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Peter Winnen Tekst Peter Winnen Gepubliceerd 19 January 2017

Mr. Winnen, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview after all. At first, you weren’t sure if you wanted to speak about the 1980 Moscow Olympics. You said you needed to refresh your memory. Am I right to say that you have?

More or less. I dove into my archive and found a few newspapers from the time of the Olympics, old copies of the Dagblad voor Noord-Limburg, which isn’t even around anymore. In 1980, I was the only Limburger to participate in the Games, so I was the only guy from North Limburg as well. They paid close attention to me. So, looking back, I’ve been able to learn a lot about myself. I also saw Renger van den Heuvel’s 2008 documentary Victory recently, which gave me a broader idea of what life was like in Moscow at the time of the Olympics.

It was a fantastic experience.

What was a fantastic experience? Reliving your memories? Or actually participating in the Games?
I’ve only now come to realize what a crazy time it was.

The American president Jimmy Carter refused to send an American delegation to Moscow. The immediate reason was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which took place in 1979. He requested that all of the free and civilized nations of the West follow his example. Were you sympathetic to Carter’s request?
I didn’t think much about it. I couldn’t. I’d raced all over the world with the national team. My world was a bike saddle and a suitcase. All the squabbling amongst Dutch politicians about whether or not we would go to Moscow was over my head. I didn’t even have an opinion.

Illustrations: thethingsweare.com
Illustrations: thethingsweare.com

You had blinkers on?
To my surprise, I saw that I vented some pretty strong views in the May-31st-1980 paper. I quote: “Politicians shouldn’t use sport as a weapon. I think it’s despicable that the United States has forbidden its athletes from competing in the Soviet Union. Athletes deserve the opportunity to compete at an Olympic level. As far as I’m concerned, a boycott goes too far. We should ask if a boycott will actually do anything to change the situation. I can understand why a politician would support one, but I’m against the idea.”

It seems as if you were outspoken enough.
I still maintain that the situation didn’t really bother me. I was completely immersed in cycling. Racing was a form of escapism as well.

Can you explain that a bit more?
Ah, I was in my early twenties and a bit of a dreamer. Although I stopped writing melancholy poems shortly before the Olympic Games, I remained a bit of a mouse. No, the world was not a happy place. The Cold War was at its height. Thanks to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, both the East and the West had weapons at their disposal that could blow the earth out of the cosmos in the name of self-defence. So, no one was willing to instigate. I grew up in such an absurd universe. Cycling was something I could live with. It was poetry I could bring to life.


The Cold War really affected you as a youth?
Without the Cold War, I would have been a mouse as well, I think.

In the end, the Dutch government left it up to the sports federations to decide whether or not to boycott the Moscow Games. You must have been really glad to be able to go to Moscow after all.
Yeah, the Netherlands went. But we planned to boycott the opening ceremony. I saw bits of it on a tiny television in the Olympic Village. I recently heard a great anecdote about Leonid Brezhnev’s solemn speech at the ceremony. He closed his remarks by saying “O… O… O… O… O.” When he was asked what that strange finale was all about, he said, “That’s what it said on the paper.” As it turned out, he read out the five Olympic rings. I saw the ceremony and suddenly thought that it would have been much better if the Americans had shown up. There would have been some fantastic contests between athletes from the two great powers. It would have brightened the Cold War up a lot. That’s what sport does so well. CIA documents were later released that revealed that Carter’s boycott didn’t have much to do with political ideals. He wanted to do as much damage as possible to the Soviet Union’s reputation.

You lived in the Olympic Village for a couple of weeks. A lot of athletes say that the Olympics are one big festival, a bacchanal. Was that you experience as well?
It was certainly unique. I wouldn’t call it a festival. The Olympic Village in Moscow was a giant complex. There were apartments for the athletes, a cultural centre, shops, a hairdresser, and a disco. But, crazily enough, you rarely crossed paths with anyone. Each athlete was on his or her own mission. My mission, the road race, was scheduled for the end of the Games. So, I lived like a monk there for two weeks.

It’s often said that a few babies are conceived at every Olympics.
In Moscow, there were also rumours flying around about a few wild nights. Athletes who were done with their events would cram into the discotheque, where they’d compete for non-sporting prizes. I remember there was a Dutch athlete — his name escapes me — who allowed himself a wild night with a Russian beauty. And that was outside of the walls of the Olympic Village. And he was still in the opening rounds…

Illustrations: thethingsweare.com
Illustrations: thethingsweare.com

And you didn’t have the tiniest urge to give in to temptation?
One afternoon, I was getting my hair cut by a gorgeous Russian girl who was about my age. As I sat in the chair, I could hardly resist flirting with her, but I managed to stick to my athletic mission. I wouldn’t have had a chance anyways. Every Muscovite in the Olympic Village was ahead of me. It was strictly forbidden to get too close to anyone from the West, I later found out. In the July-29-1980 paper, I found a remarkable headline: “Athletes Raise Hell in the Village.” It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with erotic affairs or Olympic babies. A group of French, British, and Australian athletes caused a ruckus when the disco closed its doors at 11. Cursing the Russian security guards, they took off for one of the few restaurants that were still open, where they started throwing pies and yelling, “Free Afghanistan!” Afterwards, one of the French athletes explained himself. “We didn’t initially intend to demonstrate for a free Afghanistan. It came about because of the boredom here. It’s as if we are stuck in a prison. There’s a movie theatre, but all they show there are Russian propaganda films. There’s just this irritating dullness hanging over the place.”

