“Some die too young, some die too old; the precept sounds strange, but die at the right age.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
What would you do if were a young and restless teenage boy in communist Poland in the early 1970s? Join one of the communist youth organizations or serve as an altar boy? There were not too many options for extracurricular activities fitting my temperament and boundless energy besides sports such as soccer, boxing, track and field, or cycling. At that time the Polish road cyclists were untouchable in May’s Peace Race. I opted for cycling with quick signs of a bright future. I came in third at the national youth games in a time trial with less than 12 months of training, and the first track national title a year later with more to follow.
History demonstrates that during the Cold War, sport was as much an arena of competition between socialist states as it was between the capitalist and communist worlds. We were competing hard against anybody, but during the so-called Friendship Games, the unofficial championships of the Warsaw Pact, we became ruthless gladiators of our millennial Polish pride. Poland’s geopolitical as well as geographical location was, and always will be, between Germany and Russia, and at that time, the Soviet Union (USRR) and East Germany (GDR) bordered us. Both of these esteemed giants frequently went about conquering and changing Poland’s geopolitical landscape. Thus, winning a medal at the World Championships was great, but winning a medal at the Friendships was something special. I earned two silvers in 1976, and they are still very precious to me.
When competing against teams from capitalist states the expectation was that we were representing the victorious socialist system, but as teenagers we were not thinking about that at all. We were able to observe the differences of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain and share them with our peers and families. In fact, from a temporal perspective, I think we were agents of change by emulating the looks, fashion, and behavior of young people from the West, and although we frequently traveled abroad, our passports were routinely deposited in the offices of the Ministry of Interior.
As a member of the National Olympic Team, I was always fully dedicated to my calling. I gave the most youthful and valuable years of my life to the sport of cycling. For over ten years, the bicycle was my best friend and my worst enemy. My career was mixed with humbling losses, nasty crashes and unforgettable victories. Snow, rain, wind, or scorching sun was never an excuse not to train. The bike allowed me to savor something very unique: a freedom of mobility and love for the outdoors that will continue forever. I call cycling “the art of dying”. As a successful rider, I always had to race above a significant pain threshold in order to win. Yes, competitive cyclists suffer physically in a race, and yet, they still have to be able to apply rational tactics in the end. During the racing season, we saw each other every weekend and during the summer, almost every day. We knew each other’s capabilities and shortcomings, but at the end of the day, we respected each other (with some exceptions that were not long lived in the peloton). From shoulder to shoulder, sprints to the finish line, or courageous solo break-away moves, the off-the field camaraderie remained throughout the year. Not many of us were able to say good-bye to cycling without a lot of emotional grieving. The break-ups, however, were usually very dramatic and swift. I was one of those who decided to leave the sport in an instant, I just couldn’t take the regime and pain anymore, and when I left, I never looked back. From time to time, I still followed cycling on TV, but only until I wrote the blog: Education Literally Saved My Life.
In that blog, I wrote some reflections associated with my cycling past with the intention that my sociology students would be able to read and learn something from it. In one of the paragraphs, I recounted the painful loss of my teammates.
"On Thursday, March 16, 1978, another defining moment came when I lost five of my teammates in a still unsolved plane crash that occurred over Bulgaria. I was supposed to be on that flight, but was spared due to my desire to simultaneously attend university and be a competitive cyclist. I vividly remember my conversation with the coach who jokingly asked me prior to their departure: tell me do you want to be a pro-cyclist or a scientist? I replied: I would like to try both. The day after the crash, on a Friday morning, I was riding the bus to my university lectures at the Sports Academy in Poznan, Poland. The person sitting ahead of me was reading a sports newspaper, and I noticed a bolded headline with the names of my teammates. Thinking that the headline was an announcement of their victories in the early season, my first reaction was 'I am here pretending to be a scientist, and they are winning races.' I shook off the silly thoughts of envy and started to read the rest of the headline. I read it, and I froze. It was an obituary. I was numb for quite a while- to the point that I sat on this bus for several loops not knowing about it. When I came home after my late evening classes, I opened the mailbox and found a goofy postcard from all of them. This was really too much for one day and for one person. It really hit me hard.”
