"The following is a complete, unedited, unverified interview, portions of which were utilized in the Red Files PBS broadcast. Statements therein are the sole opinion of the interviewee, and do not reflect the views of PBS, DDE or Series and Web Site producer Abamedia, which are not Responsible for the interview content."

Interview with Anatoly Kolesov
Soviet Olympic Committee, former wrestler
April 2, 1998

Anatoly Kolesov being interviewed for the filmInterviewer: When you were competing, did you feel like you did it for yourself, for your country or for communism?

Kolesov: Well, in principle, the Olympic victory, it always is evaluated higher than just a personal victory, therefore I certainly felt I did that for the people, for the Motherland, for the country. That was very important because when a hymn of the country was played, and the flag was raised: we all were very proud.

Interviewer: What was the objective for the USSR in participating in international sports, was it political or not?

Kolesov: I don't think that there was a direct political background, but we had rather good resources, a developed sports infrastructure and the desire to be the first. The first! The purpose of being the first was present with us, so, from this point of view there was also a politics - to surpass the others.

Interviewer: In the Stalin age was there pressure on the coaches?

Kolesov: Yes, Stalin was very lively, very interested in sports and, as in everything else, he was an extremely tuned politician. He monitored it to make sure that our sportsmen would perform well. He helped, he issued appropriate directives, edicts, decrees, which helped us to develop a sport of highest achievements, but simultaneously he demanded that we win. Therefore from this point of view Stalin was implementing a certain policy.

Interviewer: In the 1952 Olympics, what were the expectations vs. results?

Kolesov: I think our adversaries did not expect that we would be able to perform so successfully the very first time. We won the same number of points as the American team, a leader of global sports. But we lost in golden medals and quite substantially. Nevertheless, our public and people were informed as if we ended up equally. Certainly both athletes and political leaders were very proud of the first presentation of our athletes. We were very satisfied. The soccer team did not do so well, and it was fired.

Interviewer: Why did that happen?

Kolesov: Well, in principle that is being done all over the world, not only in our country. Look, after the World Championship this year many of the teams which did not fulfill expectations of their fans replaced coaches. In that time, when we had just joined the Olympic movement, our politicians, and people as well, had a rather strict attitudes to losses of our athletes.

Interviewer: When you were a young man and started participating in sports, how did the system recruit you?

Kolesov: As far as myself is concerned, I am not a product of the system, most probably because I was born in a village, in Kazakhstan, far from a large center. There were no good conditions for going in for sports there at all, including wrestling. We went in for wresting only like amateurs, not on a carpet but on snow. Nevertheless, my father, he was very gifted physically, wanted to make his son similar. He prepared me, including elements of wresting which we perfected with him. When I entered the Institute of Physical Training it was in Alma-Ata 1500 km away from the place where I was born. That is I arrived in the capital of Kazakhstan. Thus I entered the Institute of Physical Training. After one year of going in for acrobatics -- I first began to go for acrobatics, later friends brought me to see how I represented myself on a carpet. I managed to do it well. I immediately won over a rather ranking athlete. After that all my fate had been was linked already with wresting.

Interviewer: What were your personal impressions from your first trips abroad?

Kolesov: Unconditionally, that concerns not only myself. Every person likes to travel, likes new impressions. My first trip out was to friendly Bulgaria, and immediately there was a meeting with an Olympic champion Dimitry Dobrev. I was young -- I was 17 while Dimitry Dobrev was already an Olympic Champion. But nevertheless I managed to make a clash with him at an equal score. That was a big success. Then we visited a number of Capitalist countries. My first trip out to a Capitalist country was to the FRG, West Germany. You know, that at that time we had, as they say, special relations. Attitude to the Germans was also very cautious. But when we saw that they were the same people, that they were greeting us friendly, that changed something in our psychology.

Interviewer: How did it change?

Kolesov: There appeared more warmth, trust to our colleagues in sport, to other people in general.

Interviewer: Were you given instructions, what to say?

