The Soviet Olympic program, which would produce more medalists than any other country from 1952 through 1992, got off to a slow start internationally. Early Soviet contacts with foreign competitors were sparse, as the Soviet Union avoided international federations in the 1920s and stayed out of the Olympics, which it regarded as a means of turning workers' attention from the class struggle and of preparing them for war. This was paralleled domestically by the banning of bourgeois from sports societies.
After World War II, the Soviet Union, perhaps because it now could compete with the capitalist countries on an even footing, began an effort to do so and thereby to demonstrate the virtues of its social system. Accordingly, beginning in 1946 Soviet sports associations joined international federations, including, in 1951, the International Olympic Committee.
By 1946, weightlifter Grigory Novak became the first Soviet world champion in any sport, and in December 1948, the Central Committee explicitly stated as a goal the achievement of "world supremacy in the major sports in the immediate future." At first the Soviet Union participated mainly in sports in which it had a good chance to win, but at the 1952 Summer Olympics Soviet athletes competed in all sports except field hockey. The Soviet Union first participated in the Winter Olympics in 1956.
The Soviet drive to surpass the capitalist countries could not always override domestic political considerations. In the late 1940s, some athletes who had competed against foreigners before the war were arrested. Purges, including executions, occurred in 1950, some as part of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign carried out by the government. Similarly, many officials and athletes had been victims of the purges of the 1930s.
reasons for soviet success
One likely reason for the rise of Soviet sports was the urbanization of the country. As elsewhere, sport in the Soviet Union was predominantly urban and remained so even after the Soviet government began to push rural sport in 1948. As late as 1972, it was reported that only ten of the 507 Soviet athletes at the Munich Olympics belonged to rural sports clubs. This was partly a result of rural attitudes and partly because of lack of facilities.
Another reason for Soviet successes was the relative lack of disapproval of women athletes, a phenomenon matched in Soviet society by the presence of women in heavy labor, both urban and rural. For example, Soviet domination of bilateral track and field competitions with the United States—the Soviets won eleven of thirteen from 1958 to 1975— was largely due to the superior athleticism of Soviet women, as they defeated the American women
twelve times while Soviet men won only three times. Thus it was for practical as well as propaganda reasons that in 1956 and 1960 the Soviet Union proposed the expansion of the Olympic program, especially to include more women. On the other hand, just as sexism coexisted with celebration of women's achievements in Soviet society, for a long time there was Soviet opposition to female participation in such allegedly harmful sports as soccer, judo, and karate.
The Soviets also looked for special opportunities to excel, as when they made a concerted (and successful) effort to field an Olympic champion in team handball when that sport was introduced into the Olympics.
Domestically there were a number of programs designed to encourage athletic talent. Perhaps the best known was GTO (Gotov k Trudu i Oborone —Prepared for Labor and Defense), which was established in 1931 and granted badges of various kinds to people in different age brackets who had achieved certain government-set athletic goals. As in other areas of Soviet life, quotas were set for the earning of badges, and also as in other areas of Soviet life, the setting of quotas often led to falsification of results, in this case leading to the granting of unearned awards.
Stricter, no doubt, were the standards for the All-Union Sports Classification System established in 1949 with its five categories. At the top was Merited (Zasluzhenny) Master of Sport, followed by Master of Sport, then Classes A, B, and C. Masters of Sport were expected not only to achieve but also to serve as political and ideological examples and to pass on their experience to younger athletes.
On a national scale, elite athletes were showcased in the Spartakiads. The first Spartakiad was held in 1928, to be revived on a regular basis in 1956, then held quadrennially from 1959.
By 1963 the Soviet Union already had fifteen institutes of physical education and a much larger number of special secondary schools (tekhnikumy ) as well as departments of physical education at pedagogical institutes and schools. There were also scientific research institutes in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tiflis. Despite this, physical education instructors often complained that their subject was given insufficient emphasis in schools compared with academic subjects. Moreover, N. Norman Shneidman has described physical education in Soviet schools as "generally poor," contrasting this with the excellent boarding schools, extended day schools, regular sport schools, clubs, and organizations for the best school-age athletes. The special schools were introduced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Graduate departments of the leading institutes of higher learning were responsible for developing methods of training and new equipment and wrote most of the physical education textbooks and reference books. In addition, many leaders and coaches of Soviet national teams had advanced degrees and authored scholarly publications.
