A European Holiday

An aspect of sport that I enjoyed when we were living in the UK was the access to top class competition. The ease and excitement of touring from meet to meet was addictive. Since then I have tried to replicate the same thing from the United States and New Zealand. In total I have attended 99 World Cup or Mare Nostrum competitions. It’s an easy number to remember.

At so at the risk of boring you to death with another tedious holiday story – or as Jane would say “on Sunday we packed up the car to go to Waimarama Beach” saga – here is the story of a 1979 trip from Alison’s running days.

We packed our car early on Thursday morning and drove from our home in Windsor to the ferry terminal in Dover. Rejecting the slow ship ferries for the faster hovercraft, we loaded the car on board and sped across the English Channel to France. In those days I was determined to avoid the impressive network of French motorways, hell-bent on enjoying the cultural experience of motoring through the French countryside. By the time we arrived in Zurich, Switzerland, we’d certainly seen our share of French villages. I got lost three or four times. A trip that Google tells me should take 8 hours took us 10. Lesson learned from now on, it was motorways for me.

The meet promoter had booked us into a magnificent hotel. For the first time I realised Alison’s status as an athlete. On the booking sheet we were booked in as Mr and Mrs Alison Wright. Friday was an easy recovery day after our tour of rural France and before the meet on Saturday. I realised things were looking good when Alison’s easy run in the morning was better than normal and her run-throughs on the track in the evening looked ridiculously easy.

On Saturday we went to the Zurich track at about 5.00pm. The place was packed. I don’t know how many people were squashed into that stadium. They were packed in tight and right up to the track edge. It was like some Roman arena. Alison was entered in the 1500 along with the Russian Olympic Champion, Tatyana Kazankina. Alison was not leading at the end of the first 400m but in fourth place she went through in a speedy 60 seconds. The noise was unbelievable; hundreds of enthusiastic Swiss beating on the metal advertising signs surrounding the track.

Alison held on well for the remaining 1000m and ended up 5th in a personal best time of 4:11.78. Later the same night Sebastian Coe broke the World 1500m record. I was amazed. How anyone could run that fast for that long was beyond belief. Zurich, what a place; what a meet.

The next day we set off on the 850 kilometre journey to West Berlin. In 1979 that meant driving through the terrifying territory of East Germany. We approached the well-guarded border, had our passports stamped and headed up the motorway among dozens of grey Trabant motor cars. Our blue Audi stood out like a sore thumb.

A few hours later the bright lights of West Berlin appeared and we were home free. We had a day to fill in before the meet; just enough time to explore the Berlin Wall. With one of the world’s best 400 hurdles runners, American James King, we descended on Check Point Charlie. Much to my concern James decided to climb a tree, beside the wall, and give the bird to the East German guards. “James, they shoot people for that around here. Get bloody down.” I pleaded. Finally, much to me relief he climbed out of the tree. Clearly he thought the whole thing was a huge joke. I was not so sure.

The next evening we went to the stadium. Now I must tell you the West Berlin Stadium is not any old athletic track. This was built by Hitler to host the 1936 Olympic Games. It has to be the world’s most impressive track. All that history; huge concrete pillars, even the concrete viewing platform Hitler used to watch the Olympic Games and bronze plaques commemorating the winners of the 1936 athletic events, including New Zealand’s Jack Lovelock. I sat on Hitler’s viewing platform to watch Alison’s race. There are some iconic sights in the world that send shivers up your spine. The Berlin Stadium is one of those.

Alison had a great run over 1000m. I knew she was running well when she went through 800 in 2:04 and was still running well. She ended up third in 2:38.60. For 36 years that time stood as the New Zealand open women’s record.

The next day we were off again. This time on the 580 kilometre journey to Cologne in West Germany.  Again this meant a trip through East Germany. But we were old hands at this now; no problem as we sped past a hundred inferior communist Trabants. Things were not quite as euphoric when one of the Trabants turned on red flashing lights and two heavily armed East German police demanded 100 Deutschmarks. We paid and fled toward the sanctuary of the west. I have never been more relieved to see the German, British and American flags at the border than on that occasion. When we arrived at the hotel I was explaining what had happened to the meet promoter. Before I even finished he said, “One hundred Deutschmarks.”

I said, “Yes how did you know?”

Oh, they always do that when they see a western car. It is a very normal shake-down,” he said.

Alison had another good race; this time over 800m coming third in 2:02.70, a time that was under the IAAF Olympic qualifying time. Sadly, for New Zealand, those Moscow Games never took place. New Zealand decided a boycott was the right thing to do.

The next day after stealing enough food from the hotels magnificent breakfast buffet for lunch, we were on our way home to Windsor. There were only four days before Alison had to catch a plane to Montreal, Canada. She had been selected to represent Oceania in the World Cup Finals.

That’s my moment of reminiscence. I hope you haven’t been bored. They were wonderful days and great memories.

0 responses. Leave a Reply

  1. Swimwatch


    Be the first to leave a comment!

Comments are closed.