Kolesov: To a certain extent yes, they said. It was wrong that we

were considered professionals: what kind of professionals were we? At that time, yes, many of our athletes could be considered as professionals, same as athletes of other countries. But, at that time, what were professionals? For example, I was a student of the Institute of Physical Training. Others were students elsewhere. We were getting only a small student's stipend, and we were not getting any other benefits from the state at that time. Therefore we were not considered professionals. Although, true, as far as I know, and now I studied that in detail, we were accused of professionalism. They believed that Western athletes are amateurs, while athletes of Socialist countries are professionals. This is not quite so, it is not so at all. So this time, I want to say our professional athletes get salaries dozens of times less than professional athletes in other countries.

Interviewer: Did that offend you?

Kolesov: Yes, that offended us. Offended that it was indeed unfair. Yes, an athlete who was a student devoted a significant part of his time to sport. The Ministry of Education permitted a student who actively goes into sport of highest achievements at a high level, who is a world champion or Olympic Champion, to have an academic leave of absence. That is they extended years of studying at the Institute. If usually it was four years, he could study for five years, six years or seven years in order to master the curriculum, because he lost much time in sport training, traveling etc. Such a practice still exists today for many athletes.

Interviewer: How much did the KGB watch you when you traveled?

Kolesov: That depended on the person. Employees of special services are the same people as other employees. Certainly they had a responsibility for everything to be all right, for not having any provocations, so nobody would think to defect. Well, those who think to defect, they would have allies, and they did defect. There were very few such people in sports. Very few at all. Therefore they in general helped us to orient ourselves in the situation. It was not always the case that we met a friendly environment. There used to be provocations. There were, I know; I remember them. Well, that was a Cold War, an outgrowth of the Cold War.


Interviewer: What was the scale of the sport program?

Kolesov: Now I look at this from the posture of a modern technologist, which I am. Now I am preparing a national team for the Olympic Games in Sydney. Earlier I prepared two other Olympic Games. So, a wide scope of the kinds of sport in which our athletes train and participate is explained, among other things, by technology. We perfectly understand that our main competitors, the Americans, are much stronger than we are in swimming and in track, and field athletics. In these two things they were already leading us by a good deal. Therefore, to win more medals than the Americans at the Olympic Games, we needed to expand the sphere of sports. In the Soviet Union there were always more than 20 kinds of sports where athletes could prepare for Olympic medals. In Russia today we have 15 such sports, while in America there are only 12. In Germany there are 11 and in China there are 7. That is our policy and strategy. But this is a purely technological policy. That, honestly speaking, is the most efficient for us.

Interviewer: Talk about Olympic sports vs. popular sports.

Kolesov: I want to remind you that both soccer and hockey are also Olympic sports. Certainly these are the favorite kinds of sports for our population. Here we cannot say anything. Therefore we sometimes are jealous and envy, I mean, wrestlers, say, or track and field athletes, or swimmers, because they spent no less labor. All very much depends on journalists. We did not know what tennis was; it was not a popular sport. Now it is one of the most popular sports because TV permanently rolls tennis tours. Millions of dollars are at stake. This interests the public very much. Not so much that the game is interesting, but the intrigue which happens during a tennis game. And this money which is being spent in the sight of the whole world.

Interviewer: Did you feel envious of the hockey players?

Kolesov: No. I was satisfied with my victories, and that I got into this kind of sport, because wresting gives a very multi-sided development. It develops not only muscles, it also develops head-thinking as well. I am not talking about myself I am talking about my colleagues throughout the world, such courageous, brave people.

Interviewer: Was there a contradiction between individual success and the cooperative policy of the state?

Kolesov: Well, first I would say that, especially in this kind of sport where there is an individual struggle, you can't hide behind somebody's back. There is you. The first is the first. In soccer one can hide behind somebody's back and get glory without being the very best. I feel a background to this question, interests of a personality, interests of the country, interests of the team. Yes, sometimes they reveal themselves. They most frequently reveal themselves with egocentric people. There are many such people in our country. There are many of them in other teams. Some athletes, and we have such athletes, which left the country, in that time when it was still possible to present for Russia, they moved to a place which they consider better for them.

