RUSLAN’S FORM was still poor. He lost races he should have won and began to worry that his place on the Olympic team might be in danger. But then things started to look up: he secured his place for a PhD in London, and by late July, he was starting to meet his fitness targets and feel confident again. At the end of the month, he competed in the marathon in a regional Spartakiad in Orenburg, winning easily.
And so in September, he finally found himself at the Seoul Olympics. For some time, there had been fears that the Soviets might boycott these Games, as they had Los Angeles four years earlier, but the message that Ruslan had received from above had consistently been that they would compete. And so it proved: when the North Koreans announced a boycott, the only countries to join them were Albania, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia. Ruslan couldn’t quite decide whether he was relieved or disappointed about the Ethiopians.
The marathon wouldn’t take place until the final day of the Games, so Ruslan had a lot of time to prepare for the race. His training mostly consisted of mobility exercises and mixed-pace, short and medium-distance runs. He spent an afternoon being driven round the marathon route by his favourite coach, the Ksord Mikhel Inalipa. From time to time, they stopped the car and took photographs to help him memorise the route and his target times.
Ruslan knew that his leading opponents would be as meticulous as him in their preparations. Willpower would be the key, so he spent more than an hour every day visualising the race in all its permutations. He collected photos of his main opponents, and imagined himself hanging behind them at different stages of the race, keeping with them, refusing to be beaten and then finally breaking them in the last two or three kilometres.
The Sunday before the race, Ruslan and the other three Soviet competitors went to Mount Yongmun for a medium-paced thirty-kilometre run to drain the stores of glycogen in their muscles. For the next three days, he subjected himself to a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. Then he switched to a high carbohydrate diet.
Two days before the marathon, Soviet television interviewed Ruslan for the first time since the denunciation of dissidents he had been forced to make four and a half years earlier. The interview was conducted in Ksord-Akhtarian and was supervised by a bulky Tatar from the Ksord-Akhtarian Goskomsport. The questions were at first fairly predictable, centring on his training routine and his thoughts about the other runners.
Then the interviewer asked a completely different question. ‘Your family suffered a great deal at the hands of the Rebels, didn’t they? How did they feel when you married an Akhtarian?’
Ruslan tried to keep his answer bland and uncontroversial.
The next question was: ‘You were in Sumgait when the Popular Front mounted attacks on the Armenians, weren’t you?’
‘Yes.’ Ruslan thought about saying that he didn’t think the pogrom had been organised by the Azeri Popular Front, but he decided it was best not to.
Ruslan gave a brief account of what he and Tamara had seen and done.
‘After your experiences in Azerbaijan, do you think that conflict between Ksords, Akhtarians and Tatars is possible?’
After a nervous glance at the Goskomsport official, who seemed totally unperturbed, Ruslan gave an honest answer. ‘Yes, I think it is a possibility. We have to be careful. People mustn’t listen to the hotheads in their own communities.’
‘One last thing: when you were younger, you got into trouble. Could you tell us something about what happened?’
Ruslan sensed a trap. ‘No, I’d rather not talk about that.’
‘It’s okay. You can say anything you like. Nobody’s going to stop you running.’
‘I’m sorry, I’d rather not talk about it. It was a long time ago.’
The official shrugged and then swapped places with the interviewer. ‘I understand you speak Tatar?’
‘Yes, a bit.’
‘Do you mind if we do the interview in Tatar? I’ll ask you the same questions, and you can give the same answers.’
‘Yes, okay, but don’t ask me about you-know-what.’
‘I’ll do the same question and you can give the same answer.’
The interview unnerved Ruslan. After lunch, he managed to telephone Sergo Lionidza, who was very calm about the whole thing.
‘They interviewed me too, about how I first spotted you.’
‘They asked me about…well, you-know-what.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Probably a good idea. But, I mean, they can hardly pretend it didn’t happen, can they? This is the age of glasnost after all. Look, Ruslan, don’t worry about it. They’re just reporters doing their job.’
When Ruslan spoke to Tamara that evening, she said that she had also been interviewed. They had asked how they met and how Fatima had put them back in touch, and they had made her recount what happened in Azerbaijan.
She told him that the whole of Ksordia-Akhtaria would come to a halt for the marathon, which would be broadcast live on TV. Everyone would be rooting for him.
