To be published in the forthcoming anthology, “Warriors of Olympia”!
I stared at my new sweater in dismay. Despite carefully hand washing it in cold water it appeared to have shrunk, only a little maybe, but it definitely looked somewhat tighter around the neck line. I sighed and attempted to stretch it out slightly while it remained damp. I intended to wear it that evening to the barbeque where I hoped to meet up with Sergei.
Sergei is gorgeous. Six foot plus of blond Siberian hunk. He had given me the jumper as some sort of friendship gift. It had been hand knitted by his grandmother or cousin or some female relative hence even if there had been washing instructions with the garment I expect they would have been printed in Cyrillic. I sighed again. I was sure the wash would have been okay in cold water. I dismissed the thought that it might have been dry clean only; I doubted Sergei’s grandmother knitted with such yarn. The wool was soft; warm in the chilly evenings, yet cool in the heat of the day. When he had given it to me Sergei had said, with a smile, that it matched the blue of my eyes.
As I laid the jumper carefully flat on the end of my bed to dry (with a couple of folded towels between it and the bedding), and hoped it would retain its shape, there was knock on the connecting door to the adjoining hotel room and almost simultaneously Nick stuck his head around saying, “Come on, there’s been another one.”
“Another what?” I asked as I grabbed my bag containing notebook and mini recorder; Nick already had his camera in his hand.
Nick and I are both journalists, freelance normally but Nick had managed to get us attached to the BBC as part of their team covering the Rio Olympic Games. Our brief was to mingle with the athletes and ferret out human interest stories. That was how I met Sergei, interviewing him about the plight of Russian athletes in the wake of the recent drug doping scandals. Despite being blond, tall and ruggedly handsome, as well as a successful pole vaulter, he had turned out to be terribly shy; the Russian team finding it hard to mix with athletes of other nations who viewed them, possibly with some justification, with suspicion. Sergei had been pleased with someone to talk to, keen for company, hence a friendship had grown up between us and he had gifted me the sweater; I did not want him to think I did not like it by not being seen to wear it, or indeed having mistreated it by not washing it properly.
In November 2015 the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, had released a report on state-sponsored doping allegedly being carried out in Russia, which included such offences as athletes being alerted to proposed drug testing plans and urine samples being switched. With immediate effect the IAAF, the International Association of Athletics Federation, had banned Russian athletes indefinitely from competing in track and field events. In January 2016 the former head of the Russian athletics federation and a top coach had been given lifetime bans from the sport. WADA also recommended that Russia be banned from the Olympic Games, however the International Olympic Committee, had rejected this stating it was up to each individual federation, swimming, cycling, athletics etc to decide.
The day before the opening ceremony 278 sportsmen and women were cleared to compete including just a handful of track and field athletes who, like Sergei, live and train outside Russia, and were deemed ‘clean;’ 111 potential competitors had been withdrawn.
Several banned athletes had decided that the time was right to announce their retirement from a professional sporting career leaving critics of the situation to draw the inevitable conclusion.
We reached the practice track just as the police were roping off the area. I just managed to peer around the official and saw a person lying motionless on the ground. Nick took in all the officials, said, “Come on,” and led the way across to where a group of athletes stood watching. As we approached I could tell they were stunned by what had happened as they stared mutely at the mix of medics, police and Olympic committee personnel surrounding the victim. It took a while to get anyone to talk.
“Looks nasty,” Nick commented to nobody in particular.
“He just complained of a headache,” a woman said, her eyes wide and fixed on the huddle around the body. From her accent I guessed she was either American or Canadian.
Nick thought about it and then asked, “Touch of heat stroke, something he ate do you think?” He might be the cameraman but Nick is the ambitious sort always looking for the chance to get ahead of his rivals. I had learnt that early on in our professional relationship – he followed and I took his lead or, as now, took surreptitious notes.
Slowly the woman shook her head. “We’re used to training in this sort of heat.” Her hand fluttered to her lips as if to manually stop them quivering. “Brad never ate anything he was unsure of before a meet. He only experimented with national cuisine when his part in the competition was over.”
“Even so,” I said without thinking, “food can be cooked differently in various countries, maybe he was allergic to an additive.”
The woman glanced down at my pen and notebook as if seeing me for the first time, her eyes narrowed and she said, “I don’t want to talk about it,” before turning her back on us and rejoining the group of athletes who stood, eyes still fixed on the cluster of officials around the body. As we watched a man leant forward and covered it, head to toe, with a cloth.
Nick gestured to me to withdraw. As we slowly moved away he hissed, “Nice going, Braithwaite.” We walked a little way and then Nick stopped, turned and studied the two groups of people as if wondering what to do next. “We could talk to the French again,” he said in reference to the fatality that had befallen their team a day or two earlier. No official details had so far been released, the cause of death being given as unknown, but although the Brazilian press had indicated that it had not seemed suspicious, talk in the athlete’s village was that the French team doctor was unhappy with the verdict of ‘natural causes.’ In this instance an athlete had been out on a routine training jog when he had complained of a pain in his arm. His running companion fearing a heart attack had been in the process of taking him to the team doctor when he had collapsed.
However, when we approached them in the Olympic Village the French were as uncommunicative as the North Americans had been, merely stating in flat voices that investigations were ongoing. Disgruntled Nick said we might as well leave it for a while; maybe tongues might be looser at the social gathering this evening, some sort of open-air barbeque having been arranged. That brought back thoughts of my sweater and what I should wear if it now failed to fit.
That evening Nick suggested we split up and mingle with the various athletes and back up staff attending the barbeque. “Don’t forget, this is business,” he had stated firmly, “not a social occasion; we’re here to work,” reminding me yet again that I owed my current presence here at the Olympics Games and employment attachment down to his contacts. I thought, not for the first time, that if he was not so abrasive that he would not be a failed TV presenter, reduced to earning his living as the cameraman.
Despite Nick’s warning I could not help but scan the crowd for Sergei as soon as we arrived. I soon spotted one of his teammates, Katya, a very slim, lithe high jumper, and sauntered over as casually as I could. She smiled at me, but the greeting was not reflected in her eyes.
“You’re wearing Sergei’s jumper, I see,” she said almost sounding as if she was accusing me of having snatched if from off his back. Instinctively I looked down and considered the item …