«Everybody hit the ground!» shouts the lieutenant colonel of the Civil Guard, gun in hand. The patent leather of his three-cornered hat shines in the lights of the debating chamber. The newborn democracy seems quite precarious. While the dozing lions yawn outside the Congress of Deputies, there is fear and the still-pungent memory of tanks.
Then, the following day, the 24th of February 1981, after the failed coup, and with a “very spanish” sense of timeliness, begins the Universiada at Jaca. In August 1979, the International University Sports Federation had awarded us the right to hold the Games of 1981. That was the year of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and the year when the AIDS epidemic began. It would be another eight years until the Berlin Wall fell so the ballet stars of the Bolshoi, top scientists and sports stars were still under systematic KGB surveillance. Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Chariots Of Fire, directed by Steven Spielberg and Hugh Hudson respectively, steamrollered all opposition both at the cinemas and the Oscars. The census recorded 37,241,000 people (among them, 198,042 immigrants) living in Spain which had signed a protocol to join NATO, not long after approving a divorce law. McDonald's had opened its first restaurant in Spain, while Loquillo and Los Intocables with Esto no es Hawai (This isn’t Hawai), and Francisco, with Latino and Antonio Flores with Pongamos que hablo de Madrid (Let's Suppose I Mean Madrid) topped the hit parade. Daily updates on the kidnapping of Barcelona's Quini, the leading scorer in La Liga, filled the papers.
The opening of the Universiada 81 took place in the ski slopes and ice-rink of the Altoaragonese comarca, set in a political context that seemed pretty suitable for sport, ceremonies and fireworks: the ceremonial flame could not have arrived at a murkier moment. The USSR as world leader in winter sports, crushed all-comers with nineteen medals, including nine golds, six silvers and four bronze. Czechoslovakia's eight medals were awarded the second place. The US managed only one disappointing bronze. The closing ceremony took place at noon on the 4th of March, at the ice rink. Present were, among others, don Alfonso de Borbón, President of the Spanish Winter Sports Federation, don Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, donJesús Hermida, the Minister for Sport, donRafael Casas, Director-General of Tourism of the Aragonese regional government, and the mayor of Jaca, donArmando Abadía.
The Soviet delegation had arrived at the event eighty-strong, including fifty competitors. Then the disappearance of a journalist, Sergei Shachin, thirty years of age and accredited by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, leapt onto the front pages. Shachin, married and with a young daughter, had looked unhappy, and spoken little, on the journey from Moscow. He'd wandered round the conference center of Jaca with a journalist colleague, and on the 27th he'd been present for the heats of the 4x100 cross-country relay at Panticosa’s resort. When the Soviet delegation realised he was missing they went straight to the police, claiming he had been kidnapped or suffered an accident. But before very long everybody knew the truth: in Canfranc Sergei Shachin had hired María Pilar Izuel, one of the first female taxi drivers in Spain. He had then gone to seek political asylum in Pau. Not long before, a goalkeeper from the Hungarian Vasas club had also sought asylum during a summer tournament in Cádiz.
«Around noon on the first of the month the Russian journalist turned up in my house, with a taxi driver from Sabiñánigo called Luis López Viscasillas. He told me he was Russian and wished to travel by car to Lourdes or Tarbes. As I practically live in the taxi this didn't pose a problem. My thirteen-year-old son Ángel went with us on the trip […] He was carrying a blue bag and wore a three quarter length coat with a leather collar, jeans, black boots or shoes, he had no hat so you could see his unkempt hair. We scarcely exchanged a few words: he told me that he liked the scenery very much. His bearing, at all times, was very calm and correct. We spoke in french, a language of which his command was less than perfect. When he got into the taxi he showed me his accreditation for the Games. We arrived at the Somport, but it was impassable as the frontier was closed since a bridge had collapsed in Urdos.»
María Pilar Izuel not only had to make a statement at the headquarters of the Civil Guard, but, on top of that, was interrogated - albeit without any truth drugs being injected or electrodes attached - by officials from the Soviet delegation. Or, in plain English, by members of the KGB.
A strange little story from turbulent times.
Translated from spanish by Justin Horton