Escape from White City
Romania's star runner, a crowd of 25,000, and a plot to flee the Iron Curtain.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 020, April 2020
By Liam Boylan-Pett
Ion Opris was nervous.
Rain showered down as he stepped onto the track in the early afternoon at White City Stadium in London. He had a little more than an hour before he was set to run the first round of the 120-yard hurdles at the Amateur Athletic Association Championships on July 14, 1956.
At 27, Opris was the best sprint hurdler in Romania. He had met the country’s standard of 14.2 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles earlier that year, and was set to represent Romania at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games in November. This race was another tune-up in Romania’s pre-Olympic tour. With his team manager and coach watching, he began to stretch and warm up, jogging and bounding on the infield and on the turn between races. The A.A.A. Championships were one of the biggest competitions of the year—25,000 people filled the stands, and many more watched the meet unfold on television.
Opris was nervous for different reasons. His head zipped from one spot to another as he warmed up, trying to keep one eye on his coach and manager while also scanning the crowd. He had written to his cousin the week before asking for help in London, but he had not heard back. He, admittedly, was not entirely sure what or who he was looking for.
Then, just as he was about to take off his sweats for the race, two race officials approached. They kept their distance, but Opris sensed they were there for him. After a moment, one of them whispered, their gaze remaining on the track.
“Are you Opris?” he said. “What can I do for you?”
Opris’ response was immediate: “I want to get out.”
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