A Meander into Romania
It is oft-repeated that distance runners, Derartu Tulu, Kenenisa Bekele and the Dibaba sisters, all come from the same village in Ethiopia. But forgive me if I am not impressed.
A more balanced account is found in the excellent documentary “Town of Runners“. The clue in the title is that Bekoji is not a village but a town. With a population of 17,000, it is a veritable megalopolis compared with some of the birthplaces of Olympic champions.
Consider Ivan Patzaichin of Romania (above). He has won 7 Olympic medals, 4 of them gold, and four other canoeists from his home village of Mila 23 have also won medals. Another three medallists are from the neighbouring villages of Crisan and Caraorman.
The three villages have a combined population of 1,200, making them less than a tenth of the size of Bekoji. They have produced one Olympic medallist for every 150 people.
Many nearby villages have similarly impressive records. Just 1% of Romanians live in Tulcea County, but it has produced at least 20 of their 44 Olympic canoeing medallists.
The explanation, once again, is the Danube, and the evidence is even starker and more compelling than for Hungary. Mila 23 is so named because of its location 23 miles from the mouth of the Danube, in the Black Sea. Tulcea County surrounds the Danube Delta.
Mila 23 (above) and its neighbouring villages do not have any roads and are navigable only by boat. This provides an informal training ground for local budding canoeists.
Informal training alone is not enough and Romania had little success before the Second World War. When communism arrived, the one upside, among its many downsides, was government investment in sport. Formal coaching complemented playing on the river.
But Romania is no longer a canoeing power so where did it all go wrong? To begin with, the country has fared much less well than Hungary in the transition to capitalism and its ability to fund sport has greatly diminished. From 20 gold medals at the boycotted 1984 Olympics, it won 2 at London 2012. Even women’s gymnastics now has few Romanians.
And Patzaichin is also concerned that the people of Tulcea County are losing interest in river-based sports. He has founded a charity, wittily known as Row-mania, and has even written a comic book about his life to encourage children to follow in his paddle strokes.
This is hopefully not the end for the region as a source of medals. But even if it is, it has surely done enough to demonstrate the importance of the Danube to canoeing history.
Next week: How Hungarian canoeing survived the upheavals that hurt many of its rivals