Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz has long resided high atop my list of all-time athletic badasses, and not just because he mastered the most technically difficult event in all of track-and-field. When the Polish Kozakiewicz took gold in the pole vault at the 1980 Olympics, he did so in front of a hostile Moscow crowd that was pulling for local favorite Konstantin Volkov. When the Pole cleared the winning height, he fired back at the crowd with the famously rude gesture depicted above—a gesture that many Poles interpreted as a show of defiance against their country’s Soviet masters. It was, in effect, Poland’s version of the Black Power salute, a moment in which the political briefly invaded the supposed sanctuary of Olympic sport.
Contrary to most accounts of Kozakiewicz’s gesture, the pole vaulter did not immediately split for the West in order to avoid persecution at home. In fact, it took him another five years to defect to West Germany, a move that evidently shocked the Polish elite. Their expressions of consternation over Kozakiewicz’s move tell you all you need to know about Soviet myopia:
“I don’t understand why Olympic champion Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz asked for political asylum in West Germany,” Witold Dunski, a leading sports columnist, wrote in an article.
“All doors were open for him here,” he said. “He was not starving. He had a beautiful house on land presented to him by the town authorities, a house of dreams, unattainable for the average Pole.”
The writer apparently did not stop to consider that Kozakiewicz had become disillusioned with a system that made slightly better-than-average comforts wholly unattainable for “the average Pole.”
Video of Kozakiewicz’s Olympic-winning vault here, gesture included. And a very recent Polish-language interview with the man here. He still sounds like quite the firecracker, even via Google Translate.