Escape from White City
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 020, April 2020
Words and Illustrations by Liam Boylan-Pett
Clippings courtesy of the Rațiu Family Charitable Foundation
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.”
At the 1954 European Athletics Championships in Bern, Switzerland, the sixth runner across the line in the 110-meter hurdles was Ion Opris. He ran 15.1 seconds as Yevgeniy Bulanchik of the Soviet Union won in 14.4 seconds. It was not a great race for Opris—he had run 14.8 in the semifinal—but the meeting in Bern would change his world. It was there Opris decided he had to leave Romania.
Born in 1929, Opris grew up in Sibiu, a city in the Transylvanian region (Count Dracula’s home) of Romania. He was too young to join any front during World War II, but felt the impact. The Soviet Union occupied Romania in 1944, and in the summer of 1948, the year Opris finished technical school, Romania faced famine. Opris had to care for his family, and he had to scour the country for food. According to Opris, he traveled nearly 200 miles by train to Baia Mare in northwest Romania to secure rations for his parents. The day he returned home, he was told by the schooling system he needed to report to the athletic fields in Sibiu the next day—all able-bodied teenagers were running. Dead tired, Opris somehow managed to win, and was invited—not optional, he would later write—to Bucharest for the national championships, which were being run by the Popular Sports Organization. He did not win nationally, but it was at those championships that Opris decided to devote his life to sport. He wrote: “I was tempted by the life of a sportsman because the top class ‘Master of Sports,’ as they are called in Communist countries, get special food free at the best Bucharest restaurants, free travel, [and] far better salaries for the sinecure jobs which they are given than the ordinary citizens who do the same type of work.”
Opris trained the entire year and swept the 100 and 200 meters at the Sibiu races in 1949, then won both at the national championships in Bucharest. He was soon traveling internationally, and took up the hurdles in 1950. He was third to two Russian stars in the high hurdles at a meet in Moscow in 1951, but he defeated Romania’s top two athletes. He was a “Master of Sports,” but it wasn’t quite what he thought it would be. The next year he was sent to Bulgaria for a meeting, and he won the hurdles. “My usefulness to the regime was proved and my life was no longer my own,” Opris wrote. He was enrolled in Bucharest University, where he studied economics, but his schedule was based on athletics and performing well for the Romanian public image. After he broke the Romanian record in the 110-meter hurdles (he ran 15.2 seconds), his life was even more controlled by the country. He was shuttled from race to race—taking on Europe’s best hurdlers in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and Istanbul, among others—all under the watchful eye of coaches and communist officials.
That was life for Opris. Then, in 1954, after finishing sixth in the European championships, he decided he had had enough. On the flight from Prague to Bern, Switzerland, Opris was taken aback by how nice and unworried everyone was. Then, once in Bern, he wrote he was “struck by the all-too apparent carefree life which the people led in the Swiss town.” Opris wanted a free life, too. In fact in 1955, he even attempted to defy the Romanian regime with the simple act of buying a bowtie in Oslo. Romanian team manager Andrei Savescu told Opris wearing a “capitalist sartorial appliance” was not something the team would allow. After Opris wore the bowtie anyways, he was disciplined. The team traveled to a meet in Vienna without him. Opris was worried he might never be invited to travel again, especially as the Olympic year approached.
Still, heading into the 1956 Olympics, he was expected to race with the world’s best. Opris and the Romanian team’s training made it difficult. In winter months, the athletes were stuck speed training in hallways, reaching full speed before needing to slow down because they only had 50 meters of straightaway. In April, the team traveled to Arad in western Romania for milder weather, but the track did not have hurdles, so Opris had to arrange for a set to be transported from Bucharest.
On top of the pitiful conditions, Opris and his teammates were constantly told they must be successful at the Olympic Games. He believed he and his teammates would have been better off training on their own compared to their actual situation.
After the bowtie incident, he figured he would be stuck in Romania and other communist countries for competitions, but in late June he was given a lifeline: He was invited to compete at the A.A.A. Championships in London in July.
Since 1954, Opris had dreamt of leaving Romania for good. He was going to take his chance in London if he could. So, he did the only thing he could think of and sent a cable to his cousin in the west who he believed could be in London at the meeting.
The telegram was short: “Meet me at the White City Stadium, London July 14th, signed Ion Opris.”
Opris did not hear back.
Walking into the White City Stadium for the A.A.A. Championships in tan raincoats on July 14, 1956, Ion Ratiu and Josef Josten flashed their credentials as they walked past security. They were waved through, and, with a sense of relief, they began the long walk to the infield. They were not, as their official badges said, race officials.
Ratiu and Josten were there for Ion Opris.
