Forty years ago, on March 16, 1978, a tragic airplane crash claimed 73 lives, including a number of elite Polish cyclists. Shrouded in Cold War secrecy, the crash remains unexplained to this day.
Written by Matthew Stefanski. Matthew interviewed Dr. Leszek Sibilski, a member of the Polish Olympic Cycling Team at the time, to write the article.
When tragedy strikes the sporting community, it tends to captivate the world’s attention. Athletes who are competing and striving for victory one day, can simply be gone the next, as was the case in the Manchester United Munich Air Disaster or the luging accident during the Vancouver Olympics. Perhaps it is because the competitiveness and passion of sports is thought to safeguard athletes from worldly vices that these tragedies seem so unfair. Whatever their cause, society can oft only respond with grief expressed in a need to commemorate and remember the victims long after their untimely passing.
Unfortunately even in sports, tragedies can fade. March 16 this year marks the 40th anniversary of an airplane catastrophe which claimed the flower of Polish cycling. Shrouded in Cold War secrecy, it remains unexplained to this day; forgotten by all but those closest to the victims.
Training in Bulgaria
“Bulgaria was the cradle of spring trainings for the Polish cycling team. In Poland March was very tricky. We needed to build mileage on our bikes and to do so we needed dry roads and sunshine” explains Dr. Leszek Sibilski, professor of sociology at Montgomery College in Maryland.
In 1978 Sibilski was a member of the Polish Olympic Cycling Team. That March, as they often did, the team traveled to Bulgaria for spring training as they prepared for the coming season and worked towards qualify for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. The team was composed of short and medium distance cyclists, some 20 athletes in all. They were young, passionate and the best cyclists Poland had.
The training in Bulgaria progressed as any other, with the mild Balkan weather melting away the cyclist’s winter blues.
On March 16, the team split. The medium-distance athletes continued to train in Bulgaria, while the six short-distance sprinters, who were on a different training regime, prepared to depart for Warsaw aboard a Balkan Bulgarian Airlines flight.
The crash and its aftermath
The Tu-134 aircraft with 73 passengers and crew aboard departed Sofia but never reached its cruising altitude. Less than ten minutes after takeoff, due to still undetermined reasons, the airplane crashed near the village of Gabare, 80 miles from Sofia. There were no survivors.
The crash site was quickly cordoned off by the Bulgarian military and a cloak of secrecy and unanswered questions descended over the area.
As word of what happened spread, the Polish cyclists who had remained in Bulgaria quickly traveled to the site only to be turned away by military personnel. Few answers were forthcoming, and little more would be learned over time.
The incident was briefly covered by the Polish press, which then was still subject to Communist censorship, but overall the cyclists were quickly forgotten. The funerals were private, and no public commemorations were organized. “The topic was avoided, it was painful, inconvenient, and became easy to forget,” explains Sibilski.
Following a superficial investigation the official cause of the crash was described as electrical circuit malfunction, but theories quickly began to circulate. Was the aircraft shot down by the Bulgarian armed forces, some wondered, or did the crash have anything to do with the secret military base located near Gabare? The year, however, was 1978 and both Poland and Bulgaria were behind the Iron Curtain. With an atmosphere not conducive to prodding questions, the theories went unanswered.
So, just like that, with the victims buried and crash site cleared, the incident creeped out of public consciousness.
“At a certain age, you begin to reflect and analyze your life. You look back on your mistakes and your successes. I consider this catastrophe the most defining moment of my life” asserts Professor Sibilski, “This incident haunts me. I am very lucky that I was not aboard that plane, and I want to pay it back.”
Professor Sibilski points out that education saved his life. Had he attended the spring training in Bulgaria, he would most certainly have been aboard that fateful plane together with the other sprinters. As was the case, his university schedule did not allow for him to take part in this particular training, so he remained instead in Poland to attend classes.
“I lost five of my very close friends, my teammates, and no one is doing anything to find out what happened.” No one - that is - except Sibilski.
Trying to resolve the mystery
A recent self-described empty nester, Sibilski has long suppressed if not the memory than certainly the emotions of this painful chapter in his life. But recently, as he approaches 60, reflections on his life have led him to confront those memories, and to commemorate his lost teammates.
Two years ago, following an impromptu mini-reunion of former Polish cyclists during the 2015 UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, VA, Sibilski initiated an action that would result in the first official public commemoration of the five lost cyclists. In November 2016 a plaque was unveiled at the entrance to the velodrome in Pruszków, near Warsaw, Poland.
It reads “The living owe it to those who can no longer speak to tell their story. In memory of: Marek Kolasa, Krzysztof Otocki, Witold Stachowiak, Tadeusz Wlodarczyk and Jacek Zdaniuk, the cyclists of the Polish National Team who died on March 16, 1978 in unsolved circumstances in a plane crash near Gabare, Bulgaria.”
Sibilski thought that this action would be the end of it. But, as he now explains, when he watched the unveiling ceremony and the moving reactions from the victim’s family members, something within him continued to stir.
“Questions. Unanswered questions. So much is still unknown,” demurred Professor Sibilski when I spoke with him ahead of the fortieth anniversary.
Professor Sibilski is working with interest researchers in Poland and Bulgaria to study the declassified Communist archives for clues that could finally remove the cloak of silence that had descended over that fateful crash. “We are so close. The answers are surely in the archives. It’s time to shake people up; to give them an opportunity to find answers, perhaps I can be that spark to make something happen.”
Let us know your thoughts below.
Matthew Stefanski serves as the press advisor at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Washington, DC. The views presented here are strictly his own.
The photographs in this article are from Dr. Leszek Sibilski’s private collection and are used in this article with permission.