Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase
Horace Ashenfelter ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev in 3000meter steeplechase

It was 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, and the Cold War was heating up.

Making their first appearance at the Olympics were the Soviet Union. And in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the favorites were Russians Vladimir Kazantsev, and Mikhail Saltykov, both world record holders with times under 9 minutes. Horace Ashenfelter, an American whose best at the time was nearly 18 seconds slower than Kazantsev’s best, was not given a chance to win the steeplechase competition.

And yet the American press played up the geo-political theme, particularly since Ashenfelter was an FBI agent in the US government. As Red Smith wrote in his column on July 26, 1952,

It was evident at Wednesday’s steeplechase heats that the final would bring about the carnival’s first head-on, man to man clash between an American and a Russian. A lot of people had been waiting for such a match ever since it became apparent, long before the games opened, that the 15th Olympics would be chiefly a Russian-American struggle. Before the heats, however, nobody had dreamt that the match might come about in the steeplechase. All the tall tales about a generation of supermen rehearsing behind the iron curtain had made special mention of Vladimir Kazantsev of Kiev, who had been charging over the obstacles at speeds the outside world had never seen.

With such a foe looming, Ashenfelter was given little chance. In the book, The Heart of a Champion, he was teased about his likely fate at the hand of the Russians:

“Horace, how is it going to feel to be out there running on the track when Kazantsev is in taking a shower and on his way home?” Another team-mate said, “I’ll bet Horace will have only three laps to go when Kazantsev is getting his gold medal.”

And yet, Ashenfelter was never fazed by the challenge. As stated in this interview, Ashenfelter was in prime shape and had nothing to lose.

I’m a pretty confident guy, actually and – put it this way – he had to beat me. It was the first time and only time where I had about three weeks of controlled training and rest. I had fine tuned my weight and weighed 128 pounds which I carried on five feet nine frame as compared to my normal weight of 140. I was in outstanding shape and had no bad luck occur. I was just going to stay with the pace as long as I could and to make the pace if I had to – I didn’t mind that.

He got suckered by his coaches as his plan they had was for him to stay with me. That meant that he was running on my right shoulder the whole race and adding three or four yards to each lap. I ran him a little bit wide on the corners and we bumped several times as he was running that close to me. That didn’t bother me but it may have bothered him – I don’t know. I knew I had a lot left at the end.

The American press lapped up the victory. As Smith wrote in his column, “The G man, reluctant to keep his back turned on a Commie, trotted back and slapped Kazantsev on the blouse of his britches.”

It was not known at that time that Kazantsev was also a KGB Agent, but one could imagine that Red Smith’s rhetoric would have been even more provocative.

As for Ashenfelter, he could care less about the Cold War drama on the track. “He was just an opponent. The media writes what they think and what they believe will attract readers.”

On January 6, 2018, Horace Ashenfelter passed away at the age of 94.

Advertisements
FIFA Official arrested
One of the seven FIFA officials arrested walks from the Baur du Lac hotel following a dawn police raid_New York Times

FIFA, the world organizing body for football, and famously the organizer of the World Cup, is based in Zurich, Switzerland. But when authorities quietly escorted 7 FIFA executives out of a posh hotel in Zurich where a FIFA executive meeting was being held in May, 2015, it was due to the work of the FBI in the United States. I thought, “Wow”, that’s influence. Why is the US driving this and not another country, perhaps one more steeped in football lore where the loss of purity in sport would rankle more deeply.

I’m still not clear on this, but according to this thorough and fascinating piece from ESPN, the roots of the investigation that led to arrests at FIFA began in an FBI Bureau in Brooklyn, New York. When FIFA announced in December, 2010 that not only did Russia win the right to host the 2018 World Cup, but that Qatar won that honor as well for 2022, suspicions ran particularly high that something fishy was up.

As the article explains, “even the laziest ExCo members lived like kings. They each received $200,000 annual stipends, along with liberal per diems every time they went to Zurich. And they controlled the votes that decided where the most watched event in sports, the World Cup, would be played. This selection process seemed engineered for bribery, the FBI agents thought.”

Chuck Blazer with FIFA head Sepp Blatter
Chuck Blazer and Sepp Blatter in better days.

The FBI first focused their attention on a member of the FIFA ExCo who happened to be based in New York, Chuck Blazer. He’s a large man, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin joked looked like Karl Marx, and was so caught up in cloak-and-dagger, stab-you-in-the-back FIFA politics, and so sick from the ravages of diabetes and cancer, that he turned. Blazer became the FBI’s inside man, recording conversations with other FIFA leaders for over a year, providing a “wealth of information” on the inner workings of a scandalous organization.

Another primer for the FIFA scandal is this piece from 60 Minutes, which features the lead FBI investigator John Burretta, as well as the long-standing thorn in the side of FIFA and the IOC, BBC journalist Andrew Jennings. Jennings’ talk on corruption in FIFA had fallen on deaf ears for years before he finally found redemption in these arrests.

John Burretta on 60 Minutes

Of all the things I learned, here’s the bit that got me. Not only did Blazer live in the luxurious Trump Tower (rent $18,000 a month), he had a smaller apartment next door, “reportedly for his cats”.