It was 1986 when I heard about "Katia's new costume." That was all even my closest sources to the Soviet machine would (or could) tell me. I'd have to find out for myself.
I dug and pried, always nicely. But Soviets do like to talk. Eventually I found out this: "Yeah, they're designing Katia a new costume, and it won't be ready until the Olympics. So what's it to you?" This was 1986. Two years? On a costume? Even with the optical illusion costumes we knew the Soviets were using, costumes calibrated to make the skaters' performances look better and give them that little extra edge with the judges, this was hard to believe. Usually "optics" were ready within eight to ten days. Soviet skaters wait two weeks? Never!
Well, this was serious. I decided it was worth hanging around rinkside at some of the competitions for a while. See what was going on. Sometimes you can pick up stuff even the most helpful source won't tell you. And it was obvious nobody knew anything.
Well. You could sure tell by looking at Katia Gordeeva that she had a new dress on. Wow. People were ducking. The optical effects were overwhelming. Just another costume and a bad headache if you didn't know, but various loyal hammer-and-sickle types were looking worried. Sasha would have to know about this, they said.
Sasha? Who was Sasha?
"Oh, just some guy you don't want to know about." Well, maybe I'm a cat with a too-long tail, but say that to me when the European judges are keeling over with "bad eyeglasses prescriptions," Katia Gordeeva is looking like the most pleased child on earth, and KGB agents are having serious conversations with their watches, I think I want to know who Sasha is.
"Oh, Sasha's just this guy...." Would you believe that line from a Soviet? I didn't think so. Spoken in precisely the most un-just-this-guy tone you could imagine.
So I plastered myself against the "invisible wall of innocence," became helpful as all hell, and kept a very sharp eye on Katia's costumes.
Next competition. Katia's costume was turned down two notches (about three units if you're adjusting the RGB value on a computer screen color -- take your pick, red, green, or blue), its trimming was a tad different, Katia looked even prouder, and there were no more headaches. I was spoken to by officials of several Western federations: "Shut up! Katia wouldn't do a thing like that! And I sure don't see any difference in that costume! Go away and let us watch the skating." Fuck you. I wanna find out what's going on here. And I seriously doubt Katia really knew what was going on. She got a lot of attention, she had new dresses every time she turned around, and she looked damned good. When I heard one of the same officials who'd cussed me out say to another one behind my back, "Well, we don't think she knows what she's talking about, but that costume sure looks good on Katerina (sic). We'll let her win," I gave up yelling altogether. Sometimes two skaters can be so close that a difference like that is really all you have to go on. They weren't trying to prop up a bad skater, but give a good skater every chance. So I grabbed me a bottle of Coke, hoisted it first in the direction of the invisible Sasha and then in the direction of the KGB agents, and sat back for one hell of a ride. And dug into the color and optics texts in between times. And made damned sure not to fall asleep during the lecture.
It was a few months later when I got a call from someone who refused to identify themselves. "Sasha wants to see you. Can you be at the Calgary Olympics?" Well, I know you're supposed to make reservations early, but.... "Please. He wants your ideas on his costuming suggestions for Katia Gordeeva. What you think apparently has some bearing on what he will do." Okay.....why me? I wasn't the only one who had noticed.... "But he thinks you have good judgment." Either this was a massive, sneakaround type of setup or..... "I'm not sure I can be there. That's a long time off to plan...." "He will be there. Can you?"
In other words, this guy had to make serious plans to travel outside the Soviet Union. In other words, he was one of those military guys who lived in a KGB lockup 24 hours a day and might get out to watch their mother's funeral procession pass by for five minutes. I decided to take a chance. I could handle a setup. But if this was real..... this was not even a once-in-a-lifetime chance. This was a once-in-a-couple-of-centuries chance. Now either someone knew this and was enticing me in or.....oh hell, it didn't matter. Bring it on.
"I'll be there." Somehow. I was not going to miss this. And I had some questions I wanted to ask this guy about the latest edition of "Katia's Take-Over-The-World Costuming," as people were beginning to call it. In tribute to my "paranoia." They weren't being nice.
But that tone of voice....that "do not ask questions" tone of voice......uh uh. I'd be on the plane. I'd hitchhike in. Anything.
"Do you skate?" Used to.
"Good. Be there."
The phone went dead.
I stared at it for a second. Whatever it was, it was worth it.
I hung around competitions every so often, just enough to keep from being noticed all that much, and took notes. The costumes looked much different in person than they did on the air. This was apparently important. The strangest people, always with that "Politburo Soviet" accent that hadn't quite been bleached out, started making friends with me and wanting to talk costuming. I'd pass on a couple of tidbits and hush. Just in case they weren't who they seemed. This was getting tiring. But I kept thinking....if this bit with Sasha is real, it must be real damn tiring for him too. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie that hadn't even made it out of the cutting room. But then I was given to understand later that this was how it generally was. Play the game to see if you would respond, to see if you would help them out a little. So apparently I did the right thing. Because it kept happening. The Western federations, many of them, don't have that long an attention span. Neither does anyone else.
