Sporting legends… Who was yours when you were 12? When I got seriously hooked on cycling in 1978, one of the first cycling books I read was by one such legend, Viktor Kapitonov. At the time, he was the only Soviet rider ever to win an Olympic road race. The book was called “It’s worth living for” (Ради этого стоит жить). Almost 35 years later, looking at the title, I think I understand what he meant.
The 1960 Olympic road race in Rome was a dramatic one. Raced in 42°C, it destroyed the hopes of many as the Italians set it on fire almost from the gun, setting their team leader and pre-race favourite, Livio Trape, up to make his move. It was, however, Kapitonov who broke away and forced Trape to chase. When he was caught, the two became one team, sharing the workload until such time when one would not need the other anymore.
On a penultimate lap, probably because of the heat, Kapitonov made what could have been a fatal mistake – he miscalculated the remaining laps. When he launched an attack a couple hundred meters from the line, Trape didn’t respond. Thinking Trape was completely spent, Kapitonov continued surging to the line only to discover, as he crossed it with a raised hand of a winner, what a terrible mistake he made – there was still one lap to go!
In his book, Kapitonov said he was immediately attacked by Trape as soon as Italian realized what had just happened a minute ago. Trape now had a shot, a real shot at winning the biggest road race of them all, and in his own country to make it even better, and he went for it. Who wouldn’t?
The chase was on, a devastated Russian against a galvanized Italian going for an Olympic triumph on his home soil. The spectator’s roar, Kapitonov wrote, was deafening. He caught Trape with about one kilometre to go. They exchanged a few turns and then Trape just sat on. Without a doubt, he was afraid, afraid to lose at home, afraid to be beaten by this mad Russian who just came back from out of nowhere. As Kapitonov led the pair to the line, slowly and looking at his back all the time, Trape attacked. Kapitonov was ready. He caught Trape’s wheel right away, sat on it for a few seconds and then shot from behind to cross the line first.
And now to the point of this post. During the press conference, someone asked Kapitonov, “What reward are you going to receive for your Olympic gold medal?” He replied, “I’ll be rewarded with the best reward a Soviet athlete can have – the admiration and respect of our nation.” Even at the age of 12, I thought this statement was a baloney. Surely, I thought to myself, that’s not what made him sacrifice literally years of his life to achieve this one win, a win which by no means was guaranteed in the first place. So if it wasn’t ideological hogwash that invigorated Kapitonov and many others like him, what was it then?
If he was a professional (as in “someone who earns a living from a sport”), this would be a trivial question. For sure, fame and glory is part of what drives an athlete to succeed at the highest level of the sport, and yet, without a pay cheque, how far can they go, really? Monetary remuneration is the chief incentive, the primary motive behind one’s willingness to forsake all other life avenues of earning a living and concentrate on this one alone – race a bike (or kick ball or someone else’s face, or whatever you have found you’re good at). Even for Trape, who was an amateur at the time, as much as winning Olympic gold in Rome would have been a dream in its own right, a nice professional contract after the Games for several years ahead would give him a solid financial platform to build the rest of his life on. And that’s just a first step. If you’re talented and dedicated to your sport, you can retire a wealthy man, and a young one too. It’s that simple.
All of this, however, did not apply to Kapitonov. As far as the UCI was concerned, he was an amateur, i.e. he was not paid to compete, to the best of UCI’s knowledge that is. There were no contract offers either, at least not officially (unofficially, many, but I’m getting off the subject), everyone knew Soviet athletes were not allowed by their government to compete for anybody except their own country. The only way to circumvent this was to defect to another country as a political refugee, a possibility not too many considered seriously. This was an act of treason and even though you would most likely be left alone (if you kept your mouth shut), your family back home would pay certain consequences and of course you would never see them ever again. Not an attractive prospect.
If ideology nor contractual prospects were the most prevailing motivational factors behind Kapitonov’s win, and indeed, his whole career, what was it then?
will follow shortly.