'I MADE A SUDDEN DECISION AT THE AIRPORT'
Last Friday afternoon, four days after his defection to the U.S., East German swimmer Jens-Peter Berndt was standing around the University of Alabama pool in Tuscaloosa, flat broke, unsure about his future and wearing his only remaining possessions: a light-blue jersey, gray gingham pants and dirty running shoes. Yet he was happy. "I have to borrow some clothes," he shrugged. "I lost everything at the airport. It all happened very quickly."
Indeed, Berndt, 21, a former world-record holder in the 400-meter individual medley, made the transformation from premier East-German male swimmer to coveted U.S. college recruit in whirlwind fashion. He had begun his trip home from the U.S. Swimming International meet (SI, Jan. 14) in Fayetteville, Ark. on Monday, Jan. 7 routinely enough, but while his 13 G.D.R. teammates and coaches were boarding a connecting flight at the Oklahoma City airport that afternoon, he'd walked away from the departure gate. "I made a sudden decision at the airport," says Berndt. "I had made no plans beforehand. I was playing cards with my teammates while we waited." Berndt went to the airport's administrative offices, announced his desire to stay in the United States and, while the East German coaches futilely paged him, waited until a van from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service whisked him off to a downtown INS office. "He seemed a little nervous, but he spoke English well and was very courteous," said airport public-information director Tom Morton. "When we went to the soda machine he said, 'I'll have a Coca-Cola please, sir.' And then, 'What is it they say? "Coke is it"?' "
After initial processing by the INS, Berndt moved into a dorm at the University of Oklahoma. But Oklahoma doesn't have a high-caliber swimming program, and on Thursday morning Alabama coach Don Gambril called and invited Berndt on an all-expenses-paid recruiting visit. Sure, said Berndt, who knew of Gambril as the 1984 U.S. Olympic coach and as a man who has coached many foreign swimmers. By Thursday evening, Berndt was in Tuscaloosa.
By nature gregarious and self-confident, Berndt was ebullient as he toured the Alabama campus, met students, asked questions ("Which newspapers are controlled by which political parties?"), and took in a basketball game and a swim meet. While placing an order on his first visit to a drive-through fast-food restaurant, he exclaimed, "I'm talking to a sign!" Before leaving Tuscaloosa last Saturday night, Berndt decided to enroll at Alabama.
Berndt, a lieutenant in the East German army and a would-be swim coach, left behind in his native Potsdam a father and an older sister, his mother having died of leukemia in 1981. "My father [an engineering supervisor] will probably be put in a lower position," he said with some remorse. Berndt said his defection was not political but was prompted in part by a conviction that "I'm like the Americans. They're more...." With a reporter's help, he settled on "independent" and "open" as suitable adjectives.
Berndt was always something of a rebel within the rigid East German sports system. He quit his elite sports school at age 12 and didn't swim again for three years. More recently he had difficulties with his coach, but, he said, "You can change coaches only if the national federation says so. The swimmer does not decide." Still, Berndt wasn't totally out of step with the G.D.R. sports establishment. It is his genuine belief that East-bloc athletes would have been in danger of terrorist attack if they'd attended the Los Angeles Olympics.
Berndt has not yet been granted asylum, but that should come through soon. "Everyone here has been helpful," he said. "Please tell them thank you." Eventually he must decide whether to apply for U.S. citizenship—which, barring a special act of Congress, he could not attain for at least six years. Until then he could not represent America in international competition. Thus he might be better off choosing West Germany as his new official homeland, because under West German laws he, like all other East Germans, is already considered a citizen. "But then I would become a political case," he says. "I don't want that."
Berndt hopes to be eligible at 'Bama for the NCAA championships in March. But Gambril says, "That's of minor concern at this point. The main thing is to get him settled in his new life. It's unbelievable what he's done, when you think how much he had to leave behind."
OUR NBC IMPERSONATION
The winner of the sudden-death playoff between Craig Stadler and Lanny Wadkins in last week's Bob Hope Classic was.... (Ooops, we ran out of space.)
The press release from the U.S. Olympic Committee was, to say the least, awkwardly timed:
"COLORADO SPRINGS——Americans were justifiably proud in August when the United States Olympic Team left Los Angeles with a record 83 gold medals at the Games of the XXIII Olympiad, one of the greatest performances by any team in the history of sport.
