKY POOL, MOSCOW, USSR, 22 JULY 1980
An eery silence bounces off the water at the Olimpiysky Sports Complex. Sergei Nikitin sits next to his 11 year old son Alexander high up in the bleachers. Vladimir Salnikov, 20, steps onto the starting block, leans into position and explodes forward as the shot is fired. Alexander's breath stops, his eyes widen up and his hand squeezes his father's as his hero resurfaces and begins his 30 laps race.
Attached to the same fleet as the champion's father, a Sea Captain, Sergei was able to obtain a pair of complementary tickets for the sold out event. For Sergei, this is a major honor. For his son Alexander, this is It. He has been cheering for Salnikov ever since the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games when the then 16 year Leningrad swimmer finished 5th before breaking a series of records and getting the opportunity to compete again at the Olympics.
The Omega Swim-O-Matic board installed in the pools corner indicates 04:59:46 as the head trio bounce off the finish wall for a 10th time. Salnikov is in line with a fellow countryman and an Australian swimmer. 5 other competitors lag behind at various positions. The rhythm is steady and on schedule. 7500 spectators hold their breath in unison.
By the pool's doors, even the heavy armed guards are distracted from their duty as they peek into the water to follow the race. All of Moscow's Olympic facilities are guarded by Red Army soldiers who have been called in to reinforce the Moscow Police contingent which is stretched at its limits. Two weeks before the opening of the Games, which are boycotted by most western Olympic teams, the KGB received intelligence from their Makhachkala field office that pro-mujahedin trans-Caucasian Muslim insurgents might try to disrupt the event.
10:04:07 freezes on the electronic board as Salnikov hits the contact pad for the 20th time. He is slightly ahead of his two closest competitors tailing less than a second behind, but not on time to beat his 1978 West Berlin record and for sure not in time to beat the world record which is even a second faster. Alexander knows this and clings to his father's hand even harder.
At every return lap, Salnikov who breath out on the left side, tries to make sense of the 6 digits that scramble on the time board in the distant corner. Only the middle set is important. 05... 06... 07... 08... He's not going to make it. His own record, he doesn't care; the world record maybe but the 15 minute mark for sure. Not for him. For Oleg his friend from the Leningrad Red Army Swimming Team who just came back from war, leaving his legs behind. Ever since they started training, the two best friends had vowed that they would break the 15 minute mark at the Moscow Games, the home games, or they'd stop competing. Oleg did not make the 1980 team. He was sent to Afghanistan instead.
22nd lap. Vladimir Salnikov propels his body with such force that he emerges now leading by 3 good seconds from the next swimmer. Alexander closes his eyes and imagines entering his idol's body and soul. He also is a great swimmer. The best of his school. One day, he wants to compete at the Olympics just like Vladimir Valeryevich, to make his father proud, to make the whole Soviet Union proud.
Less than 3 laps to go. The crowd starts cheering as Salnikov loses his competitors behind the waves. He is leading by half a pool's length. One is lagging far behind. He just crossed him mid pool swimming in the opposite direction. Three or four others are no threats either. He sees them every time he pops out of a flip turn. But the other two or three, he has no idea, but he knows he's first. He peeks at the clock: 14:02:95, 2 flips and 2 laps to go. 57 seconds... Impossible... He's got no more breath, no more oxygen, no more power. Everything turns black.
As he gets back to his senses, the only thing Salnikov can see is the black line at the bottom of the pool, the only thing he can feel is this growing pain in his right leg, right by the ankle. He knows exactly which muscle. He had cramps there before, but during training. Why now, one lap away from his life long goal. High up in the audience, Alexander's eyes squint behind their closed lids. He raises his right foot above the bleachers concrete floor and starts rotating it on its axle. Under water, the T is now in sight. 3, 2, 1, flip! Final lap. Salnikov's body is on auto-pilot. He wants to know the time but can't raise his head forward. The black line, the crowd, the black line, the crowd. He doesn't feel the cramp nor the rest of his body. The black line, the crowd, the black line, the crowd, the black l... the T, 3, 2, 1...
Little Alexander Sergeyevich opens his eyes as he feels his hand touching the pad. He looks at the time board: 14:58.27... They made it!
STREET, MOSCOW, 25 JULY 1980
This is Alexander's last day in the capital. Tomorrow he and his father have to head back home, on the shore of the Baltic Sea. All around him on the street there is a cheering atmosphere. Moscow woman are much funkier then back home in his town which doesn't exist. Here, there are Black people, Asia people, he hears languages that sound like nothing he's heard before. This is what he's always wanted. To get away from the grim reality of his small town. When he grows up, he'll move to Moscow.
Today, there is a rumor on street, that's how news go around in the Soviet Union. A famous folksinger is dead. Alexander's father does not appear that affected but thinks that his mother will be sad. She likes Vladimir Visotsky when he sings on the radio. Instead of going to the Lenin Stadium to see track events, they'll try to locate a record store. If the news is real, there will be a shortage of the folksinger's records, for years to come. That's how it works in the Soviet Union. Alexander is upset about missing the 100 meter final. He doesn't think that there's much he could do about the two Russian runners, but he wanted to use his newly developed telekinetic powers to help the Cuban favorite. He is intrigued by these far away people. Exotic communist people. He's seen a weird film set in Cuba on the television which fascinated him. But he wants to make his mother happy too. He know it's hard for her up there in their village, amongst people that are not really hers. Also, on the way to the record store, he'll discover more of this gigantic city, and maybe they'll take the metro again.
KURSKAYA TRAIN STATION, MOSCOW, 26 JULY 1980
He knew it. On a huge color monitor placed at a special Olympic booth inside the station, Alexander watches replays of the previous days event. Silvio Leonard, his Cuban protégé was leading the race but lost at the last split second to a Englishman. Why didn't he insist with his father that they'd go to the stadium instead of desperately looking for a dead-man's record. At least this one was alive and he could have saved him. Maybe a English kid was in the stadium to guide his countryman. Maybe some English spy killed Vladimir Visotsky to disrupt the course of what was meant to happen: that he, Alexander, be in the stadium to counter the English kid's powers.
Alexander and his father board the Leningrad bound train. They are carrying loads of goods that you can't find in their town, but no Visotsky record. They were all sold out. On the journey, Alex his mesmerized by the endless scenery that streams through the window. He rethinks of Vladimir Salnikov's race, of the streets of Moscow, of the metro, of the thousands of foreign people. A few seats behind him, a young woman starts playing Moscow-Odessa on her guitar. By the last bar, the whole applauds cheerfully. He'll never forget this trip.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, CLOSED CITY OF SILLAMÄE, ESTONIAN SSR, USSR
The teacher writes a sequence of mathematical equations on the blackboard. Back to school, back in Sillamäe, the damned city. Alexander stares at the clouds streaming across the Baltic Sea. Why can't he become an adult right away and sail away to see the world. He could go to Cuba, China, Argentina.. He could marry a girl like the one who sang on the train. They could travel together. He would be her bodyguard, her guardian angel. He could do anything he wants, now that he knows how to move objects around, how to cure cramps at a distance.
-Alexander... Alexander Sergeyevich... Alexander Sergeyevich Nikitin! Repeats the teacher as Alexander snaps out of his daydream.
-Euhh, yes teacher. I was thinking about the solution.
The whole class laughs as Alexander turns red.
-What solution, Alexander Sergeyevich? The solution to your stupidity?