It had been a hectic week for Ratiu and Josten, beginning with a 1950s version of a game of telephone. On July 11, they received a letter, along with a photo of Opris, from Florian Goldau in New York. Goldau, who specifically asked not to be named in the 1950s because he had helped others escape from Soviet rule, had received a letter from Maria Gherghescu, Opris’ cousin who lived in Chicago. And Gherghescu had received the cable from Opris instructing her to meet him at White City Stadium on July 14. The message was not lost on Ratiu and Josten, and they prepared to help Opris.
This was not something new for Ratiu or Josten.
Ratiu was born in 1917 in Austria-Hungary just before the country dissolved following World War I. He grew up in Turda, Romania before attending school in Cruj, Romania. He earned his law degree in 1938 and moved to London to work at the Romanian Legation, which was a lower-level embassy. Then, in September 1940 with World War II, Romania’s culture changed quickly and rapidly when King Carol II fled and Ion Antonescu formed the National Legionary State that would eventually become part of the Soviet Union. Ratiu resigned from his post at the legation and requested political asylum. He remained in exile after communists officially came to power in Romania in 1947 but stayed in touch with those who stayed or were unable to flee.
Ratiu’s great grandfather, Ion Codru-Drăgușanu, was a famous Romanian activist and journalist, and Ratiu would eventually follow suit. In the mid-1950s, Ratiu started publishing the Free Romanian Press. He was still in London with a wife and two children, and the F.R.P. was a weekly news bulletin with stories that would occasionally be picked up by the B.B.C. Romanian service, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America.
To put together the F.R.P Ratiu often brought on Josef Josten’s help.
Josten was four years older than Ratiu and was born in Prague, Bohemia. He took up sportswriting and notched his first gig at a Prague newspaper straight out of school. When the Germans marched into Prague in 1939, Josten joined the Czech underground movement and was soon forced out of the country. Eventually, after fleeing to France at one point, Josten, with a Czech unit, was evacuated to Britain. There, he participated in the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.
After the war, Josten returned to Prague, but once again had to flee after refusing to join the communist party. He ended up back in London, where he started publishing the Free Czechoslovak Information Service. Josten wrote, as he called them, “Features and News from behind the Iron Curtain” to subscribers in over fifty countries. Those features put him in touch with Ratiu, who would sometimes commission Josten to help with the F.R.P.
They were more than journalists, though. Ratiu and Josten did all they could to aid those stuck behind the Iron Curtain, working escape plans for refugees who reached out to them.
That is why in July 1956, Ratiu brought in Josten after receiving a letter in the mail from Florian Goldau asking if they could help a Romanian hurdler named Ion Opris.
Even though the letter did not directly express that Opris wanted to leave Romania, Ratiu and Josten figured as much. So, almost immediately, they put a plan into place that would, if successful, allow Opris a safe space in London.
First, they wrote to Sydney Skilton, a sports journalist who was going to be covering the A.A.A. Championships at White City Stadium that weekend. On Friday, July 13, they met Skilton on the first day of the meeting. Ratiu and Josten were scouting the location, making last-second changes to their plans for the following day with Opris. Skilton approached them in the stands and handed them an envelope. It contained two officials’ badges that would allow Ratiu and Josten on the infield.
They wore the badges on their jackets as they strode into the stadium the next day, passing by security, who let them through without a question. They walked through the underbelly of White City Stadium—the same venue that hosted the 1908 Olympic Games—and out onto the infield as rain poured down.
Ratiu and Josten scanned the field, athletes racing and jogging and stretching at every turn. Finally, they saw who they believed was Ion Opris. He was stretching along the turn of the track near the start of the 120-yard hurdles in the pale-blue tracksuit of the Romanian track team. Two men watched the athlete closely, and the athlete stole quick glances in all directions. Ratiu and Josten inched closer and closer, them, too, keeping a close eye on the two men who oversaw the athlete’s preparations.
Finally, minutes before the first round of the 120-yard hurdles was set to be run, Ratiu sidled up an arm’s length away from the athlete and whispered: “Are you Orpis? What can I do for you?”
“I want to get out,” Opris said to the two men he now realized were not race officials. “I want to stay in a free country.”
“You do realize that at home you are a member of a privileged class,” Ratiu said. “The life of an exile is very hard.”
“However hard,” Opris whispered, “I want to stay here.”
Ratiu nodded and asked, “When do you want to leave the team?”
“I am not quite sure. I could stay until Tuesday—until you are ready for me.”
“We are ready now,” Ratiu said. “Think it over.”
Just then, Opris’ coach and manager neared. Ratiu and Josten turned away quickly, then slowly walked away.
Opris had to prepare for the first round of his race.
Fifteen seconds after the gun went off, Opris won his heat of the 120-yard hurdles, taking the tape by about three yards. There was one hour until the final at 3:35 p.m.
Rain continued to pour. Puddles formed on the cinder track. Opris rushed to put on his sweats and, with his coach and Savescu, the manager who had punished him for buying a bowtie, following, returned to the athletes’ dressing room to compose himself. The opportunity was there, he thought to himself, it was time.