He put his worries behind him, and before long it was Sunday 2nd October, the last day of the Games. He made his final preparations for the race: a large breakfast of pasta and an hour with his coaches visualising various parts of the course, in particular the final three kilometres.
Then it was time to go to the starting point near Seoul City Hall. It was warm and humid, and Ruslan was anxious to get going. Just before taking up his place among the 118 runners at the start, he drank two cups of strong, black coffee. Caffeine was in fact a banned substance because it assists fat utilisation, but the athletes all knew they could get away with the small quantities contained in just two cups.
The race began. Ruslan went off quickly and soon found himself in front, with a large pack of runners just behind him. Near the Gate of Uplifting Benevolence, he slowed down a little and allowed twenty of them to overtake him. He then settled into a steady rhythm as the race headed east-south-east.
After ten kilometres, with the Children’s Grand Park on his right, Ruslan speeded up and began to overtake the weaker runners. The course turned and went in a more southerly direction down a gentle slope towards the river. Ruslan felt powerful and in control. The only danger was that he might run too fast at this stage and leave himself short of energy at the end.
By the time he reached the bridge, Ruslan had caught up with the leading pack. He kept up his fast pace and ran all the way to second place, settling behind the frontrunner, Juma Ipyana of Tanzania.
As he passed them, the other athletes all glanced at him. Ruslan spotted David Wairimu, the Kenyan who had beaten him to take the World Championship the previous year. He also saw the others who had beaten him in that race: Suleyman Ahmadi of Djibouti, European Champion Giovanni Bardolini and the Australian Steve Morgan. Among the others he recognised were two Japanese runners: Tadashi Matsumoto, who had won on this course twice before, and Tetsuya Sato, whose only defeat in the last nine years had been in the 1984 Olympic final. He also spotted a British runner, Colin Spalding, who had won bronze in Los Angeles.
Ruslan knew the others wouldn’t be intimidated by the sight of him. They would remember him drying up in the World Championships, and they would know that his form had suffered in the last few months.
So much the better. He would punish them for underestimating him.
A kilometre after reaching the south bank, the course turned left and took the runners parallel with the river for four kilometres. Ruslan remained firmly lodged in second place. As they passed the Olympic Park, he spotted his hammer-throwing English friend among the crowd. ‘Come on Ruslan,’ he yelled in Russian, and a second later he shouted encouragement to Colin Spalding in English.
The course made a giant U-turn and then passed the park again before heading south, away from the river. At twenty-nine kilometres, Giovanni Bardolini overtook Ruslan and Ipyana to take the lead. Ruslan followed him and took second place just a few metres behind. By now the lead pack had been reduced to just eight runners: Bardolini, Ruslan, Matsumoto, Wairimu, Ahmadi, Ipyana, Spalding and Sato.
They headed north again and Matsumoto surged into the lead. Once again, Ruslan stayed just behind the frontrunner. Spalding and Sato fell behind, though the British runner briefly rejoined the pack at thirty-four kilometres.
Soon after that, Ahmadi overtook Ruslan and Matsumoto to take the lead. Matsumoto matched him stride for stride and Ruslan was unable to regain second place, though he managed to stay in third just ten metres behind the front two. This was a crucial moment: if two or three other runners overtook him now, his game plan would be foiled, and he might find it difficult to come up with a new idea. His brain was no longer working. His legs had taken over, and all he could do was keep running and hope for the best.
But the others missed their chance, and, as they turned right towards the Olympic Stadium, Matsumoto cracked and Ruslan passed him to take second place some ten metres behind Ahmadi. With just five kilometres to go, he was now up against the three men who had taken the medals in Rome: Ahmadi in front of him and Wairimu and Bardolini behind.
They turned away from the stadium again. Ahmadi began to extend his lead and Ruslan knew that he couldn’t hope to match his pace without exhausting himself and losing silver and bronze to Wairimu and Bardolini.
He struggled on. He guessed from the noise of the spectators that he was leaving Wairimu and Bardolini behind. But Ahmadi was some fifteen to twenty metres ahead, and Ruslan felt he had no hope of catching him. He could feel the lactic acid building up in his legs. His chest ached, his kidneys ached, his shins ached, his mouth was completely dry, his heart was pounding in his head. Every step seemed to demand the last milligram of his strength.
