David Owen ©ITG

On the night of November 9, 1989, 30 years ago, the gates along the 45-kilometre expanse of the Berlin Wall were flung open and the world changed.

"All the old certainties are gone," proclaimed The Manchester Guardian Weekly on its front page, as ecstatic German youngsters chipped away at the hated barrier with hammers. "Europe seems to be a different place this week…the process under way simply sweeps aside the natural hesitations of history."

Three decades on, and with the Europe that exultant night helped to bring into being now in danger of tearing itself apart, it is not entirely straightforward to convey why the breaching of the wall was such a seismic moment for those of us who lived through it, albeit from the other side of the English Channel. 

What you need to remember is that our entire continent had spent 40 years cowering before the threat of a nuclear winter that might be unleashed on our territory by one global superpower or the other with Europe powerless to do very much to prevent it. 

Sure, day-to-day life went on, much as today, with its family outings, its pop concerts and its sports fixtures. But this possible dystopian fate was always there, hovering just beyond the horizon. The Wall dividing the biggest city in divided Germany, one of the biggest countries in our divided continent, came to be the symbol par excellence of this so-called Cold War through which we were living.

The Wall was a fixture, a seemingly permanent fact of life for Europeans of my age-group. It was erected in 1961, when I was about 16-months old. I could not remember a time when it had not been there. I had even seen it, touched it, tried to look through it during a visit to Berlin, West and East, in September 1983. 

We had gone there out of a sense of adventure and for the Otto Dix paintings. What I most remembered were dead-eyed border guards in the gloom of subway stations where the trains never stopped and phalanxes of identical Trabant motor-cars in municipal car-parks. 

Many of these clunky metal and glass boxes were personalised with lavishly decorated gear-sticks in what seemed to constitute multiple tiny acts of individual defiance. Just over six years later, hundred upon hundred of these Trabants were suddenly streaming over the border for a taste of the West's forbidden delights. The speed of the collapse took your breath away.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago led to a seismic change across the world ©Getty Images
The collapse of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago led to a seismic change across the world ©Getty Images

It would appear it was not only us in the West who were taken by surprise at how fast the wheel of history turned. Former International Olympic Committee (IOC) director general François Carrard told me about a dinner he was invited to in Moscow in October 1989, just before that tumultuous night when the Wall fell. The invitation was from the Soviet Minister of Sports.

"The East German Sports Minister was also there," Carrard remembers. "At that time there was already a constant flood of East Germans leaving the country in their Trabi cars. It was quite surprising to see how many East Germans were driving away.

“I remember asking the East German Minister, 'How do you explain this rush of people leaving? Is something happening politically?' He said: 'No. The young people are very bored because our political system is boring. They are looking for more fun, but that does not mean something important is happening.'"

"I don't think he was bluffing," Carrard concludes. "I think he sincerely believed the system was not crumbling."

The death throes of East European Communism heralded change for all of us, and not least for international sports administrators. 

Within months of the Wall coming down, it was clear that the state which had come second in the Seoul 1988 Olympic medals table – East Germany – with 102 medals, 37 of them gold, was destined to be swallowed by the state which had come fifth in that medals table – West Germany. 

In the event, this process took almost exactly a year. The famous, many would now say infamous, white-piped blue athletics vests of the German Democratic Republic were seen in competition for the last time at the 1990 European Championships in Split. Of course, they topped the medals table by a country mile.

The ramifications of the winds of change sweeping the rest of Eastern Europe would turn out to be a lot more complicated for sports leaders. 

As David Miller explains in his Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC, "The political upheaval…in the years 1989-1992 was to cause a multitude of headaches for the IOC". 

He goes on: "The tumbling of the Berlin Wall, of the Soviet Union and the demise of the conglomeration of Balkan states under the name of Yugoslavia would produce ultimately a flurry of 17 new national states seeking admission to the Olympic Games…It became a logistical nightmare for the Organising Committees in Albertville [host of the 1992 Winter Olympics and Paralympics] and Barcelona [the 1992 Summer Games host]."

As director general from 1989 to 2003, Carrard, the eminent Swiss lawyer who remains a well-known figure in the Olympic capital Lausanne, was at the heart of the IOC's response to this upheaval. And if the path ahead was rarely straightforward, one can observe that the vast majority of the world's best athletes were able, in the end, to be present for the Games of 1992 – no small thing given the relatively short length of time that had elapsed since the Olympic boycott era of 1976 to 1984.