Since the publication of that article, I started to be engaged by some buddies from my cycling past, and in return, I became proactive in this rekindling process as well. The year 2015 was special for cycling enthusiasts in North America. Between September 19th and 27th, the City of Richmond, Virginia became the world’s capitol of road cycling. One thousand elite cyclists from over 70 countries competed in 12 women’s and men’s races for the most coveted jersey in cycling - the rainbow jersey. The nine-day cycling festival attracted media coverage from 35 countries and brought over half a million cycling lovers from all over the world. A year before the Olympic Games in Rio, the races were not only a test for the athletes, but they wer also a litmus test for the state of cycling after a few turbulent years. Under the new leadership of Brian Cookson, the International Cycling Federation (UCI) is supporting bike friendly cities, promoting women, battling against doping, and expanding race calendars. Thanks to Cookson, we can now start to talk about a genuine renaissance in the sport of cycling from a holistic point of view.
A former cycling buddy, and the current President of the Polish Cycling Federation, Waclaw Skarul, invited me to be a member of the Polish delegation for this event in Richmond. Meanwhile, I called another former rival, Adam Baloniak who now lives in the Toronto Metro Area to also join us at this event. Adam is still in love with cycling, as is his wife, Jolanta. A few others announced their plans to participate as well and before we knew it, we had the basis of a Polish cycling re-union in full motion.
The day before the men’s race we had dinner, where I raised the issue of the 1978 plane crash in Bulgaria. President Skarul volunteered to assist us in the proper commemoration of this tragic event during one of the national pre-Olympic track events. We all came to the conclusion that a plaque with names of all five cyclists should be placed at the tunnel entrance to the Pruszkow National Velodrome near Warsaw. Adam Baloniak obliged himself to mobilize his Facebook cycling friends including his former tandem partner Jan Zak. When I needed photos of the tomb stone of one of the young men, another cycling buddy, Ireneusz Olszacki, also lent a friendly hand and asked his wife, Ilona to visit the cemetery to take a picture. On top of these efforts, I asked a young cycling reporter, Jakub Zimoch to write a thorough story on the event. We, and most importantly the families, still do not know the exact cause of this catastrophe. I am pretty sure that the Institute of National Remembrance has many files of the communist ministry of interior that would shed more light on the catastrophe. Unfortunately, Poland is still struggling with another plane crash, the one of April 10, 2010 at the Smolensk Air Base in Russia, where 96 people were killed, including the former President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, and the First Lady. However, it’s time for Polish authorities to give the opportunity for the loved ones to learn how their sons and brothers died on that Thursday, March 16, 1978 in Bulgaria. It’s not enough to write on the small tomb: “Died tragically in a plane crash at age 19.”
For many, sport is about stamina and muscles, but sport also teaches a lot of other skills and it can be a societal ice-breaker between varying cultures and political systems. For some, athletes appear super human and immune to human frailty and weaknesses. In reality, they are also very susceptible to social upheavals while competing. The tragic events of the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing are still vividly remembered by the global community of sport. For those of us who can still keep up the flame of the Olympic Spirit through our second life careers we should obliged, ourselves, to talk about the stories of real sport solidarity as sport can be a great life adventure. We, former athletes, should look after each other and nurture the ideals and values for young adepts of physical education and sport worldwide.
After many years of being away from sport, and while working in academia and development, I can clearly see the need to create ties of synergy between the field of physical education, sport, and development. Sport, when taken seriously, can be integrated into many branches of development. Sport is about humans coming together in celebration. I did not always see this connection as an athlete, but I see it now as a teacher, researcher, and parent. Athletes are in many cases looked upon as reckless and selfish, but their best moments can have a powerful and long-lasting affect on spectators. I believe that the athletes of the Soviet era in Central and Eastern Europe were active political game changers and pioneers of democracy and the free market. As long as athletes are aware or reminded that the most important day in their lives is going to be the day after their sports career ends, I strongly recommend participation in sport for all people everywhere.
Today, March 15, is the 38th anniversary of the plane crash in Bulgaria. I hope that adding a plaque with the names of Marek Kolasa, Krzysztof Otocki, Witold Stachowiak, Tadeusz Wlodarczyk, and Jacek Zdaniuk to the track entrance of the Pruszkow BGZ Arena will remind all who love cycling that life is precious and that it may be cut short for some of us. I hope that it will also empower the solidarity of cycling for those who have sacrificed and risked all for their passion. As the 1980 Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, Czeslaw Milosz, who lived in The Issa Valley, so beautifully said: “The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” … and we will tell their stories for generations to come!
Rest in peace, my friends! You are not forgotten!
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