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The New Soviet / USA Relations

by Eric Durak

For those of us who are looking straight into the eyes of a new Cold War with the issues in Crimea and the Ukraine, one of us saw a reunion recently that could make any politician shake his or her head in approval. It comes from two track and field runners who came about a heroic reunion back at the track.

Let’s go back to 1979, when the old Soviet Union and USA tensions were at a high point. During that year the Soviets were still in Afghanistan, and the US hostages were in Iran. Things were not going well with our international relations.

However, in the city of Lutsk, USSR (now a city in Ukraine), two athletes met to compete in the Decathlon. One was Gary Bastien, a Freshman from Eastern Michigan University who qualified for the Junior National Team, and Victor Berezovskiy, who competed for the junior Decathlon team for the USSR. He was from Ukraine. They were both 18, and for Gary, it was his first big international meet. For Victor, it was a chance to win against the Americans. What they didn’t plan on was that they had more in common than not. For Decathletes, the sport is a special club – those who toil in the weight room and run the miles and go through the endless drills have a special bond. Both athletes were talented, but both were hard workers, and immediately had a bond as the meet commenced.

bastien berezovskiy
Gary Bastien and Dr. Victor Berezovskiy at the Sam Adams Multi Events
Meet in Santa Barbara, CA, April 4-5, 2014.

Gary won some of the early first day events, but Victor was a strong Western Roll high jumper, and a tough 400 meter competitor. In the second day their scores were close. Both were very good pole vaulters, clearing close to 15 feet (4.57 meters). They were still close in score after the Javelin throw. Now – like many meets of this nature, it came down to the 1500 meter run. Victor had calculated his score and felt he had to run three laps of 66 seconds in order to surpass the score of Bastien (3:18 at the 1200 meter mark – or a 4:22 1500 run). The only problem was that Victor’s best effort was around 4:40 minutes.

When the gun went off, Victor took off into the lead. He hit his first lap in 66 seconds. Right on target. His next lap was also 66. He was feeling the pressure of the runners behind him as he maintained his torrid pace. The sound he heard at the third lap was Bastien right on his heels. Gary passed him to win the race in 4:26, and the meet, while Victor dropped back on the third lap – having run so hard he actually blacked out the final minute – not remembering how he finished.

It was a gallant effort on both parts. However, the relationship was able to grow as the rest of the meet progressed. At the end of the competition, Gary gave one of his college t-shirts to Victor, who was thrilled to have a memento of their Decathlon duel. That would be the last they would see of each other for a long time . . .

Over the years the Soviet Union fell, the Berlin Wall came down, and the world changed. One of those amazing changes is that Victor – who was so enthralled with the United States actually moved there. He settled in Southern California, where in 2006 his relationship with Gary Bastien would begin its swing to full circle.

That year I was working at the track in Santa Barbara, CA with my children, practicing some field events, when Victor (now Dr. Victor) came up to me and asked my about my t-shirt (which said Eastern Michigan Track and Field). “Did you run at Eastern Michigan?” “Yes”, I said. “Do you know Bashtian?” said Victor in an excited voice. “Do you mean Gary Bastien? If you do, then I know him”.

Needless to say, Victor was THRILLED that I was close to the competitor that he knew back in 1979. Now 27 years later, he actually had an email and phone to connect with Gary. They spent some time corresponding over the years, and once and a while I would speak with Victor, as he trained in the area, and whenever there was news about Gary, I was the liaison.

Gary’s son Steven eventually gravitated to the Decathlon. He was voted the top Michigan track athlete in his Senior year, and was awarded a scholarship to Samford University in Alabama. Developing as their own multi event program – they have three talented decathletes, and (for now) one highly rated heptathlete.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to watch part of the Sam Adams Memorial Multi Events meet in Santa Barbara, which, in its second year, has attracted some of the top multi event men and women in the nation. I told Gary he should see to it that Steven attend this meet. After some discussion, I found out that indeed Steven and some teammates were coming to California. In one of my talks with Gary, he told me he wanted to come to see Steven run. I was thrilled. Over the past decade our visits have been far and few between, usually in a restaurant for a couple of hours. Now I get the chance to spend the weekend with him at the track, and in my hometown. It would be epic.

One of his requests was to know if Victor would be attending the Adams meet. I would check. The call back from Victor – “I will be attending, and working at the pole vault competition” How great was that.

I would meet Gary at the track at the end of the first day. There he was, with Dr. Victor, talking about every aspect of the meet, and Gary’s visit to the old Soviet Union. Victor was amazing. He brought an old photo album with black and white pictures from the meet, including one of a thin (160 lbs) Bastien at the starting line of the 100 meter dash. Victor was looking fit with CCCP jersey and his moderately long brown hair. It was incredible to see these two in photos in specific events, a long time ago. Victor had a journal that he wrote workouts, notes, and even scribbles in when he was a young athlete. He brought the journals, too. One of this notes to himself back in those days: “Visit America” Boy, did he ever. One of the best parts of the reunion was dinner at my house. After meeting my wife and eating some good Southern California food (tri tip and salad), Gary and Victor had a toast to their relationship – with Vodka of course, and it was incredible how after three decades two “cold war” rivals were never really rivals at all. They were competitors, yes. But as all of we Decathletes know – win or lose, it is an exclusive club where friendships endure. This one is for the ages.

I know I will see Victor soon. We will compete in some summer meets at a local high school. Our goal – to get Gary back out to Santa Barbara to watch Steven compete in next year’s Sam Adams meet. I’m sure that Coach Adams (who passed away in 2010) would be proud of the story of two hard working decathletes that kept a friendship alive for many years.

From Johnson and Yang, to Avilov and Jenner, to Hingsen and Thompson – the rivalry is always there – but for those who know the sport – the training – the sacrifice, the relationships will endure. Perhaps this is the best finish line.

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Eric Durak is the President of Medical Health and Fitness in Santa Barbara, CA. He was a Decathlete competing in high school, and at Eastern Michigan University. He still competes in master’s track events, and has served as a USATF youth track coach for over 10 years. He has coached three #1nationally-ranked girl’s shot putters in his career.