By David Owen

David Owen ITG

The lithe physique and matinee-idol good looks are long gone. But those bright blue eyes still hold the attention. They soften around the edges as I coax the man who was once the greatest sprinter in the world on a spellbinding and frequently startling excursion down memory lane.

Today, Valeriy Borzov is a 63-year-old, navy blue-blazered member of the most powerful club in world sport: the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and a former Minister and politician in his native Ukraine.

Four decades ago, however, he was the most potent weapon in the extensive "soft power" armoury at the disposal of the mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

I still clearly remember the day when the red-vested racer impinged for the first time on my rather limited 12-year-old's horizons in the English West Country.

I had been sent to the newsagent to pick up our copy of the Radio Times, a television listings magazine that was as much a staple of the English middle classes at the time as Imperial Leather soap, or a framed print of Constable's The Hay Wain.

The Munich Olympics were fast approaching and, putting nationalism rather commendably aside, the Radio Times editors had decided to make Borzov, as favourite to win the biggest event, their cover star.

I have never forgotten that  Valeriy Borzov Radio Times coverI have never forgotten that Valeriy Borzov Radio Times cover

I don't know how many other Soviet icons were similarly honoured at the height of the Cold War by what I would think was then the UK's best-selling magazine - maybe Gagarin; perhaps a President or two; very few, that's for sure.

The effect on me was a bit like seeing Arsène Wenger on the cover of a Tottenham Hotspur matchday programme. Or the virtues of Grand Theft Auto V extolled on the IOC website. As you can see, I have never forgotten.

Borzov duly fulfilled the Radio Times' expectations, winning the 100 metres title with power, balance and grace, but without seemingly extending himself, in a comfortable 10.14sec.

As we sit in our well-appointed Buenos Aires hotel and reflect on those glory days of four decades ago, however, Borzov fills me in on other aspects of his experiences at Munich and, subsequently, Montreal that were a lot less comfortable and which, at times, leave me open-mouthed in amazement.

For a start, he almost missed his 100m quarterfinal.

Valeriy Borzov duly fulfilled the Radio Times expectations and won the 100 metresValeriy Borzov duly fulfilled the Radio Times' expectations and won the 100 metres

"In the call room," he recounts, speaking broken English for my benefit, with a heavy accent that sounds almost Russian, but with a more exotic, lilting undertow which I take to be the legacy of his upbringing in western, and then central, Ukraine, the son of an army officer and a secondary-school teacher.

"In the call room, where they call us to check numbers, spikes and everything...The official person informed us - me and the [two] Americans - 'The programme is 40 minutes late.'

"You know, 40 minutes for sprinters means you should rest and warm up again.

"[The Americans] went back to the Village. I went to a place near the start position and relaxed on the mat and maybe slept a little bit."

Happily for Borzov, the showpiece event and the viewing public, his coach kept his wits about him and his eyes on a nearby monitor screen.

"He touched me and said, 'Valeriy, it's your heat!'" the old sprinter recalls.

"I look at the screen and see one lane is empty.

"I was in spikes and a tracksuit. I took off my tracksuit and ran to the track. It was approximately 20 metres.

"When I got to the tunnel going into the stadium, the starter made a face as if to say, 'What happened?'

"He told me, 'You have one minute to get into the start position.'

"In this quarterfinal, I ran 10.07secs.

"In the final, 10.14secs. But in final it wasn't necessary to run at full power."

The two Americans - Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson - were not so lucky.

Although he missed the Munich 1972 100m race, Eddie Hart went on to win gold as part of the US 4x100m relay teamAlthough he missed the Munich 1972 100m race, Eddie Hart went on to win gold as part of the US 4x100m relay team

As Neil Allen of The Times reported: "The most unbelievable news of the day was that Eddie Hart and Reynaud Robinson, American co-holders of the world 100 metres record, had missed the second round of their event because of lunchtime confusion over transport...Uncle Sam's face has surely not been redder in Olympic history."

For Hart at least, there was later consolation in the form of the gold medal in the 4x100m relay, where Borzov and his teammates had to settle for silver.

By this time, though, the Ukrainian had reserved his place in the pantheon of Olympic greats by securing the second leg of the sprint double - even though he had not originally intended to run in the 200m at all.

"I did not plan to run in the 200m, but the head coach asked me, 'Please, Valeriy, is it possible?'" he tells me.

"It's not easy to run four times 100m, four times 200m and three times relay. That's why I didn't plan to run in the 200m.

"The state coach, the head coach of Soviet team, asked me to run for the points. [In the Soviet system], the first eight places were allotted points...It counted for the regional organisation when they did the analysis. The number of medals and the number of points were used to determine whether regional organisations had a good competition or not...

"The day before the start of the 200m, I decide to run, but I'm running only for the next round....

"[In the final], after the corner, [Larry Black of the US] was in front of me, so I switch on the speed and I start catching him.