Meanwhile, Ratiu and Josten prepared for the next steps, unsure if Opris was going to follow through. They had written a plan out on two pieces of paper, with a map and instructions for Opris. Now they just had to get to him.
Ratiu and Josten watched as Opris reentered the infield, but his coach and manager seemed even more keen on staying nearby as Opris went through his drills. Ratiu and Josten inched closer and closer, acting as if they were paying close attention to the races and field events going on around them. Opris, too, looked for an opportunity—he had made eye contact with the two men there to help him, but they were unable to get close enough to speak.
Around them, the 25,000 spectators filling the stands watched as the meet continued. The gun fired every few minutes. The crowd roared as races unfolded on the homestretch. In the 3-mile, Chris Chataway, famous for pacing Roger Bannister in the first sub-four-minute mile, was outkicked in the race’s final few meters. The final of the 120-yard hurdles approached as Opris, Ratiu, and Josten looked and prayed for an opportunity. Finally, moments before Opris was called to the start line, Ratiu saw an opening. He walked up to the hurdler, extended his hand, and pressed the two slips of paper into Opris’ hand. Opris tucked the sheets into his tracksuit and went off for a strider.
Opris jogged back towards Ratiu and Josten and nodded. He knelt to tie his shoe and said, “We shall make it now. Immediately after the final. Wait outside.” He nodded once more as he walked away, the voice of the race starter calling all 120-yard hurdlers to the start line.
It was time.
Opris crouched in the starting position, and exploded from the blocks, rushing through the puddle-pocked track. He raced even with the leaders, tearing along the course and up and over the hurdles in a staccato rhythm. He finished abreast of three others, but P.B Hildreth inched ahead, winning in 14.5 seconds. Opris ran 14.6, the same time as two others, and finished fourth.
That did not matter to Opris, though. As soon as he crossed the finish line, he walked back to the start line and put on his tracksuit—the same one he was set to wear in Melbourne that November. His face remained steadfast—one watching him closely might have thought he was upset about the fourth-place finish. Without speaking to anyone, including his coach or manager, Opris made his way through a maze of competitors, officials, and press and into the dressing room.
There, he quickly showered, changed into slacks and a shirt, packed his bag, and walked out of White City Stadium.
Ratiu and Josten, who had rushed through the stadium to the getaway vehicle, were waiting for him. Opris jumped into the car, and they drove off to a flat in London.
Just like that, Ion Opris was free.
ROMANIAN TRACK STAR TAKES BIG LEAP, SPRINTS TO FREEDOM AFTER HURDLE RACE
That was the headline in the Pensacola News Journal on July 16, 1956. The headline was accompanied by an Associated Press story that would make the rounds in U.S. newspapers over the next month, the story of the hurdler who escaped the Iron Curtain under the noses of 25,000 spectators.
That’s what happened when two journalists/activists helped someone escape communist rule, the story made the rounds.
Once Opris met Ratiu and Josten in the car, they still had a few loose ends to tie up to complete the escape.
Opris’ luggage was still at the hotel with the Romanian team. With the rest of the Romanian team attending a special diner put on for athletes, Opris and Josten walked up to Room 319 of the Lancaster Gate Hotel while Ratiu stayed in the lobby, ready to alert the two if anyone neared. Opris snuck into the room—which was left open by chance—and found his small leather case. He gathered his small personal belongings, which included a book on psychology, and threw them in the case. The three men walked out of the hotel and returned to the flat.
The next day, the Romanian team telegrammed Ratiu to set up a call with Opris. They put Illie Savell, a 400-meter hurdler who was friends with Opris, on the line. Savell attempted to persuade Opris to join the team on the trip to Belgrade for a meeting, asking, “Why did you leave me, your closest friend, without saying goodbye?” This touched Opris, who teared up, but said, “There is no going back. I did this because my conscience forced me. I cry because I am speaking to you, possibly for the last time.” He hung up the phone, at last shutting the door on his past.
The same day as his call with Savell, Opris made his application for asylum in Britain. He announced the application on the American Broadcasting Company with the help of Ion Ratiu as an interpreter. Then, he was a guest on Highlights, a British news television show.
Opris was a hot commodity. He was all over the news and was invited to compete in the 1956 Morton Games in Dublin. Meanwhile, he was trying to get his life in order. He picked up a job as a groundsperson at a sportsground in Wembley and attempted to put his economics degree to use. Plus, with the help of Ratiu, he nearly earned a job as a TV and radio correspondent. (Opris eventually decided against the work, fearing that he would hurt the family that remained in Romania, including his parents and his wife, who he had left without informing—which, he said, was the only way she would not be punished.)
Opris ran his last race in 1956 at the Morton Games in Dublin.
