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Living Through Normal

When I was very young, I believed that Olympians from the Soviet Union or Soviet block states would be punished if they failed to win a medal. This was the late 60s and 70s. Back then, I would still play in the occasional bomb shelter dug in the occasional family backyard. I remember nuclear attack drills in grade school. The news was full of disarmament talks and Soviet military aggression and nuclear war and communist threats spreading around the world. For many Americans during the Cold War, the televised Olympic games offered one of the few glimpses behind the Iron Curtain. And this made the Olympics mean much more than a simple athletic competition. It seemed that the entire superiority of nations, culture and values hinged on whether the Soviet Block countries beat the US and Western countries in these games. And my child's logic reasoned that with so much at stake for civilization as we knew, it must be especially bad for communist state athletes if they lost. Because surely those scary, militant authorities behind the iron curtain would be looming and punish anyone who did not win and bring glory to their country. I truly had no idea what life was like behind the Wall. I suspect very few Americans then understood more than we were led to believe. Forty years later, as I travel behind the Iron Curtain for the first time to the former Soviet Satellite state of the Czech Republic, I'm slowly catching glimpses of a history and the upheaval that people survived in the last century. We are in the town of Cesky Krumlov, deep in Bohemia near the Austrian and German border. This town is a Unesco World Heritage Site ... dominated by a massive castle and preserved as it was in the 15th century. Truly beautiful. Truly