The gesture he made Władysław Kozakiewicz at the 1980 Moscow Olympics after breaking the world record for pole vault (or pole vault) it is only comparable to a select group of unforgettable events that occurred throughout the history of competition that pits the best athletes in the world.
Three random moments that belong to the same category as the “Kozakiewicz gesture” can be when Tommie smith Y John carlos made the greeting of black power in Mexico 1968, the day that Abebe Bikila won Rome 1960 running barefoot or anything related to the feat of Jesse Owens, the African-American athlete who triumphed in the eyes of Adolf hitler in Berlin 1936.
Why was the Polish gesture so important? What did it lead to? Why is it that no one forgets it yet?
A bit of context
The Moscow Olympics they were not a ceremony like any other. It started on a day like today in 1980 in the middle of a tremendous boycott of the host country by the United States because a year before he had invaded Afghanistan.
On January 20 of that year, US President Jimmy Carter gave the Soviet Union an ultimatum: “Either withdraw the troops or withdraw the athletes,” the president told the Soviet head of state. Leonid Brezhnev in a face-to-face meeting with the aim of reaching an agreement.
As is known, the USSR did not comply with Carter’s request and flourished with phrases like this one that he threw Michael Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of those times: “Only a Third World War can prevent Moscow from being the headquarters.”
The 1980 Moscow flag parade at the Lenin Stadium. Photo: AP
Faced with the Soviet Union’s refusal to withdraw its soldiers from the neighboring country, the United States dropped out of the competition. Carter asked that no American athlete participate and assured that those who did so under the Olympic flag would have their passports withdrawn.
66 countries did not go to the games. They believe that around 40 or 50 folded to the actions of the United States, among them Argentina. Some like the United Kingdom, France and Australia let their athletes do what they wanted and that if they decided to appear they would do so under the Olympic flag or that of their committee.
To make everyone happy, the North American country created the Liberty Bell Classic, a competition where those athletes who had run out of Moscow could participate.
At the same time, Poland, which after World War II belonged to the Eastern bloc, was trying to break out of the Soviet orbit. The Polish Unified Workers Party was still in power.
The day of the gesture
“The Russian crowd would whistle at any non-Russian contestant. They were whistling to distract us. “
Before, a clarification: Kozakiewicz was not born in Poland, but in what was Lithuania. A confusing question of territorial limits made that without moving he adopted Polish nationality and defended that country in the Olympic Games.
“Koza” had just stood out in an Italian competition months ago in which he had broken a world pole vault record. He had jumped 5.70 meters. However, months later, his new challenge was 5.75 that another athlete had achieved and if he wanted to make history in Moscow he had to overcome them.
Lenin stadium is full. There are about 70,000 Soviets whistling and booing at any foreign competitor, including the irreverent “Koza.” His rivals, above, are the Soviet Konstantin Volkov and the kazajo Sergei Kulibaba.
Kozakiewicz lounging true to form. Photo: PAP
Your turn comes. He holds the pole and looks ahead. His left arm is extended and the right is contracted. His right hand bounces off his chin. Nothing that happens around him can harm him. You only have one goal: to rise very high and prevent the crossbar in the pit from falling.
The audience whistles until he begins his race to glory. Without looking to another place that is not in front, the Pole rises 5.78 meters and surpasses the staff that floats on high. World record. Without letting his back rest against the mat of the pit, he rises with the clean and jerk of a squat and automatically makes the famous gesture.
A few cheer him on as he crosses, slaps his biceps and dedicates a typical sleeve cut to the local crowd. In Poland this gesture is known as Wal, which means “Axis”. The message behind it varies, but taking into account the situation of this athlete it could be translated into: “Look, it’s me. Here I am and I dedicate this to you ”.
“I don’t think anyone in the stadium noticed anything, there was really no reaction. But television … that was something else entirely. There, the whole world saw that a Pole gave the Russians the “axis”
The gesture was so spontaneous and close to the jump that you can come to think that “Koza” had everything in mind before, that those extra three centimeters that he climbed to achieve the world record he got thanks to his fury.
Then Kozakiewicz keeps running while celebrating with a smile, he approaches a piece of the public that celebrates his victory and bows to him.
