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Saturday 10 December 2016

Rewind 35 years: a journey that was an education

The 1981 World University Games, a mini Olympics for students also known as the Universiade, were held in Bucharest, Romania. 

Bucharest was not, at that time, a place with much to recommend it. It may still not be. My experience 35 years ago did not engender any desire to return.

This was during the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the brutal communist leader who ruled Romania with an iron fist from 1965 until he was overthrown and executed in 1989.

Ceausescu modelled himself on the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and built up a leadership cult, giving himself the titles of "Conducator" (Leader) and "Geniul din Carpati" (Genius of the Carpathians). His image was everywhere.

Bucharest was a grey, drab city, full of government buildings and ringed by high-rise apartment towers. Very few of its citizens smiled.

It was no wonder they weren't happy chappies. The food was dismal, the night-life nonexistent.

The University Games were apparently hosted as a way to convince the world of Romania's greatness and ability to organise big events. Unfortunately, an unusual mistake occurred in the men's 10,000 metres final. The athletes ran one more lap of the circuit than intended – resulting in a total race distance of 10,400m. 

One of the ways Romania decided to make sure the organisational wheels kept rolling was to assign spooks to follow Western journalists everywhere they went; even if it was to the athletics track, or for a stroll in a park.

These hatchet-faced fellows in ill-fitting shiny suits knew they were wasting their time. They didn't even bother to disguise their presence.

But I was working for the Associated Press wire service and my mate Mike Collett was with United Press International, so we were both clearly subversive elements who needed to be followed all over the place.

We took our shadows in good part; waving cheerily to them each morning, and making a point of telling them exactly what we were doing. "Look. We're drinking coffee. Make sure you report back on that."

Not a flicker of a smile. The Russians at the Moscow Olympics a year earlier had been a lot more fun.

The efficiency of our shadows was not matched by that of those operating the press centre, or running our unpleasant "luxury tourist hotel". The press centre operatives spent much of their time watching Communist Party political broadcasts, or bizarrely, Dallas, rather than issuing results, or other information that might have been of use to reporters.

The hotel restaurant was sometimes open, sometimes not. And if a sign said it was open until 9.30pm, that still meant it closed when the staff felt like it. One night I felt compelled to break into the kitchen simply to make myself a sandwich.

My most vivid memory of Bucharest, though, was the day we had a few hours off and went to a restaurant on the shores of Lake Cismigiu. It was lovely, with views, crystal glasses and silver cutlery. The only problem was the menu. Almost everything had been crossed off. Our choice was "fish or chicken". The guys in the shiny suits looked on enviously.

We chose chicken, but it had just run out. It was fish, or fish. The fish was carp, which in Romanian is written as "crap". Thus Mike and I enjoyed a crap lunch before resuming our battle to find out what the hell was actually going on at the World University Games.

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