"The United States Olympic Committee feels that Americans should be even prouder of another accomplishment by that group of 597 men and women...the fact that not one U.S. Olympic athlete in Los Angeles failed a drug test, nor embarrassed anyone connected with the Olympic movement or amateur sports...."
The release was mailed by the USOC on Jan. 8, the day the blood-doping scandal involving U.S. Olympic cyclists at L.A. broke (page 12).
A SUPER TRACK TEAM
Match the Super Bowl rivals in a track and field meet and there's no doubt who would win: the San Francisco 49ers. Everybody knows that Niner wide receiver Renaldo Nehemiah was an extraordinary high hurdler, the only man to break the 13-second barrier with his 12:93 world record in 1981. And a lot of people realize that nose tackle Michael Carter was quite a shotputter, winning seven NCAA indoor and outdoor titles before taking the silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. But who's aware that nose tackle Jeff Stover and offensive guard Randy Cross were also outstanding shot-putters, the former a two-time Pac-10 champ and the latter the 1972 California high school champ? Or that tight end Russ Francis was the best high school javelin thrower ever, with a 259'9" record that has remained untouched for nearly 14 years? As a matter of fact, Nehemiah and Carter still hold the national high school records in their specialties, too.
Not that the other Super Bowl team, the Miami Dolphins, is entirely unaccomplished in track. Wide receiver Mark Duper ran anchor for the Northwestern State of Louisiana 4 X 100-meter relay team that won the 1981 NCAA outdoor title. But the Dolphins' track talent falls off sharply after that. They'd better stick to football.
Here's a yarn passed along by Minnesota North Star coach Glen Sonmor:
A team hires a new coach, and when he arrives to assume command, the old coach hands him two envelopes. "The first one, open it when things get tough," he says. "When things get even worse, open the second one."
Soon enough the team is playing poorly, and the new coach opens the first envelope. The message inside says, "Blame your predecessor." Things get worse, and the fellow dutifully opens the second envelope. The message says, "Prepare two envelopes."
A MESSAGE TO HAROLD
Harold Ballard, the boorish 81-year-old owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens, has done it again. For years Ballard had refused to allow Soviet hockey teams to play in his building, and in September 1983, he protested the U.S.S.R.'s shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by canceling a scheduled appearance of the Moscow Circus. Ballard recently eased his anti-Soviet ban, but when Moscow Dynamo played the Canadian Olympic team in Maple Leaf Gardens two weeks ago, his change of heart suddenly looked like an ambush. With a minute to play in Canada's 4-3 victory, this message flashed on the scoreboard: REMEMBER KOREAN AIR LINESS FIGHT 007 SHOT DOWN BY THE RUSSIANS. DON'T CHEER. JUST BOO. The message was signed HAROLD.
Some of the 6,000 fans did boo, but most sat in silence, no doubt having difficulty believing what they were seeing. An official at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa later dismissed Ballard's gesture as "an ungracious act...perpetrated by a hooligan." And last week, during Toronto's 5-3 NHL loss to Boston, a Maple Leaf Gardens usher flung his uniform jacket onto the rink to protest Ballard's action. For his part, Ballard didn't explain what the downing of Flight 007 had to do with 20 Soviet athletes playing hockey in Toronto. But he did say before the game, "I don't like the Russians and I never will."
Now here's a message for you, Harold: Your behavior toward your guests—which is what the Soviet players were—was inexcusably rude.
THE NAME SOUNDS FAMILIAR
Selectmen in Natick, Mass. have decided to name a soon-to-be-built street after native son Doug Flutie. Construction of the thoroughfare, which will connect a couple of shopping centers, will begin this spring. The street will be known as Flutie Pass. We don't imagine it will take long to complete.
After Gambril (left) called, Berndt visited 'Bama and agreed to stay.
SAM Q. WEISSMAN
THEY SAID IT
•Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls guard, after scoring 32 points against the Boston Celtics, whose defensive ace, Dennis Johnson, was sidelined with an ankle injury: "I took advantage of the absence of his presence."
•Jimmy Johnson, Miami football coach, whose Hurricanes yielded 128 points in their last three games, on why he was named a defensive coach for one of the all-star teams in last Saturday's Japan Bowl: "I understand the Japanese like a high-scoring game."