Friendship Games 1984: When Great Britain took part in the 'Iron Curtain Olympics'

Just days after the Los Angeles Olympics, the Friendship Games' opening ceremony was held at the Lenin Stadium (now Luzhniki).
Jayne Mitchell turned on the key and opened the door.

She recalls that there was a single bed and a strange thing in the bathroom. There was also grease marks all over the wallpaper. It looked like it could have been 100 years old.

Three weeks earlier, on the 28th of July 1984, a man with a jetpack had flown into Los Angeles Coliseum in order to open the Olympics. Mitchell, however, was on the opposite side in an era divided.

She was not in Los Angeles but Prague. She was not in the athletes village but in a low-rise hotel. She was also at the Friendship Games, instead of the Olympics.

They offered an alternative Games to a different world view. The Soviet Union and its allies responded to the United States' decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics by excluding a few of its allies. This was four years after the United States and some of its allies had left the event.

Pravda, a Soviet state newspaper, stated that the Friendship Games would be organized by the USSR, its satellite states and show that the Socialist Society provides more favorable facilities for human beings' overall physical and spiritual development.

Sergey Bubka (a 20-year-old Soviet pole vault world champion) went even further.

"It is a shame that the Olympic flame at Los Angeles was dimmed by the spirit profit-making," he was quoted by Soviet Union's official media agency.

"Athletes from the most socialist countries were prevented from taking part in the Olympic Games by the anti-Soviet and antisocialist hysteria that prevailed in the USA."

"We hope that the 'friendship competitions' will demonstrate to the world anew the strength and loyalty of athletes from socialist nations to the Olympic ideals."

Mitchell was 21 years old when she competed under her maiden name, Andrews. She had no idea what she and the four-strong British female athletes were up to.

Even more important, she didn't have any luggage as she looked around her cramped hotel room.

Friendship Games held its own opening ceremony. This one had fewer jetpacks and contained more political messages.

Moscow's Lenin Stadium was home to around 100,000 people. Mikhail Gorbachev, the future leader, was seated in the VIP seats. He watched dance troupes perform choreographed routines.

Unfurled banners exhorted the 'healthy people' and the importance of sport in the Communist government’s most recent five-year plan.

Finally, there was a song. It was specially composed for the occasion and included the lyrics: To a sunny peace yes, yes. Yes to a nuclear war no, not, no.

Mitchell and her team-mates thought they were going to a regular continental meet as they gathered on Heathrow's tarmac.

Joyce Hepher was a long-jumper. She had only just completed the distance required to qualify for Los Angeles, but this was only two days after the British team had been submitted to the International Olympic Committee. She could not be added. Instead, she boarded a plane for Prague, where the Friendship Games' women's athletics events would be held.

Nine countries were the hosts. The boxing was held in Cuba, and North Korea hosted the table tennis.

Hepher, who was competing under the maiden name Oladapo at the time, said that she only learned about it one week before they travel.

"I didn't realize the scale of it all. It was initially my impression that it was a Grand Prix-type meeting. But it wasn't until we arrived at the hotel that I realized the true extent of it all. Literally, anyone from the Eastern Bloc was there.

Marita Koch from East Germany, still holding the 400m world record in the Friendship Games, is a star athlete.

Marlies Gohr from East Germany and Lyudmila Kondratyeva from the Soviet Union, who were the Olympic 100m and world champions, were found in the lobby. Marita Koch from East Germany, who holds the 1985 400m world record, was present. Czech Jarmila Kratochvilova's 800m mark, also from 1983, is unsurpassed.

Hepher looked at her own startlist for the long jump. Heike Drechsler, a nineteen-year-old world champion, was joined by Galina Chistyakova from Russia, another world record holder from that era.

Hepher said that the qualifying round was intense. "I can remember getting up very early to get ready and seeing all the high-tech equipment at the stadium that measured your speed as you approached the board.

"I haven't seen that in any other competition."

Drechsler won the final with a leap height of 7.15m. All four of the top Friendship Games competitors produced leaps that were higher than the one that won Los Angeles gold earlier in the summer.

Hepher says, "It was definitely stronger competition than in Olympics." "The first three finished at well over seven metres. It was very competitive and a very strong field."

Similar results were seen in Mitchell's 100m race. Gohr won gold faster than American Evelyn Ashford, who had been running for the Olympic title. As the only US track competitor, Alice Brown finished fifth behind Ashford in Los Angeles.

However, times have changed and there are still questions about the past. The Iron Curtain has been reopened to expose the state-sponsored doping programs, although many of their results remain.

Hepher recalls, "Those rumours had always been there." There were many rumors about Eastern Bloc athletes, their programs and 'vitamins. However, until someone was caught, it is impossible to say if they were drug-takers or not.

Mitchell says, "It was difficult times for them too. They weren't at fault. They were taken from society as athletes who offered better lives for their families. It would be difficult not to follow those regimes."

World-class performances, in-stadium technology, and out-of competition pharmaceuticals may have been the result. However, life on the streets, away from the track was not.

Mitchell set out to get supplies after her luggage was lost on her journey from Heathrow to Prague.

She says, "I went to several local shops and there was a glass counter in each with one of everything - a toothbrush. Toiletries. Some clothes." "You would point out what you would like.

"The underpants were packaged in seven packs, each with different days of week written on them.

"There was a lot poverty. At one point, we were given canned drinks and the children were eager to get their hands on Coke. They found it really special that they were able to enjoy something so different from what we had.

Bubka, who was competing for Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union took silver at the Moscow pole vault

Mitchell's bag, complete with her cans of beans and stove portable, finally arrived in time to allow Mitchell to return home to London.

They were not given a standing ovation or reception upon landing. The Friendship Games were not even recognized.

Television coverage was not available. No reports were published in the newspapers. Mitchell believes that Mitchell and her team-mates were wrong on both the political and gender divides because no British athletes took part in the men’s athletics events.

She says, "In that era male and female athletes were treated differently."

"We weren't considered important. You could get your expenses by going to a table and asking for an envelope. To get their expenses, some of the athletes went to a better place. It was a "jobs for boys" culture.

Mitchell moved to Perth, Australia after her athletic career ended.

However, what they received back from the Friendship Games could not be weighed in pounds.

Hepher and Mitchell never went to the Olympics. A forgotten corner of track history is still a high point for them.

Hepher says, "It's still not recognized, even in the athletics community as being what it is."

It hasn't received the same acclaim as the Olympics. Looking back, I realize how huge it was at the time, but I am humbled to have been a part of it.

"I think of it as my Olympics."