I was a freshman in college and part of several subcultures: I was a lifetime church-kid who had had no objective encounter with God,
I was an aspiring actor looking (vainly) for spiritual fulfillment in my art, but when I went to the gym I was a collegiate athlete and part of the gymnast culture. We were misunderstood stepchildren in the athletic department (not baseball, not football, not basketball, it wasn’t really an “American” sport;). That suited me fine; I had learned years before that the “mainstream” was full of bleating mindless sheep and that the gems of life were hidden.
That year we went to the “Northwest Championships” in Vancouver, Canada. The Russians were there.
There were only two competitive teams at the Olympic level in the late sixties, the Russians and the Japanese. They were both so much better than the rest of the world it was like they were from another planet. But the Japanese were from an ordinary country: Japan. The RUSSIANS were from behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union, the land of cryptic cruelty, atheist tyranny, the KGB, Siberia, the gulag and world military conquest.
Each athlete was watched by his government. The concern was defections. One way to escape the police state was to, somehow, get out of the country and flee to an American Embassy and ask for political asylum. To “Defect.”
For the entire Soviet Empire was a police state. You could be picked up off the streets of Moscow and never be heard of again. There were no “rights.” The handful of Communist operatives who had reversed their beliefs, who had escaped alive, did so after hearing the “screaming in the night.” The “Russians” ignored “law.” They believed in torture.
To observe a Russian Olympic athlete was to behold a true professional in your sport, but more than that, an enigma. Who lurked inside that mind? A defector yearning for freedom? A Communist? He possessed a glorious mastery of the craft. And an immense Mystique.
Among the ranks of the Russian team was the legendary Diamidov (Alexei). The most difficult move on the parallel bars was the “Diamadov,” named after him. At the time, he was the only one who had performed it.
But we got to see a newcomer. A young phenomenon greater than Diamidov, Mihail Voronin. Virtually unknown on the world stage when we saw him, the following year he would win two gold medals, three silver and a bronze in the ’68 Summer Olympics. (There are only seven events, total.)
And in Vancouver his rings routine was perfect.
I had never seen a perfect performance in gymnastics. No perfect “10” score would be awarded in any Olympics until 9 years later. In the rings it was impossible. The participants held their bodies aloft in positions requiring enormous strength, and the best performers tended to be the shorter, most muscular types, not the most agile. However, the apparatus, two large wooden rings suspended on straps, was frequently hung from ceilings with heights of around 35 feet, creating huge twin pendulums.
The athletes also did swinging moves, plunging from full handstands above and supported by the rings, then rebounding back to the handstand position. At the conclusion, the rings would be swinging, to some degree, back and forth, from their mounts, far above. It couldn’t be avoided. The less swing created after such moves was considered better.
During Voronin’s entire routine they were motionless, his balance and positioning, uncanny, perfect. His strength moves appeared effortless.
In the years since, special effects wizards have incorporated gymnastics moves into the feats of superheros and villains from X-men to the Matrix, but in 1967 the actual mastery of world class gymnastics moves, the total control, by agility and sheer strength that Voronin demonstrated was a thing of inspiration and some astonishment. The superpowers manifested before us.
In my little gymnastics culture, for some years afterwards, the name “Voronin” would be mentioned as kind of archetype, an icon of the immaculate, a reference to the god-like in physical power and agility.
We ordinary humans also performed in Vancouver. As in everything I touched, that year, I was successful… and utterly empty. I was, we all were, driven, as athletes, to achieve victory and the mastery Voronin had put on display. But we were all, like Voronin, though in much different ways, stranded behind an Iron Curtain. Ours was self-imposed.
We were children of a culture that had abandoned belief in the supernatural. Our churches not only did not expect the intervention of God in life, we had built doctrines enshrining His functional absence.
Americans, on the whole, conformed to Christian morality, but denied its power, didn’t, in fact, really believe it. The church had no political beliefs and had abdicated leadership. It did not, on the whole, challenge “evolution,” but dodged the issue. If you had serious problems they sent you to a Freudian psychologist.
Churchians, except on Sunday, seemed, like everyone else, to be primarily engaged in the pursuit of material success: vocational success, social prominence, influence and financial wealth. In 1967 I looked for personal fulfillment: into sports and became a champion; into dramatic art and won, as a freshman, the title role in the school play. I had academic success in my classes. And in each of these things found nothing worth living for. My generation, moreover, on the whole, was bored to tears, cut loose from our philosophical moorings, “waiting for Godot.”
Bill Clinton was running for president of the Student Council at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, earning a Rhodes Scholarship.
American Culture was nearing its final days.
Success in human pursuits, even success as spectacular as that of Voronin, could not bring personal fulfillment. I knew this by the summer of 1967. It was on the eve of the dawning of the cultural revolution.
The America that I had grown up with would shortly be dismantled so completely that young people born afterwards could not conceive of its existence. My mother sent me downtown, alone, to buy a loaf of bread at the age of six. There was no danger.
Unknown to all of us at that time, there was a gathering storm. There was the approach of the Something.