"When we were level, he was at maximum power, but it was not enough. I was better, I was quicker. Eventually he relaxed and settled for second place." A certain Pietro Mennea of Italy took bronze, ahead of two more Americans.

Borzov evidently retains great pride in his accomplishments - as becomes clear when I make a throwaway allusion to his winning time: 20 seconds dead.

"19.99secs," he corrects me, pausing just long enough before adding: "But official time was 20secs."

Valeriy Borzov witnessed one of the terrorists breaking in at Munich 1972 but mistook him for a policemanValeriy Borzov witnessed one of the terrorists breaking in at Munich 1972 but mistook him for a policeman

There is a similar moment later in the conversation when I ask if he ever ran under 10 seconds for 100m.

"No," he shoots back, before adding: "I collect not results, I collect winning.

"And I understand that if I am running maximum, I have a risk to pull a muscle."

In other mouths, such sentiments might sound self-serving, but when you are talking to a man with five Olympic medals and three straight European 100m titles to his name, the logic is compelling.

The achievements of Borzov and every other athlete at the Munich 1972 Games are overshadowed by the terrible events of September 5, when eight Palestinians belonging to the Black September organisation broke into the Olympic Village and took members of the Israeli delegation hostage. Subsequent events, including a botched airport rescue attempt, left 17 people, among them 11 Israelis, dead.

When I ask Borzov about this, I am amazed when he tells me that he witnessed one of the terrorists breaking in.

It was the night after his 200m victory and the dual champion found himself unable to sleep.

He goes on: "At 3 o'clock I went out of my room to the place near the building.

"I saw this terrorist jumping up the barrier with a Kalashnikov in a tracksuit.

"I thought it was the police practicing.

"But in the morning it was under army control. Everything.

"The Soviet building, the French building, were only about 150m from the Israeli building.

"All the Village could see the terrorists on the balcony like in the cinema...

"We knew they were terrorists, and we could see them, but it was hard to believe this was reality, it wasn't the cinema."

Valeriy Borzov took the bronze medal in the 100m at Montreal 1976 Olympics despite there being threats to shoot himValeriy Borzov took the bronze medal in the 100m at Montreal 1976 Olympics despite there being threats to shoot him

Even more extraordinarily, Borzov's return to the Olympics for the Montreal 1976 Games was also overshadowed by gunmen, although this time the incident remained under control and no blood was spilled.

The defending champion had picked up an injury a month before the Games and did not run at what he terms "full power" until the heats of the Olympic 100m competition.

But he says he was otherwise in "much better" condition than before Munich: "If no injury, I have possibility to win again."

Though this time he won none of his three qualifying races, he again fought his way through to the final. And then this happened:

"Twenty minutes before [the race], after the call room, an official informed me that a sniper was on the stadium and they had information that he had a plan to shoot me."

Borzov recounts this with no noticeable change of intonation.

He continues: "The programme was stopped. The army was sent into the stadium with guns.

"When I am running the 100m, six big boys with their backs to me and their guns [pointing outwards] enclose me.

"They move me to the bus with guns out, with 10 or 20 soldiers, and took me to the Olympic Village."

He sums up: "I had a dilemma: run and be killed; don't run and be afraid, be weak."

Unbelievably, he took the bronze medal, running the same time as he had in winning the title four years before.

Three days after the final, The Times published the following brief account: "Vitaliy Smirnov, a Soviet member of the International Olympic Committee, disclosed that a telephone call threatening the life of his compatriot Valeriy Borzov had been received before the men's 100 metres final on Saturday.

"Borzov had not been seen in public since finishing third in the final and rumours were circulating in Montreal to the effect that Borzov, the Ukrainian winner of both the 100 and 200 metres gold medals in Munich four years ago, had defected, or that he might have been kidnapped."

Valeriy Borzov met his future wife Ludmilla Tourischeva at the Montreal OlympicsValeriy Borzov met his future wife, Ludmilla Tourischeva, at the Montreal Olympics

The sprinter still doesn't know if the threat was genuine; "the President of the US [ie Kennedy] was killed," he says, to convey the idea that a sniper in the vicinity of the race certainly wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility.

On a happier note, Montreal was also where he met his future wife, Ludmilla Tourischeva, a gymnast of supreme composure and grace, and one of the few athletes whose medal collection outweighs Borzov's own.

"I took her to the cinema in Montreal," he discloses. He cannot remember which film.

I should record that in response to the obligatory doping question, Borzov says he took "no dope, no pharmacology, nothing. Only vitamins and salts in the summer".

He also proffered a succinct and, I think, persuasive explanation of how rough Ukrainian politics has tended to be in this post-Soviet age.

"In one day," he tells me, "we changed direction from Communism to I don't know where. Nobody informed us which way we are going. We can change everything, but for the mentality to change we need two generations minimum."

Well into their seventh decade, those unchanging blue eyes have watched while the world has been transformed around them. July 1976 seems like ancient history. I wonder how many of today's star turns would be ready to defy a possible sniper for fear of appearing weak.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.