According to Carrard, "As director general of the IOC, my first vivid recollection is the return of the Baltic states".

He continues: "I was delegated to receive them when they visited us in Lausanne. They said, 'We are now sovereign states. We were never suspended. Where are our seats on the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and other sports bodies?'

"I told them, 'Please be patient. We are going to restructure'. But at first they replied, 'We are not patient. Where is the correspondence withdrawing our recognition? We never found anything.'"

Carrard concludes: "At the time, Vitaly Smirnov was President of the Soviet National Olympic Committee. He was very helpful. Once the Baltic states understood that Smirnov – [who was also an IOC Executive Board member from 1986 to 1990 and an IOC vice-president from 1990 to 1994] - had been appointed, they started cooperating more readily."

In the event, all three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – won Olympic medals in their own right in 1992 in Barcelona.

François Carrard had a huge role to play as sports governance re-organised itself ©Getty Images
François Carrard had a huge role to play as sports governance re-organised itself ©Getty Images

It is worth recalling that in this period, the IOC was also much preoccupied with South Africa, which was itself able to rejoin the Olympic Movement in time for Barcelona 1992, its first appearance at the Games since Rome 1960. 

"At this time, I was also very busy with bringing South Africa back into the Olympic fold," Carrard recalls. "I had the privilege of hosting [Nelson] Mandela personally. We took walks in the hills above Montreux."

A key moment in the management of the consequences of the Soviet Union's break-up for the Olympic Movement came in January 1992, just ahead of the Albertville Games, when IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch met Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow.

Alexander Ratner, the former editor and interpreter who is now secretary general of the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), set the scene for this meeting in a book about Samaranch called The Seventh President.

Ratner, who was Samaranch's interpreter during visits to Moscow, wrote that to preserve unity, a decision had been taken to "transform the USSR NOC into a confederation of the republican NOCs with decisions to be taken by a majority of votes. "Thus," he wrote, "the All-Russian Olympic Committee (AROC) appeared on 1 December 1989."

He went on: "Some time later it became quite evident that the huge empire was falling into pieces and one had to do something urgently otherwise Russia could find itself beyond the Olympic family. And so on 19 December, 1991 the AROC Executive Board passed a decision to send an official appeal to the IOC asking for the recognition of the NOC of Russia. At the same time the AROC turned to the President, Boris Yeltsin, with a request to promote the decision of the question."

Samaranch arrived in Moscow on January 24, 1992, just over two weeks before the Winter Olympic Opening Ceremony. The meeting with Yeltsin took place the following day. Carrard remembers that it was a "gorgeous day of fresh snow and sunshine", while Miller reports that the "cabinet table within the Kremlin Palace was decorated with freshly picked daffodils".

Carrard goes on: "We had lunch with good wine and some vodka. When Yeltsin found out I was a French speaker, he said, 'I have a gift for you'. He went off and brought back a copy of his memoirs in French, which he signed. I still have it."

The IOC man recalls that "meetings at this time with Yeltsin were simple and friendly". 

"Samaranch had been Spanish Ambassador to the Soviet Union," he said. "The Russians always had huge respect and trust for him. I think Samaranch basically said to Yeltsin, 'We will find a solution, trust me' and Yeltsin said 'OK'. 

"We talked more about general politics. Yeltsin would tell us about the difficulties of his job, about how he had to try and explain to people what private enterprise was."

In Miller's succinct summary, the two men together "re-structured one of the world's two foremost Olympic nations, achieving last-minute stability for the two Games of 1992".

Ratner describes the nub of the bargain struck in the following terms: "Yeltsin agreed to Russia's participating in the Olympic Games of 1992 as part of the Unified Team which included the athletes of 12 states…and Samaranch promised to recognise the new NOCs, including the NOC of Russia, right after the Games." 

Then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch met Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow ©Getty Images
Then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch met Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow ©Getty Images

Miller elaborates that the two men agreed to the "compromise formation of a Unified Team embracing nine of the 12 newly independent states of the USSR, with the shift of administrative power moving directly from the Soviet to the new Russian NOC". 