The costumes kept changing. Katia glowed harder and harder. The media buildup continued. On both sides of the Wall.
Then came Calgary. I made sure I was at the right hotel in case anybody wanted to approach me but one which wouldn't look suspicious. I got the call. "Can you be at the rinkside in five minutes?" Huh? Give me ten, plus bus time....
"The driver will be a Soviet." Whew. That took some doing.
I quickly threw on my best "Hi! I'm a skater! You just don't recognize me! I made the Olympics and everything!" outfit, grabbed my "could be headed for practice, honestly I could" skates, and headed out the door. The shuttle bus was on time for once. These people were really scary.
I felt like I was being invisibly escorted through the gates. Fake ID and all (actually, someone decided they didn't want it anymore and I wound up with it). But there I was.
And there he was. Looking incredibly unobtrusive. Sitting right where he could see everything. And obviously critically eyeing a camera placement. Which five other people were trying very hard not to look like they were doing something about.
This was serious. I mentally upgraded my estimation of this gentleman's standing and proceeded.
After having to convince a few officials that I'd just missed my practice time and I was "so upset," and that's why I really shouldn't be out on the ice right now, and would they just please leave me alone so I could cry, stomp a while, and go complain to my coach.....(you get the idea), I sort of wound up being steered over toward him. He was obviously waiting for me. I had a feeling it was not going to go well with certain officials. Oh well.
"How are you?" He actually spoke English. Very well, too. He could have passed on any American street as someone fairly innocent.
"Fine." It was all I could say.
I quickly found out why he was so desperate for suggestions. He was so powerful in the Soviet hierarchy that they were afraid to say anything to him that might be construed as criticism. When that was exactly what he needed. Just one bitchy Westerner voice..... hey, it worked.
We talked for a couple of hours, apparently without being too conspicuous. People kept cruising by and asking how he was and casting strange glances at me. I got asked for my ID a couple of times. I apparently passed. That was even scarier.
Everything I tell you here I feel that I have permission to tell. I knew that I might be wanting to pass on some of these stories some day. I will not deliberately put someone else in danger. Even if it were possible with him, which I wonder sometimes. Anyway....
I made enough comments about costuming and such to feel that I had paid for the right to ask some other things.
He had never even been out of his home area. He had been recruited at about age 16 because of his immense native potential and placed in a special Soviet training program for those of "advanced ability." They requested that he move into "special security." He did. He felt that it would be the best way to serve his goals: to be of help to someone else who needed it. He has never regretted this (as far as I know -- this has been a while, obviously).
What frightened me was the fact that he seemed to have pretty much the same lifestyle a lot of Westerners have, bar the security restrictions. He liked to sit home and read his books and play with his cats anyway, so that didn't really bother him. He just wanted to talk to someone occasionally.
He loved what he was doing. He felt that he could make life easier for others through what he did. And possibly help "Westerners to understand our ways." That was a quote.
He loved Stilton. He had it flown in. The good stuff. I doubt it was a special flight, but still....the Soviets took care of their talent. Impressively. And apparently did not feel that they were being ripped off.
He was impressed that I had enough skating ability to be able to discern what it would be like to move in an optical costume like that as Katia would have to. It took a lot of imagination on my part, but apparently I was able to be helpful there. Mostly the people they had on the project were technicians and such. Good at what they did, but not from that standpoint. He said he could take what I said and "coalesce" it with "the opinions of others" to "get along."
The question he had for me: Why was I doing this? Did I not care about my native country, as he put it? Well, they showed no interest in what I said. I did not see any problems with the idea of optic costuming, as long as everybody else had a fair chance at it too. And the Westerners had been warned.
"So be it," he said. And smiled. Apparently he hadn't wanted to say what he thought of "some Americans." What could I say? Nobody wanted to listen to me. And I was feeling useful.
And I was talking to someone who was interested in the same things I was.
We talked a few more times over the next couple of days. He was a fascinating man. Interesting in his own right, not just from the standpoint of his living arrangements. He said he'd forced them to let him out so he could "come see Katia skate." Seemed to me it was worth it. Not only could he judge the effects "from rinkside," but he had fun doing it. And a guy like this deserved it. So it was a couple of times in his life, and then under heavy guard (they must have been in a real good mood with him that day), but I guess you choose what you want to see and don't push the rest.
And he had fun.
He sat as close as he could get to the rink when she skated. Just watching. Millions of dollars into the research effort. Years of his life.
Don't tell me you're Katia's number one fan. I do believe that spot's taken.
Just thought I'd let you know.
Would you have repeatedly argued with Soviet state security to be flown in quietly to be able to see Tara skate?
I doubt it.
Keep yelling on the boards. I've seen what real fandom is like.
And no, you ain't Katia's number-one fan. So quit trying to convince me.
And, for whatever reason it happened, thanks to all who allowed it to. I am very, very grateful. The universe works in mysterious ways, Westerners to allow to document such things. Thank you. Everyone. No one. Whoever you happen to be.
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