#8 - JRL 7223
Detroit Free Press
June 15, 2003
Moldovans dogpaddle to freedom
By Dave Barry
Every now and then, you stumble across a story that is so wonderful you say to yourself: "If this story were made into a movie, Roger Ebert would deliberately expose himself to mutating radiation so he could grow additional thumbs and point them up."
Today I want to tell you such a story. It was brought to my attention by alert reader C. Erik Enockson, and it has what Aristotle called the Four Essential Elements of Drama: (1) despair, (2) intrigue, (3) Canadians and (4) snorkeling.
When you read this story, you're going to think I made it up. But I ask you: Have I ever lied to you? OK, yes, many times. But as far as I can tell, this story -- which was reported by the National Post, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the Moscow Times -- really, truly happened.
It began in Moldova, a small Eastern European nation that once was part of the Soviet Union. I found a Moldovan Internet site that provides these enticing facts for potential visitors:
"In the Republic of Moldova live about 4.3 million people. This is more than in such countries as Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Albania, etc."
"In spite of economic and political problems, there are many interesting places in Moldova. . . . There were estimated for about 1,400 densely located tourist objectives."
"There are about 25 hotels and motels in Moldova offering from one to five star services. . . . The hotel prices are similar to those in developed countries, but the quality of services doesn't correspond all the time to the international standards. . . . Nevertheless, many travelers enjoy their visits and some of them even would like to stay in the country for their whole life."
I bet they would! And if I ever decide to visit an Eastern European nation with more residents than Albania plus 1,400 densely located tourist objectives, Moldova will be on my short list. Because the Moldovans are a dynamic and fascinating people, united by a sincere and heartfelt desire to get the hell out of Moldova. At least this appears to be true of the 12 women who joined together last year to form the Moldovan national women's underwater hockey team.
Yes, underwater hockey is a real sport. The players wear fins, masks and snorkels, and they use little hockey sticks to push a weighted puck around the bottom of a swimming pool. At least that's what they claim they're doing down there; they could also be building a life-size replica of Keanu Reeves out of Legos. There's no way for the spectators to tell.
So anyway, last July, the world championships of women's underwater hockey were held in Calgary, and there was a team entered from Moldova. Now a suspicious person might have suspected that the Moldovan team was not sincerely interested in underwater hockey, because of certain clues:
People in former Soviet republics have been known to form fake sports teams in order to get into other countries and then seek refugee status. For example, in 2000, two teams from Kazakhstan attempted to enter a U.S. field-hockey tournament; one of the players was 63 years old.
In 2000, Moldova sent a team to the men's underwater hockey world championships in Australia; some members of that team reportedly did not know how to put their fins on. The Moldovans lost two games, 30-0 and 23-0, after which the entire team applied for, and got, refugee status.
Nevertheless, Canada allowed the Moldovan women's underwater hockey team to come to the championships. Unlike the Moldovan men's team, which at least got into the pool, the entire women's team skipped the opening ceremony and applied directly for refugee status. This is probably just as well: According to an anonymous source who was interviewed by the CBC on camera wearing a diving mask for disguise (I am still not making this up) and identified only as "Deep Trout," some members of the Moldovan team "couldn't even swim."
But my point is: Wouldn't this story make a great movie? I see Tommy Lee Jones in the role of a suspicious Canadian immigration official, doggedly tracking Halle Berry as a Moldovan underwater hockey player who is struggling, against all odds, to overcome a really small bathing suit. I see Adam Sandler as the puck. Keanu Reeves would play himself.
One final note: The underwater-hockey people want their sport to be in the Olympics, and are concerned that this Moldovan scandal will hurt their chances. I hope it does not. I believe underwater hockey would make a very exciting Olympic sport, for both players and spectators, with the addition of one key element: Sharks.