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.”
Walking into the White City Stadium for the A.A.A. Championships in tan raincoats earlier that day, 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 a Romanian expat living in London who published the Free Romanian Press, a weekly news bulletin that was meant to peel back the truths of the Iron Curtain. To put together the F.R.P Ratiu often brought on Josef Josten’s help. Josten was a Prague native who had fled during World War II and even 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, however. 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.
Which was 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. They contacted a sports journalist who was going to cover the A.A.A. Championships and were able to procure 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.
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. 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 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.
In 1956, Ion Opris escaped from the Iron Guard while 25,000 people watched. After the getaway, his story made the rounds in the press. He had despised his life as an athlete in Romania, acting as a poster child for something he did not believe in. He competed one more time after becoming a refugee, but did not run in the 1956 Olympic Games.
If alive today, he would be 91 years old. 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 from his new home in Dortmund, Germany, 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.
Words and Illustration by: Liam Boylan-Pett
This is an excerpt from: Issue No. 020 of Løpe Magazine, Escape from White City.
Løpe Magazine publishes one eye-opening story from the track, road, or trail, monthly. To read the full story of Ion Opris, go to: www.lopemagazine.com.