Interviewer: Did people suffer from their strong characters?

Kolesov: Yes, they suffered. Suffered, because they were an object of assaults from sometimes common people, sometimes journalists, sometimes official authorities, for their poor compatibility, non-standard nature. I think that a talented person can not be standard; they are always non-standard. They are always inconvenient, uneasy to live with. That's why they are a talent. I can tell that for sure. There is not a single talented athlete or a talented person at all who would look like everybody else. They are always unrestful, they are always conflicting, they are always contradictory. I think this is the case in any country, in any society.

Interviewer: Did you feel that you played the role of an "ideal Soviet man?"

Kolesov: Yes, and there is no mistake at all in that. Those who put such people onto the podium, do that right. Again, I am not talking about myself. People, who become World Champions, Olympic Champions. That is better than swallowing drugs or doing something else, you understand. We must teach something to the youth, you see? This relates not only to athletes, this relates to both a musician and a writer. Necessarily there must be some ideals. The Russians and the Soviets are collectivists by their nature, not only, say the Party that raised them. The Russians are collectivists from their nature. Therefore new attempts of some of our super-radicals to affix, to press down collectivism in our society, they, firstly, impair our nation and secondly, are doomed to failure. One way or another this collectivism will stay in the psychology of a Russian. It is what our force is.

Interviewer: What was your motivation in going to the 1972 Summer Olympics?

Kolesov: Then we very seriously prepared our athletes ideologically, so to say, because it was indeed a presentation in Germany. Germany was deep in the psychology of our people at that time, yet remained such a country, our attitude to it was cautious. We all, both athletes and leaders, very much liked our athletes to perform at a high level there in order to show that we are strong. Moreover, conditions, which were later created at the Olympics when the Israeli team was shot, forced us to be very united, disciplined on one hand. Both our organizations, the special services and the management, paid a lot of attention to what was going on in the team to secure people from these occasions. I for example changed cars. That is the organizers moved all teams into different cars. We should not move in cars with a "USSR" sign. Therefore I was an Australian. I rode in an Australian car after that happened with the Israeli delegation. So yes, we adjust.

Interviewer: What do you think of the impact Olga Korbut had?

Kolesov: She is very charming, very communicative. She is very well received by the public. But you remember when she somehow failed on the bars and her face, her tears were shown on a large scale? People saw that this little defenseless girl, which did absolutely perfectly during competition, had suffered a failure, had become unhappy instantly. The whole world fell in love. In this case, I think, a door was opened.

Interviewer: Did you feel that she was given more attention that she deserved?

Kolesov: She had received that attention not like a gymnast and not like an athlete. She was like a human, whom a world was sorry for, that this little tiny girl suffered trouble during a competition. She was loved, not like an athlete, she was loved like a human.

Interviewer: What did you think of the Soviet hockey team in Canada?

Kolesov: Unconditionally, unconditionally we watched these meetings without interruption. We found time for that, and we were very proud that our guys were winning over professionals. The mood was great, and that certainly influenced the result of our presentation positively!

Interviewer: What was more popular for Soviet fans?

Kolesov: Russian fans? You know, I think, the Super Series. I can admit so. The Super Series was something new. The Olympics had already been, they were repetitions, yet this was the first meeting with the professionals. Something new and invincible. Psychologically our people were adjusted so that if ours would just keep our end up, it would not be so bad with this professional team, that already would have not been bad. And they won! That was a subject for pride.

Interviewer: In 1966 you had protest. Did you feel that that was inappropriate?

Kolesov: I did not consider it at that time. At that time I believed that our protest was justified. Now I believe that it was of course not quite justified, unnecessary, untimely. Sports must not be mixed into politics in such a way. Later Moscow Olympics and Los Angeles Olympics confirmed that from interventions of big politics into sports, athletes suffer, sport suffers. Of any country, be it the Americans, the Russians, Britons, everybody suffers.

Interviewer: Why at that time did you feel you supported it?

