The Basis of the Story

The world watched in awe when Soviet athletes burst onto the international stage at their first Olympics in 1952. Almost overnight, the Soviet Union went from a sporting non-entity to the world's dominant sports nation. Soviet success in creating a world-class sport system within a few short years after the devastation wrought by World War II is even more remarkable considering how little of a base had existed even before the war. When Russia's tsars sent delegations to the Olympic Games of 1908 and 1912, the result had been utter humiliation: even tiny Norway had won more medals. The lackluster performance wasn't surprising, since Russia was a largely peasant country, sorely lacking in what was most needed for modern sports: a large number of city dwellers with free time to engage in organized recreation. But the embarrassment of the 1912 Games spurred Tsar Nicholas II into action. He created a government office for the promotion of sport and encouraged the fledgling sports societies that had developed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Soccer, already on its way to becoming the most popular sport, began to draw crowds of ten or twenty thousand to matches.

These modest beginnings were almost immediately decimated by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the ensuing Civil War. By the time the fighting had died down and the Bolsheviks had consolidated power, the country's new leaders were too preoccupied with the basics of rebuilding industry and agriculture to devote major resources to sport and physical education, but vigorous debates over how to create a "Communist" sports system did take place. The new Communist state aimed to wipe away all traces of bourgeois decadence, in culture as much as in economic life. Just as a new "proletarian art" was supposed to spring to life, so, too, was a new "proletarian sport." Creative physical education teachers devised new "proletarian games" with names like "Rescue from the Capitalists," that emphasized cooperation and mass participation rather than competition and elitism.

As the Soviets bickered amongst themselves, sports for the first time were becoming hugely popular in the "bourgeois" countries of Western Europe and North America. International sporting competitions had been organized as early as the late 19th century, but they began to take on increasing significance after World War I. When two national teams met on the soccer field, event was no longer simply a test of skill among a handful of athletes. These competitions were now endowed with much broader meaning: athletes and teams were seen as representatives of their nation, and victory or defeat on the playing field came to be seen as a direct reflection of national strength. With sports everywhere now used as a form of paramilitary training, sporting power was closely correlated with military power. Suddenly, to be a great power required great sports teams. As George Orwell put it, sports had become "war without the shooting."

With the Olympics and events like soccer's World Cup commanding the attention of millions around the globe, the Soviets found they couldn't ignore this new propaganda arena. But they were reluctant to compete in it, because they feared (quite rightly) that they were as yet too weak to compete with the best athletes in the West. So instead of participating in the Olympics and joining the West's international sporting federations, the Soviets created their own international sports organization: the Red Sport International. With members eventually in over a dozen countries, the Sportintern, as it was known, allowed Soviet athletes to compete in international matches against teams from socialist clubs in foreign countries. Such matches, according to Soviet propaganda, were intended to spread goodwill and mutual understanding.

By the mid-1930s, though, the Soviets were finding that these "workers' sport clubs" were offering scant competition for what had become an increasingly well-funded and sophisticated Soviet sport program. Soviet soccer players, boxers, and weightlifters were sent to Paris and Prague to test their mettle against some of the best athletes in the West--and they upheld the honor of the Socialist Motherland. Tentative plans to join Western sports federations and to participate in full-scale international competition were postponed by World War II, but were quickly dusted off and implemented--with great success--at war's end.

As with other areas of life in the Soviet Union, sport was subject to government control. Sport was supposed to serve the aims of the state: by channeling leisure time into socially useful activities, by increasing the health and fitness of the population and thereby creating more productive workers and better soldiers, and by winning prestige for the Communist system. Underlying these goals was a fundamental tension: the desire to give everyone a chance to participate in sports conflicted with the desire to produce international victories. In the drive to win medals, "mass participation" was often sacrificed in favor of training only the best athletes. In time an elaborate bureaucracy was constructed to find promising children, train them in special sports schools, and reward them with special housing and other benefits. The best athletes in the Soviet Union were professionals in all but name: paid for their training, with housing, food, and travel fully subsidized by the state.

For many athletes, like Olga Korbut, the Soviet system provided a way to escape poverty. Korbut grew up with her parents and three sibling all sharing one tiny room; her skill as a gymnast eventually propelled her into the Soviet elite. But her story also illustrates another element of the Soviet sports bureaucracy: its conservatism and inflexibility. When Korbut and her coach introduced acrobatic elements into her gymnastic routines, creating a faster, jazzier style, they were vilified in the Soviet press for desecrating long-held traditions and conventions in Soviet gymnasticsuntil her bold innovations won the gold and the adoration of the audience at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Such triumphs seem a distant memory today. The collapse of the Soviet Union also meant the collapse of its vaunted sports bureaucracy. Government funding has dried up, and the commercially viable sports leagues that have tried to fill its place have struggled to become profitable. Many of the best athletes from the former Soviet Union are now playing in Western professional leagues like the NHL. Soviet athletes now are best known for working as bodyguards for the powerful Russia mafia--a far cry from the days when they were adulated as heroes of the socialist state.


Debriefing   Rendezvous   Interrogations   Searchlight

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