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The athlete who cleared the barriers communists put in her way

Iolanda Balas after jumping 1.90m to set a a new Olympic record at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo - Credit: Bettmann Archive

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the life of Iolanda Balaș, an extraordinary athlete who dominated her sport, despite the petty interferences of her country’s communist authorities.

It rained in Rome on September 8, 1960, a light, persistent afternoon drizzle that drenched the crowd at a packed Stadio Olimpico and saw athletes and officials alike drifting ethereally around the arena in clear polythene hooded robes.

With the bar set at 1.73m, the Olympic women’s high jump final had come down to the last three competitors. The Pole Jaroslawa Jozwiakowska, wearing a shoe on her left foot but keeping her right foot bare, went first and failed. Then Dorothy Shirley of Great Britain also failed. Iolanda Balaș slipped off her waterproof, unzipped her tracksuit top, slipped out of the trousers, adjusted her red vest and blue shorts and walked lightly to the end of her run-up. Six bouncing, skipping steps and over she went, finding the height so comfortable to clear she even landed on her feet in the sand.

Her two challengers each had two more attempts to stay in the competition; neither of them was successful. The Briton and the Pole were left sharing the silver medal leaving the gold, as expected, for Balaș.

The 6’1” Romanian wasn’t finished. She swept the damp ash of the run-up area, then cleared both 1.75m and 1.77m with her first attempts. Then the bar was raised four more centimetres to 1.81m, over which she went with her second try. Up went the bar another four centimetres to 1.85m, a new Olympic record height. After two failures Balaș stood at the end of her run and paused for a moment, shaking out her arms. A couple of short steps, a skip, two longer steps and she launched from her left foot. Up swung her right leg until it reached the height of the bar when her right foot shot out into the air beyond, pulling the rest of her behind it. Balaș rolled her body slightly to the left, lifted her other leg over the bar, briefly thrust out her arms for a final push through the air and down she went into the sand. She bounced immediately to her feet, left arm raised in triumph. It already seemed an age since her nearest rivals had struck out of the event’s showpiece final. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the giant Romanian with springs in her feet beneath a remarkable 39 inch inside leg.

Iolanda Balaș set many records and milestones during the decade in which she dominated the high jump, not least breaking her own world record 14 times, but that Olympic medal-winning performance on a drizzly afternoon in 1960 was arguably the greatest illustration of her complete dominance of the sport. Her winning margin, 14 centimetres ahead of her nearest challengers, has never come close to being equalled. Four years later in Tokyo Balaș won gold again, this time a mere ten centimetres clear of her closest rival. When in 1958 she became the first woman to clear six feet (1.83m) it was six years before another woman did the same. She remained undefeated in all competitions for ten years between 1957 and 1967, winning 154 consecutive competitions, and her final world record of 1.91m, set in 1961, stood for a decade.

When Balaș hopped onto a rain-spattered podium in Rome, bent to receive her medal then waved to the crowd, in the television arc lights her face seemed to glow with a golden hue, shining beneath the grey clouds. The packed arena rose to her as one, the sheer bounding exuberance of her pride lighting up the gloominess of the conditions and an Olympic crowd recognising one of the genuine greats. Balaș’ achievements might have seemed superhuman, on that Roman podium she even looked superhuman.

Only a few days earlier there had been a chance Balaș might not make the games at all. She was fit, in the form of her life and practically guaranteed to bring home the gold medal, yet the authorities in Bucharest seemed determined to make things as difficult as possible for her. Again.

Four years earlier in the summer of 1956 Balaș had set her first world record only a matter of weeks before the Melbourne Olympics, instantly making the 19-year-old the firm favourite to win gold. When it emerged that her coach Janos Söter, whom she would marry after retiring from the sport in 1967, had a brother living in Perth the communist authorities banned Söter from travelling, fearing he might defect. Deprived of his expertise and motivational skills, not to mention competing alone on the other side of the world, Balaș could only finish in fifth place.

Four years later, it happened again. Despite Söter having no close relatives in the area this time he was again refused permission to accompany Balaș to the games. Determined not to miss out on another gold medal, Balaș stayed in Romania as late as possible to keep training with Söter, not travelling with the rest of the Romanian delegation. As her delayed departure date approached, Balaș grew so exasperated she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“If [Söter] had to stay in Bucharest again I knew it would be fatal for my chances,” she recalled later. “So, on the spur of the moment, I went to the government buildings and ran into Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the secretary general of the Romanian Communist Party. He was so surprised by my determination to find him – the policeman on the door had no chance of stopping me – he was lost for words. I told him I was done, I wasn’t going to travel to Rome because it made no sense to represent a country constantly distrustful of me.”

Gheorghiu-Dej promised to look into the matter and within a couple of days Söter’s travel ban was lifted, although the pair would be accompanied at all times by a member of the secret police.

“They watched every step we took but that didn’t bother me,” said Balaș “I would have been much more tense if I didn’t have my coach there, someone I trusted to share my thoughts.”

Balaș was born in Timisoara of Hungarian heritage but grew up separated from her father. He fought in the Hungarian forces during the Second World War, was taken prisoner by the Russians and by the time he was released back to Hungary the border with Romania had been closed. It left her with a strong sense of her Hungarian identity despite living in and competing for the country of her birth.

“I was the first Romanian woman to win gold at the Olympics, but I was also Hungarian,” she recalled in 2005. “I feel sorry I did not win the Olympics for Hungary but an athlete represents herself first, then a nation.”

If there was one advantage to being born in Timisoara it was that by chance the caretaker of the building where Balaș and her mother lived was Luiza Ernst-Lupşa, a well-known athlete who had been Romania’s pentathlon champion in 1948. Ernst-Lupşa noticed Balaș’ talent when she was as young as nine and was able to provide invaluable guidance.

By 1951, competing for the local Electrica club, Balaș had won her first national title and two years later she moved to Bucharest to join the famous Steaua club. It was there she came under the wing of Söter, a former national high jump champion and the first Romanian man to break the six foot barrier. The course of her stellar athletics career and her life beyond it were set.

She had hoped for a third successive Olympic gold in Mexico in 1968, but a persistent heel injury force Balaș to retire in 1967, ending a decade of dominance almost unparalleled in any event in the history of athletics. ”Sometimes I found it hard to compete,” she admitted, “there was just no opposition for me.”

Nothing could detract from the elation of winning, however, even if she was effectively competing only against herself. Of all the titles, all the medals, all the achievements of a stellar career, that afternoon in Rome gave Balaș the most satisfaction.

“I felt an incredible degree of satisfaction, it was an elevated moment,” she said. “They say that before death your life flashes before you. That happened for me right after my victory. My loved ones, my setbacks, my joys, my hopes, it all flashed in front of me. It was like watching a film of my own happiness and I think that’s the moment when my life truly began.”

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