‘Hang on for silver,’ he told himself. ‘Hang on for silver.’
A few hundred metres before the forty-kilometre mark, as they turned left to head towards the stadium, Ruslan looked at Ahmadi ahead of him and realised from his gait that he was suffering even more.
He had visualised this situation so many times. And now he was sure he could do it. Everything had gone to plan. Here he was at just under forty kilometres, in second place with the frontrunner visibly tiring.
‘I can get gold!’
Adrenalin and endorphins surged through his body, and all the pain and tiredness in his legs, back and chest subsided. He swept forward, past the faltering Ahmadi, aware of nothing but the road ahead. He had become one with the run and nothing could stop him now.
By the time he entered the stadium, Ahmadi was a long way behind. He rounded the bend and almost sprinted to the tape.
And then he was through it.
He turned round and saw Bardolini staggering forward more than sixty metres away. Beyond him were Wairimu and Ahmadi, who was only just entering the stadium.
The spectators clapped and cheered, and Ruslan looked up at the mini scoreboard to read what it said.
‘1. Shanidza URS 2:10:14.’
His coaches came bounding towards him and lifted him off the ground.
‘You’ve done it!’
Ruslan raised his arms in triumph.
The adrenalin surge stayed with him for ten more minutes. He jogged round the track and milked the applause of the crowd. Somebody thrust a Soviet flag into his hands and he carried it round and held it above his head for the cameras.
Only when his coaches came to take him off the track did his exhaustion catch up with him. Nauseous and shaky, he hobbled to the changing rooms and collapsed onto a bench. One of his coaches put a blanket on him and some towels under his head. Then they and an Olympic official settled down with him for a very long wait. It would be quite some time before Ruslan could produce 100 millilitres of urine for the doping test. He lay on the hard, wooden bench, wishing they would take him to a bed so he could sleep. His coaches periodically made him sit up to take drinks of carbohydrate solution.
He would have only the vaguest memories of the medal ceremony: the icy beauty of the Korean women who carried the medals, the warm handshakes of Bardolini and Wairimu as they congratulated him, and then standing to attention as the red flag was raised for the Soviet national anthem.
Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics,
That great Russia has welded forever to stand.
Created in struggle by the will of the people,
United and mighty, our Soviet land.’
Ruslan had always hated that flag and hated that song, which captured so perfectly the sanctimonious tone that characterized Russian imperialism under the Communists.
For six long years, he had kept his mouth shut, and in exchange the authorities had forgiven his sins, trained him and allowed him to run. And all this time, both sides had kept their side of the bargain, and he had been given the opportunity to achieve his lifetime ambition. All those hours and hours of training, exercise after exercise, kilometre after kilometre of running. And now he had done it, he had won gold. Let them fly their bloody flag. Let them play their dirge. He didn’t begrudge them their share of the glory.
Soon the team were back in the Soviet Union. With fifty-six golds, thirty-one silvers and forty-six bronzes, they were the most successful Soviet team ever, apart from 1980, when the American boycott had distorted the medals table. Even the football team had won, beating Brazil in the final. The Americans had managed only thirty-six golds, coming third behind the East Germans.
After two days of official receptions in Moscow, Ruslan flew down to Khosume. Three policemen approached him as he got off the plane and saluted.
‘We’ve come to escort you.’
He followed them, and they soon found their way blocked by a crowd of travellers and airport staff who clapped and cheered. The police took him to an anteroom where Tamara was waiting for him, along with Sergo Lionidza and some big shots from the Ksord-Akhtarian Goskomsport.
Ruslan exchanged four kisses with Tamara, plus one on the lips. Lionidza embraced him and the two men exchanged four kisses for the first time ever. Lionidza told him there would be a reception for him at the Palace of Culture.
Ruslan and Tamara went through cheering airport crowds and past photographers and TV cameras into a large black Chaikas, a car generally reserved for very senior dignitaries.
As their little convoy entered Khosume, the streets were lined with people. Whole factories and offices had obviously stopped work just to wave at him and cheer. Schools and pioneer groups had lined up to see him.
‘I can’t believe it,’ Ruslan said.
‘Show them your medal.’
Ruslan raised it for the crowds to see. People pointed and cheered.
