In the 1970s, Chulak was a key member of the Soviet National Volleyball team at two Olympiads. He competed at the 1972 Munich Games, and in 1976 in Montreal. In 1972, Chulak witnessed the tragedy that befell the Games when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. Almost thirty years later, he still vividly remembers seeing the terrorists on the balcony at the Olympic Village. He said, “I felt very bad and very sad…I saw Arab terrorists in the window with their masks.” Unfortunately, because of the Cold War, Efim was forbidden to speak with any members of the Israeli delegation, either before or after the tragedy. Despite his sorrow, Chulak found that he had to summon the will to compete when the Olympics resumed the day after the massacre. He said that while it was psychologically difficult to play under the circumstances, he and his teammates were “ready to win the gold medal.” In the semifinal game against East Germany, the Russian coach altered his line-up, and the Soviet team, considered the best in the world, lost to the Germans, 3 games to 1. Chulak and his teammates went on to win the bronze medal.
To Chulak, the Olympics were unlike any other competition. Efim explained that it was not truly possible to compare the Olympics to the World Championships, or to the European Championships: "The Olympics were something extraordinary, something special.” Four years after Munich, Efim returned to the Games, one of only four Soviet volleyball players who had competed in the 1972 Games. One aspect of the Montreal Olympics that was notably different from Munich was the increased security. In Munich, there had been only a short fence surrounding the Olympic Village, and “security was lax.” In Montreal, the fence was twice as high (roughly 9 feet) with a metal detector at the gate, and dogs and helicopters guarded the Village at all times. To Chulak and others, the increased security measures were not a distraction; in fact, they put many of the athletes much more at ease. During the tournament, the powerful Soviets made it to the gold medal match, where they faced Poland. Chulak recalled that the final was a very difficult game, lasting 2 1/2 hours before it ended in a 3-2 victory for the Poles. Although Chulak came away with a silver medal, he said that he had expected to win, partly because he believed that the the Soviet Union had the best team in the world, and partly because winning gold was always the aim for Soviet teams. Efim noted that “We were always expected to win. If we took second or third place, we were considered big losers.”
One of the greatest volleyball players in the world in the 1970s, Chulak was born in Moldavia. Efim began playing volleyball at the age of 11 after trying basketball, soccer, boxing and other sports. Volleyball, Chulak explained, was not only a physical contest, but also a “smart” game where competitors needed intelligence as well as physical talent. Chulak became hooked. He moved up the ladder in the Soviet sports world, and was gaining attention while playing for his senior club team at age 16. By the late 1960s, Efim was a member of the Soviet National Junior team; in 1969, he made the National Senior team for the first time, winning a bronze medal at the World Cup that year.
Although Chulak became a permanent part of the Soviet National Volleyball team in 1971, anti-Semitism still reared its ugly head. Efim recalls that when he was playing, he always felt he had to be a little bit better than the other players, or else he would lose his place on the National team because he was Jewish. He also remembers that during one club game, an opposing player called him a Jew in a derogatory tone. Efim's response to the insult was to play even better following the incident.
At the European Championships in 1971, Efim helped the Soviets win the gold medal. Chulak was named MVP as the best spiker (outside hitter) of the tournament; he was also selected for the European All-Stars, a symbolic team. For the next six years, Chulak was a constant fixture on the National team as one of the USSR’s top 12 players, playing in every major national and international competition. He won a gold medal at the 1975 European Championship, a silver medal at the 1974 World Championship, and toured the United States with the National team in the mid-1970s, playing the U.S. National team in a series of exhibition games (one in Madison Square Garden). Although he retired from the National team in 1976, Chulak continued to play with his club team CSKA (Central Sports Club Army) Moscow in 1977. Efim was an outstanding club player, winning four gold medals at the European Club Championships (1971, 1973, 1975, and 1977) and the gold medal at the Soviet championship for six consecutive years, from 1972-1977.
After he retired in 1977, Chulak found that, as a Jew, his success as a player did not mean much in the Soviet Union. When he had finished his international career, Efim was offered positions in France and Germany as a player/coach, but he was not allowed to take advantage of these opportunities. With the Cold War still in full swing, the USSR refused to allow Efim -- still technically an officer in the Soviet army -- to leave the country. He was offered a position in Siberia, which he understandably refused. Chulak looked around Moscow for a physical education position at a military academy (he had received his Master’s Degree from the University of Physical Education in Moscow in 1973, specializing as a volleyball coach). What he found instead were excuses from various institutions which always seemed to find someone else for the positions. When he went for job interviews after his playing career ended, his file noted that he was Jewish, and positions as a coach or instructor were closed to him. He explained that during a two month period in August-September of 1977, “it was a very sad time for me…because when I played, [I] have many ‘friends,’ after I finished playing, I have no friends…no one came to help me to find something.” Although he remained with the CSKA club as a coach (he also coached the Junior team of Moscow from 1978-1981) until 1990, he found that further advancement was closed to him.
In 1990, Efim emigrated to Israel and took a position with the men’s national team as an assistant coach. In Israel, however, he discovered that he could not make a living as a part-time coach. He worked with the Volleyball Federation to increase his salary; but because he could not be hired (and paid) as a full-time coach, Chulak was again forced to move, this time to Montreal. He moved to Canada in 1995, and has worked as a coach and instructor since then. Now a Canadian citizen, Chulak is currently a financial advisor, but his first love remains volleyball. In the summers, he coaches at a volleyball training center outside of New York; but he is still looking for a full-time coaching position that will allow him to pass along his knowledge and experience to future players.
Birth and Death Dates:
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Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)