In November of 1956, approximately 45 Hungarian athletes defected while in Melbourne for the Olympic Games. Opris was not the only athlete looking for a new life.
Over the next two years, Opris searched for more steady jobs and even applied to graduate schools with the hopes of finding more work in London.
He and Ratiu corresponded regularly until 1958. After that, it is difficult to trace exactly what happened Ion Opris.
Ion Ratiu would return to Romania in January of 1990, shortly after the Romanian Revolution of 1989 ended communist rule in the country. Ratiu had been in a constant fight against communism in Romania, and when he returned, he entered the political arena. He helped to recreate the National Peasants’ Party and ran for president of Romania in the 1990 election. He garnered only 4.9 percent of the vote, but in a televised debate he left a mark on the country, declaring, “I will fight until my last drop of blood so you have the right not to agree with me.”
Ratiu died in 2000, back in London with his family at his side. He was buried in his hometown of Turda.
Josten died in 1985 in London, the same year he was appointed a Member of the British Empire. He helped countless refugees escape communist rule from the 1950s until the day he died.
There are 41 boxes in the archives of the library at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln that house those stories and other clippings and photos of Josten’s life. Box 4, Folder 1 holds a series of published pieces on escapes in which Josten aided. There is one about a married couple who escaped by train, boat, and plane to Great Britain. There is one about a touring folk dance group who escaped in London. And there is one story about the athlete Ion Opris, who escaped to London.
The Ratiu Family Charitable Foundation in London also housed a box like the one in Lincoln. This one held correspondences and clippings that Ion Ratiu had held onto throughout the years. One of the folders was devoted to Opris.
That’s how I found a letter from Opris to Ratiu from 1989, the last known correspondence between Opris and Ratiu or Josten. It was in a digitized folder sent to me by the foundation. In the letter, Opris writes (in Romanian) to say he is well. The letter contains mostly pleasantries, and he also enclosed a photo, which, unfortunately, was not in the folder.
The return address on the letter is from Dortmund, Germany. It was, as of April 2020, the last known address of Opris. After 1989, I found no evidence of Opris. I reached out to multiple people who I hoped would be related to Opris on Facebook and LinkedIn, and to multiple people in Germany who might be able track him down, but all trails ran dry.
Until, that is, I got a Facebook message in October 2020.
In early October, Becky Mount, a recent graduate of the Rhein-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve, Germany, was surfing the Internet, stumbling from one page to another, when she came across a story from Løpe Magazine about a runner who had escaped the Iron Curtain at a track meet. She did not think much of it until she noticed the name of the story’s protagonist. Ion Opris was her grandfather.
She messaged me on Facebook explaining that she had by luck come across the article, and was curious where I had discovered her grandfather’s story—including many details about the escape they were unaware of. Her family was thrilled, she wrote—especially her grandmother. “Dorit Opris is 93 now,” Becky wrote. “With much love and pain she remembers her late husband, and she can’t believe she isn’t the only one.”
Becky and I emailed back and forth throughout the month as she filled in details of Opris’ life after his escape. He met Dorit in London in 1956. She was from Sibiu, too, and had been in London for four years. She was working as an Au-pair, but had gone to the B.B.C. station center one day looking for connections and she met Opris, who was working on sports stories at the time.
The two took a bus back to Dorit’s home in Earl’s Court in London, and they hit it off. As Becky’s nan told her, the two found out they were from the same part of the world, and it was set. They married in 1957 in London, and later moved to Germany. They had two children, Christine (Becky’s mother) and Michael.
Together, the family traveled all of Europe—often spending holidays in Viareggio, Italy. Opris took photos everywhere they went, reveling in the fact that he could travel freely.
He was a welder by trade, but not, according to Becky, by choice. He rose at 5 in the morning each day to work his eight hours to support his family, but dreamed of taking photos and painting. For much of his life, he hated that he could not return to Romania. However, once the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, he was able to return home.
One day in 1992, Dorit was waiting for Opris to return home from work. He was late, and Doris, who was cooking three large potatoes, began to worry they would be too soft once he made it back. She heard a knock at the door and opened it to the police. Opris had suffered a heart attack while biking home. He hit his head when he fell, dying immediately. At 63, Opris was dead.
In 1956, Ion Opris escaped from the Iron Guard while 25,000 people watched. While much of what happened to Opris after the escape remains a mystery, it is known that he was granted asylum in Great Britain and made a life for himself outside of Soviet rule. At some point in 1989, he sent a photo of his three children to Ion Ratiu, one of the two men who helped him leave a world he wanted no part of.
Opris wanted to leave Romania because he had no control over his life. Every move he made was watched closely. So, perhaps it is fitting that eventually Opris disappeared from public life, away from the Iron Curtain and away from the world of athletics, and into his own world. Wherever he ended up, here’s hoping it was better than the world he had to leave.