Were you also bored in Moscow?
Yes. The Olympic Village was just this dead enclave. But no, I was concentrated on my mission. As cyclists, we had it a bit easier, because we could explore the countryside around the Village, when we were out training. Naturally, there were pre-planned routes set out for us, but we turned off of them on a daily basis, to the great displeasure of the authorities. That allowed us to see a Russia that wasn’t completely tidied up and sanitized, like Moscow was. In the documentary Victory, Yuri Lyubiamov, who was the director of the Taganka Theatre at the time, said the Russians were incompetent painters. During the run up to the Games, all of Moscow was painted over with cheap paint. They didn’t even bother to sand before they painted. After the Olympic family left, it all quickly peeled off again. In the same film, Evgenii Benj is featured. He’s now the publisher of a newspaper, but then he was a linguistics student. He says that he was told to keep his mouth shut by his professors in 1980, because he had written critical, and thus subversive, articles. “Yeah, the city’s facades were wiped clean,” he says. Still, he’s remarkably understanding of his old professors. There was nothing to criticize, for them, because they were completely caught up in an unrealistic and unfeasible system.

You’re only now coming to understand where you’ve been?
I don’t want to put it in such stark terms. I’d been to the Soviet bloc before. In the spring of 1980, I rode the Eastern European equivalent of the Tour de France, known as the Peace Race. It was already clear to me then that the people behind the Iron Curtain had exactly the same needs and desires that I did. And the sportsmen that I raced against had exactly the same dreams as me. No political ideology can change that. It was funny — a year or two ago, I met the man who helped the Dutch team during the Peace Race when it passed through the DDR. He admitted that he was placed there by the Stasi. His job was to keep an eye on us. What did we talk about? Who did we come into contact with? “Were we a threat to the state?” I asked. Ah, he just did his report because that was his job. From the tone of his voice and his body language, I could see that he was completely nostalgic for the past.


You’ve mentioned your solemn mission in Moscow several times now. Did it all pan out?
Not really. I only remember a couple of fragments from the race. How it really happened, I learned from a yellowed newspaper. Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov won the gold medal. There was an early break. After 30 of the 189 kilometres, a good group got away. Three survived. ‘Soukho’ rode his two victims off of his wheel in dictatorial fashion.

Is it not strange that, after 36 years, you have to read about the race in a newspaper to remember how it happened? Cyclists are famous for remembering every metre of every race they participate in.
Strange — yeah, I’ll admit that. Maybe it’s because of the circuit there in Krylatskoja. It was a sort of rollercoaster that weaved all over a small piece of land. Every lap featured
several punchy climbs and many, many corners. No self-respecting racer would have known where he was. I think only one man really did, and that was Soukho.

Were you not too absorbed in your self-imposed mission?
In the documentary Victory, a camera team follows Lyudmila Kondratyeva back to the former Olympic Village. In 1980, she won the 100m sprint at her home Olympics. It’s really moving when you see her have to catch her breath, as she enters the flat where she lived for two weeks during the Olympics. She says she has butterflies in her stomach. She tries to hide the chattering of her teeth. She’s overcome by her nerves. She says she can feel the excitement of the upcoming race once again.

Are you suggesting that your nerves got the better of you at the crucial moment?
No, it wasn’t that. I really wanted to perform well for my country, and for myself, my parents, and the national coach Rini Wagtmans. But in one way or another, two weeks in the Olympic Village did me in. I didn’t feel as if I belonged in Moscow.

Illustrations: thethingsweare.com
Illustrations: thethingsweare.com

If you’ll allow me to play therapist for a minute, why not?
There was nothing pathological about it. The Olympic Games are supposed to be the biggest stage for an athlete. But in 1980, that just wasn’t the case for bike racers. The Tour was far more important than the Olympics, as was the Giro and the spring and fall classics. But those were races for professionals. Professional athletes still weren’t permitted to compete in the Olympics in 1980.

Your dreams went beyond the Olympics? Can I summarize how you felt that way?
Certainly. And while we’re thinking back to that period, I ask myself if I really even should have been allowed to take part in the Moscow Games.

What do you mean by that?
The 1980 Olympics began on July 19 and closed on the third of August. A couple of weeks before Moscow, I came to an agreement with a professional team. As of the first of August, I was officially a professional cyclist. My first professional race was the Grote Union Prijs on August third.

Go on.
My last performance as an amateur took place on the the 28th of July in Moscow. So, you might say, I was eligible to take part in the race, according to the rules, but I began to earn money as a cyclist a couple of days before the end of the Games.

And now you are wracking your brains to try to figure out whether you really should have been forbidden from racing?
The answer will be somewhere in the small print. Sometime, if I have a lot of time on my hands, I’ll look it up.

Peter Winnen twice won stages of the Tour de France on Alpe d’Huez. After his career, he went on to study at the art academy and became a celebrated author of books, columns, and stories.

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