Kolesov: From my point of view, well, because I possessed less experience. You know what a propaganda machine we had then in the Soviet Union, do you know? It only spoke one point of view, while another point of view was not even discussed. Therefore we all were a little bit under the pressure of that propaganda.

Interviewer: How important was the Moscow Olympics to the Soviet Union?

Kolesov: Well, I think that it was indeed important to have the Olympics in the Soviet Union and in Moscow. We were the leading country in the development of Olympic sports. We won at all recent Olympics and it was fair. Secondly, in order to develop the infrastructure of sports of the highest achievements and sports in general, such events are necessary. You know how many new sport facilities were built when the Olympics came to Moscow. Sport science facilities, material bases were strengthened. Attention to sports from the population was significant. Number of sports in schools increased; that is, crowds of youth went to sports schools. There were not enough to accept all of them, therefore a special decree about the expansion of the number of sport schools in the country had to be adopted. I think then that we simply deserved the Olympics. As far as the boycott is concerned, honestly speaking, we were naturally very disappointed. I think that from the side of the Americans that was unfair. That was an intervention of big politics, similarly unfair as it was later in Los Angeles, because we also did not go to the Los Angeles Olympics. Not because we feared those "Red Brigades", feared these badges "Kill the Russians" worn by some young people, but because such was the decision of the Politburo. That was the response to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

Interviewer: Did the state support use of drugs?

Kolesov: I can tell you openly and honestly. Many people don't believe us when we answer this way. There was no such policy, no policy. There was a practice in many kinds of sports, especially in weight-lifting, track and field athletics, bicycle sport, rowing, until 1974, before doping laboratories appeared, until sanctions for use of these drugs appeared, they were used openly. Moreover, doctors even sometimes recommended use of some or other drug in order to recover after hard work or to cure a trauma. After that the posture of the IOC to prosecute coaches, doctors and athletes for the use of doping was officially introduced, not a single doctor could do that openly. I think that doping is a very complicated problem. It is practically impossible to solve it at once. Now they say that sanctions should be stiffened. In Norway they will be put into jail for the use of doping drugs. In Sweden, reportedly, also such threatening sanctions have been introduced into a criminal code.

Interviewer: Did the state officials turn a blind eye?

Kolesov: In the 1960s? I'd like to tell you in that time when athletes had started, it was started by the Americans, their hammer throwers; we know all that history. They started to use these horrible drugs, anabolic steroids. We did not know about that at that time. In sports everything is being transferred quickly. Negative experience is also being transferred quickly. Certainly at that time many people sincerely believed that was acceptable. I've said, even some doctors believed that was acceptable. Because there were no sanctions for that, no anti-doping propaganda existed. It was not until later, when that began to be called doping. Initially there was no such posture. Yes, we often protected in international federations our athletes who were caught for doping, tried to find some explanations, say, disease. We did not have an official policy of introducing doping. It is now said that in the German Democratic Republic there was such a policy. Maybe, although not possessing any documents, I cannot say.

Interviewer: You were both an athlete and a sport official. What is your opinion about the statement that athletes were used by the system?

Kolesov: I never felt that. Honestly, I never considered myself used. During my going for sports, I had not only victories, I had failures, difficulties as well. There was declines; there was pessimism. For the most part I considered myself happy and an independent human. Honestly. Maybe that was my style of thinking and approach. Because I looked inside of myself, I did not look at how others evaluated me. I looked inside of myself, I did self-evaluation. I must overcome myself, my weaknesses, overcome some state of uncertainly and win. That was my mood.

Interviewer: You don't feel that the Soviet system used athletes?

Kolesov: I won't get tired of repeating: the Soviet system of physical education and of highest achievements in sports is the best of everything invented by humankind in sports. The fact that now it still holds Russia, which cares very little about the development of sports, we still live on old yeast. I won't get tired of repeating: that was the best system in the world. So far there is no better system. Nobody has it better.

Return to Sports Interviews

horizontal line

© 1999 Abamedia, unless otherwise indicated.