Colin Fitzgerald admits it was slightly unnerving attending the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, but that wasn’t going to prevent him achieving his sporting dream.
The Eaglehawk-raised cyclist was one of just 120 Australians who competed behind the USSR’s “iron curtain” at the Moscow Games.
Staged during the communist era, the Moscow Olympics were boycotted by 65 countries.
While the Australian government called for its athletes to follow suit, they weren’t stopped from attending.
Fitzgerald understood both sides of the argument, but – after winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal in the 4000m team pursuit in 1978 – he wanted to be an Olympian in the same event, so he decided to make the trip to the Soviet Union.
“It was a little bit scary, because of the tension that was around at that stage some people wanted us to go to the Games and others didn’t,” Fitzgerald said.
“We thought ‘bugger it’ we’ve trained for four years for this, every day and every night for six to eight hours a day.
“We had to start thinking ‘What about us?’ It’s OK for our government to say you shouldn’t go.”
Fitzgerald spent almost a month in Moscow, mainly at the Olympic Village and at the state-of-the-art velodrome.
But whenever he and his pursuit team-mates – Kevin Nichols, Kelvin Poole and Garry Sutton – wanted to explore the city, they always had an uneasy feeling.
“You were allowed to go into the city, but I felt that you were monitored a little bit to where you could go and where you shouldn’t,” Fitzgerald said.
“One of the guys went off somewhere – I don’t know why he did. There were guards around everywhere, they didn’t give you any hassles, but I know they followed him.
“If you stayed in the city… it was fine, no worries. But you just felt like you were a little bit restricted in what you could do.”
Similar restrictions were in place whenever Fitzgerald’s team wanted to go for a long road cycle, as guards lined the only course they were allowed to ride.
“You would ride down the road 60km down the road and they would have a foot soldier every four to five hundred metres,” Fitzgerald said.
“You’d get down to the end and there’d be a foot soldier there in the middle of the road and you’d turn around there and come back again.
“One of the guys needed to go to the toilet, so he jumped off his bike. We waited for him and I reckon he had three or four soldiers wondering where he’d gone off to.
“They followed him over and once they realised what he was doing it was fine, but it was quite comical, actually.”
The security was effective, though, and kept Fitzgerald in with the crowd.
“You always wanted to stay around your mates, I don’t think I’ve been closer to a bunch of blokes in my life,” he said.
Being tight away from the track seemed to help Fitzgerald’s pursuit team, who progressed to the quarter-finals before being eliminated.
A sixth-placed finish was certainly no disgrace against the might of the communist countries’ cycling teams.
According to Fitzgerald, the Olympic boycott had no effect on the gold-medal going to the USSR and the minor placings to East Germany and Czechoslovakia, as they were the strongest nations at the time.
But he still has some question marks about the legitimacy of the results.
“We got put out in the quarters, it was a little bit tough. People talk about drugs in sport… I could write a book on it,” he said.
“I’ve got pretty strong views on drugs.
“I think it was around in that time, I think it was more around in that time than what it is now.
“I think they weren’t able to detect them like they can now, they’re really starting to try and get on top of it. I don’t think it was the case back then.
“I know for a fact that one of the guys that won the gold medal in the pursuit team got found out only three or four years ago and got stripped.”
Until retelling his story to the Bendigo Advertiser yesterday, Fitzgerald had never thought about the fact he was never tested at an overseas meet during his seven-year international career.
“I got tested at the national titles in Perth after I’d won my two gold medals over there, but internationally no – I’d never even thought about that,” he said.
“They obviously did have drug tests, I’m not saying nobody had a drug test.
“If you win a world championship and you break a world record they’re going to do a drug test on you… but their testing facilities were nowhere near (what they are now).”
While he may never get a conclusive answer to his questions, Fitzgerald also has many positive recollections of Moscow – particularly of the opening ceremony.
“The biggest thrill I’ve ever had in my life was when I walked through the tunnel and you were surrounded by 120,000 people. I’ll never, ever forget it. It still sends tingles down my spine to think about it. It is just mindblowing,” he said.
It was all pretty impressive for a boy from the Borough, who in 1968 began cycling as a 13-year-old to be like his cousins and older brother.
He was spotted cycling by Stan Raysan, who would become his mentor during his teenage years.
“At that stage of my life we weren’t a very financial family and he came along and could see there was a bit of potential there,” Fitzgerald said.
“He spent a lot of time and a little bit of money on me as well. He put me on the straight and narrow and pointed me in the right direction.
“I owe him a lot.”
As a 16-year-old, Fitzgerald won his first state title and his first national title the next year, where he broke the Australian junior record in the 800m time trial before re-breaking a month later.
“Nobody knew who I was, they had no idea. But they did after that,” he said.
He won seven state titles in a row, plus four national titles and some Oceania titles during his career.
After Moscow, Fitzgerald returned to Bendigo and tried to make a living as a professional cyclist.
Riding in a madison in Tasmania, he got tangled up in a changeover, lost his helmet as he fell and suffered two blood clots on his brain after hitting his head on the ground.
“The ambulance, apparently, took a little bit long to get to me but they finally got me to the Hobart Hospital,” Fitzgerald said.
“As they were taking me in there was some neurosurgeon from England who was just walking out... he had a look at me as I was on the way in. He said ‘get him up there, I’ll be there in five minutes’.
“They’ve told me that another five minutes and I’d have had permanent brain damage.”
The injury took Fitzgerald 12 months to recover from and he wanted to get back on the bike, but with two young boys – Anton and Kieran – it was too big a risk if he fell again, so he retired from cycling.
Now the father of three children, including daughter Kelsea, Fitzgerald is happily re-married and describes his wife as “the best thing that’s every happened to me”.
While his career was cut short through serious injury, Fitzgerald is thankful for the experiences cycling gave him.
“I achieved what I thought I could achieve and I’ve got no regrets.”