“Some trait of my character was prompting me to get all the negative things out of my head, not to focus on them and to move on.”
To the greater bitterness of the Soviets, the silver medal was also won by a Pole (Tadeusz Slusarski). The truth is that, except for this setback, the host was the absolute winner of the ceremony. He took 80 gold medals and left the second quite relegated (almost won half).
Besides, the following years a Soviet would make history in the category of “Koza” and would become one of the best athletes of his country. Sergei Bubka, a naturalized Ukrainian after the dissolution of the Union, he triumphed for years, breaking countless world pole records.
Today the owner of the best brand is the very young Swede Armand Duplantis, which jumped 6.18 and will be one of the attractions of Tokyo 2020.
Although it was a rare Olympic Games and without many big-name athletes, 36 world records were broken and there were high-caliber emotions. There was, for example, the race of the British Sebastian Coe Y Steve Ovett. Also the rage for the pet Misha.
Sebastian Coe wins a historic 1500 meters. Photo: AP.
The 1984 Los Angeles games were characterized by being those of revenge. The Soviet Union boycotted them and he did not send any of his athletes. They were joined by a handful of countries, but nowhere near the number that had supported the United States four years earlier.
The repercussions of the gesture
“At that moment it occurred to me that I was the only person in the world who was whistled for breaking the world record. So when I landed, I showed them this ‘Polish axis’, the prettiest you can imagine. I expressed my anger at the hissing Soviet audience; nobody whistles in athletics ”.
The consequences that Kozakiewicz suffered were not few. The first thing that happened to him was that because of his gesture, considered by the USSR “an insult to the Soviet people”, they wanted to get the medal that he had won in good law.
At that time he was fortunate that the new president of the IOC, the Spanish Juan Samaranch, I would like to help you. Killanin’s replacement – the one who had spoken to Carter – said that “Koza” always made that gesture when he won.
A color fact: the sleeve cut was appreciated by the whole world except for the Soviets because television did not show it.
Samaranch’s statements made the Committee forget the conflict a little faster.
When he arrived in Poland, the Soviet ambassador to the country wanted the medal to be taken away but “Koza” was able to keep his title as his defenders argued that he did so from “an involuntary muscle spasm caused by exertion.”
The truth is that in Poland his gesture caused a major social upheaval. While the Athletic Association sanctioned him for six months and the communist government was enraged by his attitude towards the Soviets, people stopped him on the street and thanked him.
“I couldn’t walk down the street without someone coming up to give me a handshake or a hug. In an instant, my gesture became deeply philosophical. Nobody wanted to believe that the only thing that really worried me was that crowd in the stands. When I explained that to them, people would wink at me as if to say, ‘Well, well, you have to say that, but we know what it really was like.’
Unintentionally, “Koza” had become a symbol of the revolution, of anti-communism. Those who did not agree with the government’s policies had him as a reference and he had simply made the cut of the sleeve because he felt confused with those who whistled it.
To this was added that two months after he returned triumphant to his country, Lech walesa created the Solidarity movement, the one that shook the streets and factories with the support of conservative American sectors and the Church while communism was on the tightrope.
Kozakiewicz as an adult remembering his unforgettable gesture. Photo: Instagram.
“Koza’s” career at the Olympics ended with Moscow. The Polish federation prevented him from competing for trifles and that led him to, for example, not being able to participate in Los Angeles 1984.
For having turned the powerful against him, he moved with his family to West Germany. In between he broke a national pole vault record and tried to become a German national. As he was still tied to his “native” Poland, “Koza” was unable to compete in the 1988 Games and decided to retire from the sport a year later.
His gesture was a small inadvertent contribution to what later led to the fall of communism in Poland. Solidarity, the first free union of the Eastern bloc and a peaceful anti-communist social movement, took power and “Koza” was unwittingly considered a kind of hero.
Kozakiewicz and Robert Lewandowski, one of the greatest Polish sports figures of our time. Photo: Instagram
With the arrival of Walesa to the presidency, in 1990 the leadership of the Polish Unified Workers Party, which had stood at the top since 1948, ended in 1990. “Koza”, despite being surpassed, fulfilled its initial objective: made history.
Sources: documentary “Going for Gold”, book “Don’t Tell Me How To Live.