[Prefer an Audio Podcast? CLICK HERE]
In July of 1976, at the Montreal Summer Olympic Games, 17 year old Russian diver Sergei Nemtsanov makes the gut wrenching decision to defect to Canada from Communist Soviet Union. He had won numerous Soviet diving competitions and was brought to Montreal with medal expectations. He finished only 9th in the Men’s 10 meter Platform diving competition. As punishment for not earning a medal, his Soviet coaches angrily informed him he’d be banned from further international competitions.
The Russian coaches were always wary of defectors amongst their athletes. Now that the diving competition was over, they had restricted the entire Soviet Diving Team to their rooms in the Montreal Olympic Village. The divers would fly out to Moscow as soon as possible and not stay the remainder of the Games, OR participate in the Closing Ceremony. But Sergei had gotten a taste of western freedom while at the Olympics. The young teen realized if he wanted the same for himself, it was Now or Never. So he quietly approached friends on the Canadian diving team for help.
The Montreal Summer Games was an Olympics to remember, with the likes of Romania’s Nadia Comaneci, Sugar Ray Leonard and Bruce Jenner all winning Gold Medals. Tensions were high though as the terrible murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Games in 1972 was still fresh on everyone’s minds. Another young diver, a 16-year-old American named Greg Louganis had made a name for himself by winning the Silver Medal. Scott Cranham, a diver from the Canadian team, enlisted Louganis’ help to get the Soviet Team out of their rooms and into the cafeteria for a going away luncheon. In the midst of emotional hugs & goodbyes to new Olympic friendships, Sergei and Scott silently slipped away. They ran downstairs to a Canadian office where athletes could seek asylum. There, the exhilarated yet frightened boy declared in broken English, “I wish to defect to Canada!”
He wanted to be free of Communism, free to live as he wished, free to love who he chooses!
With wavy blond hair and teenage good looks, the affable young ‘Russian Apollo‘ instantly became a darling of the press, and an embarrassment to the Soviets. The Canadian team helped him retain 2 high-profile lawyers pro-bono, David Mathewson and Alex Peterson, to obtain a Visa extension and official entry into Canada. They secretly smuggled Sergei out of Montreal in an ambulance, and into the Toronto area in Ottawa. He stayed on Lake Muskoka at the summer house of a sympathetic Toronto businessman, John Fleming.
The Soviets launched an angry propaganda campaign, his coaches shouting to the Olympic Committee that “The United States and Canada are drugging and brainwashing Soviet athletes to defect!” The Soviet Consul declared this a kidnapping, as Sergei was still a minor at only 17. They said his lawyers were gangsters since all young Sergei truly wanted to do was return to his loving family in Mother Russia. Threats were made that all sporting relationships would be cut off between Canada and the USSR, including their beloved Ice Hockey! Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau entered the mix stating the decision to return or stay was up to the boy alone. The Soviets were allowed one supervised opportunity to convince him to return. They falsely claimed later that Sergei was a pale statue with vacant, dilated eyes, repeating the word ‘I choose Freedom’ over and over again, like a programmed robot.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, for here is where the Wrinkle of Romance entered into the mix. Sergei told his fellow athletes he had begun falling in love with a female American diver named Carol Lindner, then 21. The complicating factor – she was the daughter of the wealthy family that owned the Cincinnati Enquirer and Thriftway Supermarkets. Sergei and Carol had met earlier that year when he came to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for an international diving meet. With an athlete for a daughter, Richard Linder invited all the divers onto his boat, allowing Sergei and Carol more time together. The pair rekindled their relationship when they met again at the Montreal Olympic Pool, meeting for several discrete rendezvous.
Carol’s father released a stern statement saying their relationship was Strictly Casual and the two NEVER discussed defection. At her father’s insistence, Carol wrote Sergei a letter, urging him not to stay due to any feelings he might have for her. His Soviet teammates were forced by their coaches to also send him messages, reminding him of his aged and ailing grandmother waiting for him back in the USSR. His father was a military pilot and Sergei was raised by his grandmother from an early age. They sent him an audio-cassette of her pleading for Sergei to return: ‘Why are you leaving me, Sergei? I am completely alone here!‘ Separated from Carol, alone in Canada, what was he to do?
What would YOU have done? Return to family? Or stay for love and freedom?
It is much like the anxiety an Olympic diver must feel during competitions. Imagine balancing on the edge of the hard platform, 10 long meters above the glistening surface of the blue pool, a thousand spectator eyes silently watching, international judges scoring you. The Canadian government wanted his lawyers to give a press conference with Sergei present. It was arranged at a Holiday Inn hotel, then Sergei got cold feet and backed out at the last minute. He was not liking how he was being portrayed by the media. Plus he had just graduated high school and could frustratingly speak but a few sentences in broken English. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who were there to provide security, were frustrated by his absence.
In the end, after 19 nerve-wracking days in isolation, Sergei made the painful decision to return to Russia. The relationship with his Canadian benefactors was growing tenser by the day. The letter from Carol had left him with a broken heart. The audio-cassette of his grandmother’s pleas left him with pit in his gut. He said sad goodbyes to his new Canadian friends, and his lawyers transported him to the RCMP. They then delivered him back to his coaches at the Montreal Olympic Village. The Soviets told the press he was very tired by the ordeal and would not make any statement. To avoid the press further, within hours they put Sergei on an Aeroflot plane back to Moscow.
Needless to say, Sergei received an icy reception on his return, both from his teammates and the Soviet fans. He admitted in a statement that he was brainwashed in Canada. Only his youth and naivete allowed him to escape the humiliatingly brand of traitor. Even the long-time Soviet head coach was restricted from travel abroad as punishment. Sergei was never allowed to compete outside the Soviet Union. But he was allowed to dive again, in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. These were the game boycotted by the USA due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was now 21 and he sadly won no medals at the Moscow Games, finishing 7th. It was to be his last Olympics.
Sergei attended university in Russia, and in 1982 joined the Soviet military for a brief stint. He then moved back home to Kazakhstan and opened an auto-repair shop. He struggled with and overcame an alcohol addiction. A decade later in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sergei finally got his freedom. He emigrated to the USA … with his Russian wife and two young children. It was in the U.S. where his son too became a competitive collegiate diver. Today, Sergei lives a quiet life with his family in the suburbs outside of Atlanta, Georgia, as an American citizen.