No doubt it is just coincidence that hockey player Michal Pivonka would defect from Czechoslovakia in the same days that Martina Navratilova would, for for the first time since her own defection in 1975, return there. But look what curious signals it sends. The defection includes the melancholy assumption that friends and family never will be seen and touched and held tight again. But the return says that all things are possible.
Defection should not be a casual decision. It is the choice of a lifetime, not merely a lifestyle. Defectors normally don't return to their homeland. Even more rarely are they greeted as warmly and enthusiastically as Navratilova was. How glorious a waterfall it would be for everyone who already has defected -- and everyone else who has considered it -- if Navratilova's return was not a momentary fissure, but the start of a deliberate thaw in icy relations between the Soviet Bloc and the West. How much, one wonders, was Pivonka cheered by the reports of Navratilova's reception in Prague?
Pivonka seems to have thought this over well. We should not blame him if he came just for the hockey and the money. He is a 20-year-old hockey player. What motivates 20-year-old Canadian or U.S. hockey players if not the hockey and the money? It's simply an unfortunate consequence of geography that Pivonka has to slip past the border police to shop at Britches. But in light of the historical significance and political overtones of Navratilova's return to Czechoslovakia, it is interesting to see how Pivonka positioned himself for his defection.
Pivonka considered the scope of previous Czechoslovakian reprisals to the families of hockey defectors and calculated any risk to his family was acceptably small. He said, "I don't believe anything will happen." He expressed the desire of returning someday to visit Czechoslovakia. "Of course one day I would like to go back and visit my family," he said. While this longing is to be anticipated, in the past such hope of reconciliation would not have been as realistic as it appears now. Even as he negotiated with the Capitals to come play for them, Pivonka insisted on first completing his military service in Czechoslovakia. Although he said he intends to make his permanent home in the United States, he feared that if he reneged on his military service all doors would be closed to any re-entry visit to Czechoslovakia. Clearly, this is a defection with a best-case scenario built in.
And why shouldn't Pivonka be optimistic? Since defecting, Navratilova has become a U.S. citizen and an outspoken proponent of capitalism. In Prague, she said, "This is my homeland, but the United States is my home. I'm an American now." Still, the Czechs -- the Party and the people alike -- adored her."I'm still kind of a hero to them," Navratilova said. "I don't think, even though I left, they feel betrayed. They understand why I did what I did." In their hearts, the Czechoslovakian people still think of Navratilova as one of them, no matter what passport she travels under. Likewise, to a Soviet, Nureyev still is a home boy. Pivonka still can be a source of national pride in Czechoslovakia, particularly if he becomes a great player in the NHL. (They understand why he did it.) The higher he rises as a player, the better his chances for an open door for visiting his homeland should he choose to walk through it. Nothing moves the spirit like good public relations. Wait and see, some day in Prague they'll hold The Martina Navratilova Open.
Whether or not we are troubled with the morality that encourages a business like the NHL to woo a foreign national like Pivonka from his family and country at the risk of permanent estrangement, this sort of "Upwardly Mobile Defection" of Czechoslovakian hockey players happens with regularity. And since Czech hockey teams still are allowed to compete outside the Soviet Bloc -- a progressive policy since such travel would seem to increase the chances of even more defections -- one might conclude the defections will continue and that they are, for the Czechs, the price of true international competition.
The Czechs obviously learned a lesson from Navratilova's defection. You'll note that neither Ivan Lendl nor Hana Mandlikova has defected; the Czechs cut them deals too good to refuse. The NHL is the best hockey league in the world. The best hockey players from Prague to Philadelphia, from Moscow to Montreal, want to play there. If the NHL establishes a policy allowing for the release of its players to competing Soviet Bloc national teams during world championships (and similar release to Olympic teams if the Olympics permit pros to play), why couldn't an arrangement be worked out that would facilitate Czechs and Soviets playing in the NHL?
An athlete's career is a perishable good. It shouldn't be forced to rot on a shelf of geopolitical ideology. This is true of basketball as well as hockey: Sabonis shouldn't have to defect to test himself against everybody's favorite immigrants, Ewing and Olajuwon.
Defection is a desperate act, but freedom is worth leaving for. Eliminating the shackles that force people into it is a worthy goal. If, in some small way, athletes can help light the road toward freedom for all, they have our gratitude and our best wishes.