July 1976, after finishing 9th in the Men’s 10 meter Platform competition, 17 year old Russian diver Sergei Nemtsanov makes the gut wrenching decision to defect from the Soviet Union. His Soviet coaches, wary of defectors now that the diving competition was over, had restricted the entire team to their rooms in the Montreal Olympic Village. The divers would fly out as soon as possible and not stay the remainder of the games. Sergei realized if he wanted freedom, it was Now or Never, so he quietly approached the Canadian diving team for help.
It was an Olympics to remember with the likes of Romania’s Nadia Comaneci, Sugar Ray Leonard and Bruce Jenner all winning Gold medals. Tensions were high though as the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Games in 1972 was still fresh on everyone’s minds. Another young diver, a 16 year old American named Greg Louganis had made a name for himself by winning Silver. Scott Cranham, a diver from the Canadian team enlisted Louganis help to get the Soviet Team out of their rooms and into the cafeteria for a going away luncheon. In the midst of emotional hugs & goodbyes to new Olympic friendships, Sergei and Scott silently slipped away. They ran downstairs to a Canadian office where athletes could seek asylum. There the exhilarated yet frightened boy declared “I wish to defect to Canada!”
He wanted to be FREE, free to travel, free to love who he chooses, free to live as he wished!
With wavy blond hair and teenage good looks, the affable young boy instantly became a darling of the press. The Canadian team helped him retain 2 local lawyers to obtain a visa extension and official entry into Canada. They smuggled Sergei out of Montreal and into Toronto. He stayed on Lake Muskoka at the summer house of a sympathetic Toronto businessman, John Fleming. The Soviets launched an angry propaganda campaign, his coaches shouting that “The United States and Canada are drugging and brainwashing Soviet athletes to defect!” The Soviet Consul declared this a kidnapping, and his lawyers criminals, since all young Sergei truly wanted to do was return to his loving family in Russia. Threats were made that all sporting relations would be cut off between Canada and the USSR, including their beloved Ice Hockey. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau entered the mix stating the decision to return or stay was up to the boy. The Soviets were allowed one supervised opportunity to convince him. They claimed later that he was pale with vacant, dilated eyes, repeating the word ‘Freedom, Freedom’ like a programmed robot.
Here is where the Wrinkle of Romance entered the mix. Sergei told his fellow athletes he had begun falling in love with a female American diver named Carol Lindner. The complicating factor – she was the daughter of the wealthy family that owned the Cincinnati Enquirer and Thriftway supermarkets. Sergei and Carol had met earlier that year when he came to Fort Lauderdale for an international diving meet. They rekindled their relationship when they met again at the Montreal Olympic Pool, meeting for several discrete rendezvous. Her father released a stern statement saying their relationship was Strictly Casual and they NEVER discussed defection. At her father’s insistence, Carol wrote Sergei a letter, urging him not to stay due to any feelings for her. His Soviet team mates were forced by their coaches into sending him messages, reminding him of his aged and ailing grandmother in the USSR.
Separated from Carol, what was he to do? What would YOU have done? Stay for Love? Return to Family?
It’s much like the anxiety a diver must feel, balancing on the edge of the hard platform, 10 meters above the glistening water surface, a thousand spectator eyes silently watching. In the end, after 19 nerve-wracking days, Sergei made the painful decision to return to Russia. His lawyers delivered him to the Royal Mounted Police who passed him back to his Soviet coaches. To avoid the press, within hours he was on an Aeroflot plane back to Moscow.
Sergei was allowed to compete again in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the ones boycotted by the USA due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was to be his last Olympics. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sergei finally emigrated to the USA with his wife, where his son too became a competitive diver.
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