The crowds lining the streets got thicker and thicker as they approached the centre of the city. To Ruslan’s astonishment, Victory Square in front of the Palace of Culture was full, and the police struggled to hold back the cheering multitude.
‘There must be ten thousand people here.’
‘More like forty thousand,’ said the Goskomsport official sitting in the front.
‘Remember you are mortal,’ Tamara whispered and they both laughed.
Soon they found themselves on the balcony of the Palace of Culture. The square was packed, as were all the streets leading into it as far as the eye could see. Several government and Party leaders made lengthy speeches, which were met with polite applause. Then Ruslan stepped forward to a deafening roar from the crowd.
He gave a short speech in which he thanked everyone he could think of, including Tamara and Mikhel Inalipa and his other coaches, plus Lionidza and the army officers who had believed in him when others did not. This drew a big cheer from his audience.
‘This medal’s for everybody in Ksordia-Akhtaria,’ he said in his final flourish. ‘Ksords, Tatars and Akhtarians, Armenians and Russians too, everybody. Thank you.’
A great crescendo of applause.
The reception that followed seemed to go on forever. Ruslan and Tamara posed for the cameras with all the big fish in the Ksord-Akhtarian Party, starting with Comrade Zikladza himself, followed by his two closest comrades: Ruslan’s patron Sergo Lionidza and the former wrestler turned political fixer Shakman Korgay, who seemed much taken with Tamara.
Dinner was a mammoth four-course meal, with Ukrainian pyrohy filled with sauerkraut, chicken with saffron, garlic and walnuts, sweet shrimps and large quantities of caviar. Afterwards there were interminable speeches and toasts as Ruslan was awarded the title Master of Sport.
The music began with Fatima, who sang a set of traditional Tatar folk songs, after which her friend Leila Meipariani sang the daffodil song she had sung at Ruslan and Tamara’s wedding. Ruslan was surprised and delighted to see Leila perform at an official reception since she was known to have friends in dissident circles. He wondered whether this was a sign of changing times or of Murad’s growing blat.
Later he found himself speaking to Lionidza, who seemed to have emptied his glass more often than was good for him during the toasts. ‘I tell you what, Comrade Lionidza, sir. I just don’t get it. I mean, I won a medal, but why on earth should I be greeted by a crowd like that?’
‘Yes they all love you don’t they? Obviously, for the Ksords it’s only natural: you’re their champion. But you’ve also got a very photogenic Akhtarian wife, so the Akhtarians love you too. And how many Ksords can be bothered to learn Tatar? So the Tatars all think you’re the perfect Ksord. And everyone thinks you’re a dissident really, and you’ve been pulling the wool over our eyes all this time.’
Ruslan shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He didn’t like the way this conversation was going.
‘Funny thing is,’ said Lionidza, ‘it’ll be interesting to see if they all come out to cheer you if you win at the European Championships in two years’ time. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe by then Ksords will only cheer Ksords, Akhtarians will only cheer Akhtarians and Tatars will only cheer Tatars.’
‘You sound very pessimistic.’
‘So I should be. Bloody Moscow wants us to release all our political prisoners. That’ll please you, won’t it? Your friend Nina Begishveli will be out in a couple of weeks.’
‘Really?’ Ruslan was trying to say nothing he might regret at a later date.
‘When are you off to England?’
‘In three weeks.’
‘Well you won’t get the chance to meet her. It’ll take her more than a month to get here. She has to come all the way from Siberia by train.’
‘Why would I want to meet her? I’m a happily married man.’
‘Yes, and don’t you forget it. In any case, we’re not scared of her. She’s just a petit bourgeois idealist. The real problem will be all the nationalists who are going to come crawling out of the woodwork. And you wait, if those maniacs manage to overthrow the Party, it won’t be long before they turn on each other and the whole of Ksordia-Akhtaria goes up in flames.’
But Ruslan was no longer paying attention. He was thinking of Nina. Perhaps he could do her one last favour before he set off for the West, a little gesture to show her that he had never forgotten her and that his public denunciation of her had been made under duress.
He glanced at Tamara, who had been cornered by Shakman Korgay. She caught his eye and flashed him a smile. He would have to find a way to cover his tracks, both from Lionidza and, just this once, from Tamara.