As a result of this, he goes on, "Albertville and Barcelona would not be oversubscribed for beds. The new NOCs would gain recognition on acceptance of the provisional arrangements for 1992, which included use of the Olympic flag and anthem for team and individual medal winners, with the name and flag of the respective republic to be carried on the arm of the competitors' uniform." 

At Barcelona, the national flag of individual Unified Team medal winners was raised and their national anthem, where appropriate, played.

Miller also stipulates that "Samaranch allowed the $1.5 million (£1.1 million/€1.3 million) owed by Russian television for Games coverage to be deferred", while sponsors such as Adidas "picked up much of the bill for sending the teams". 

All in all, it sounds a typically canny arrangement, with all bases covered, put together with great care by a President who would have desperately wanted to make sure, in particular, that the Games in his home city of Barcelona were a success.

The assessment of Washington Post columnist Stephen Rosenfeld, published during the Albertville Games, is worth repeating at some length. "The Unified Team," he wrote, "represents a functional compromise devised to deal with a set of one-time circumstances. But it does seem to me remarkable that such an arrangement could be made and accepted with so little visible fuss and especially that the familiar heart-swelling usages of flag and anthem could be set aside…

"The painful travail of the ex-Soviets seems to be on everybody's mind. It makes many of us feel that they deserve a medal or two for seeing their world explode and their sports machines disintegrate and for showing up, still in championship form, to compete.

"After a couple of tense generations in which individuals of many nationalities were continually asked, one way or another, what they could do for their country, it comes as a civilising relief to be able to answer: to compete ardently, to win if possible, but mainly to do one's best and enjoy a decent respect. I think the Russians are leading the way." 

While Miller is not alone in mentioning potential accommodation issues that might have been caused had a large number of new teams been created so late in day, Carrard emphasises that "the risk that we might have to accommodate 15 teams instead of one had the Unified Team not been created was not our main concern".

"Our concern," he says, was about sport, athletes and competition. For instance, the Soviet ice hockey team was legendary. If we had had to break it up, it would have been unfair. All the players had been preparing together for the Games."

Carrard also recalls having "problems" with the media because when the USSR was disbanded, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created. For the media, it was simpler to say "CIS" instead of "Unified Team". But this created uproar from some of the newly independent republics.

Turning to the appallingly bellicose break-up of Yugoslavia, according to Miller, "intense negotiations by the IOC with the [United Nations] Security Council enabled competitors from the remnant Yugoslavia – Serbia/Montenegro – to compete as stateless individuals". 

The Unified Team ice hockey side won Olympic gold at Albertville 1992 ©Getty Images
The Unified Team ice hockey side won Olympic gold at Albertville 1992 ©Getty Images

Carrard's recollection is that the UN "had imposed sanctions, including sports sanctions, for the first time". He describes this as a "very dangerous precedent for us", adding: "the sanctions had to be enforced by individual states". 

He goes on: "We had to find some sort of agreement with the Security Council. We had to be very creative. We devised the concept of the "Independent Athletes" for Barcelona because the word "Yugoslavia" was banned. Spain was ordered to prevent any Yugoslavian team from entering, but they had not yet abolished recognition of Yugoslavia. So the Sports Minister could travel to Spain, but any team would not have been able to."

Carrard adds: "The decision to use all-white uniforms was part of the negotiations with the UN and the former Yugoslav sports organisations. They also wanted to use their flag, not the Olympic flag. The discussion was not simple. The white uniforms were bought in haste at the last minute."

Ratner's text makes clear that Samaranch took pains to convey his gratitude for Russia's understanding in helping the IOC to navigate a potentially dicey transitional period before sports bodies could restructure to fully reflect the brave new world emerging in Eastern Europe.

After Barcelona – where the Unified Team won a remarkable 45 gold, 38 silver and 29 bronze medals to top the medals table ahead of the United States and Germany, notwithstanding the historic changes that must have been shaking nearly all the team members' lives – the IOC President returned to Moscow to attend a ceremony in honour of this achievement.

Ratner quotes the Spaniard as saying: "I believe Russia has sacrificed its interests on behalf of the interests of the other republics, when it agreed to go to Barcelona as part of the Unified Team".

In early 1993, Samaranch was in the Russian capital again. This time, he presented Yeltsin with the Olympic Order in gold.

An extraordinary episode in sport – and in history – was drawing to a close.