Under Khrushchev, the Soviet Union showed a renewed willingness to learn from the West after the extreme xenophobia of the late Stalin years. Sports was no exception here, as the Soviets invited the American Olympic weightlifting champion Tommy Kono to the Soviet Union in order to interview and film him. The Soviets accorded similar treatment to speed skater Eric Heiden in the late 1970s. In turn, the Soviet Union aided other countries, furthering propaganda goals in the process, by providing training, camps, facilities, and equipment to athletes from Africa and Asia, often for free. Soviet coaches also shared their expertise with other socialist countries, some of which surpassed the Soviet Union in certain sports and went on to send their own coaches to other countries. A notable example of this is Bulgaria in weightlifting.
During glasnost there was considerable criticism of the regimentation of child athletes. Specialization and rigorous training occurred as early as age five, and former Olympic weightlifting champion and future member of Parliament Yuri Vlasov referred to "inhuman forms of professionalism" among twelve-and thirteen-year-old gymnasts, swimmers, and other athletes. Young teenagers often had to spend considerable time away from their families and had to choose a specialty at this young age. However, it should be noted that these phenomena also existed in the United States.
government subsidization of athletes
Soviet government subsidization of elite athletes, notorious during the era of allegedly pure amateurism, occurred as early as the 1930s. By 1945 the Council of People's Commissars established a system that paid cash bonuses for records. In May 1951, in their successful attempt to gain admission to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Soviet delegates to an IOC meeting falsely stated that bonuses were no longer paid.
Many of the athletes were employed by the three largest sports organizations, Dinamo (Dynamo), run by the security forces; the Soviet Army; and Spartak, run by the trade unions. As in other countries, rival sport societies often lured athletes away from other societies. The best athletes were freed from military and other duties so that they could devote full time to their sports. The result was that Soviet athletes enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, at least while they were bringing glory to the state; after they retired, their standard of living often declined steeply. Of course it was forbidden for Soviets, whether journalists, athletes, or anyone else, to discuss any of this publicly.
Whatever internal politics (e.g., cronyism) may also have been involved, another phenomenon not unknown in the United States, selection to international teams was based primarily on the likelihood that the athlete would place highly, irrespective of recent victories in national championships. The final selection would be made on the basis of the athlete's condition at training camp before departure for the competition.
Supporting this sporting activity for both practitioners and fans was an extensive Soviet press dedicated to sport. Sovetsky Sport was the most prominent among over a dozen Soviet sports newspapers and periodicals. The publishing house Fizkultura i sport, founded in 1923, published 40 percent of all Soviet titles on sports. According to certain unofficial Soviet sources, articles submitted for publication in scholarly journals were carefully screened to keep important research findings from the Soviets' competitors.
scarcity of resources
Despite their outstanding success, the Soviets often lacked resources. As late as 1989 there were only 2,500 swimming pools in the Soviet Union, compared with more than one million in the United States. There were shortages of gynmasiums and equipment, and many schools lacked athletic play areas.
Preference for elites over the masses sometimes provoked popular resentment alongside national
pride. Even Soviet leaders were sometimes critical of the neglect of mass physical fitness in favor of elite athletes, although obviously the latter were too valuable for propaganda purposes for the situation to be changed. At the same time, facilities, equipment, and sports clothing were sometimes lacking even for elites, leading to relative Soviet weakness in downhill skiing, for example. Moreover, Soviet athletes often found it necessary to use foreign equipment in international competition. Sports historian Robert Edelman has praised the Soviets for "using limited resources efficiently," pointing out that Soviet Olympic victories were achieved "on a shoestring."
In addition to demonstrating their athletic superiority, the Soviets used sports internationally to make political statements. The Soviet Union was among the leaders in isolating South Africa from international sport because of its policy of apartheid. It also canceled bilateral track and field meets with the United States from 1966 through 1968, giving the Vietnam War as the reason. The Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, on the other hand, was almost certainly intended as retaliation for the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which had protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Even before the American boycott, however, the Soviet Union had already seen the political implications of hosting the Olympics. For example, one of the members of the USSR Olympic Organizing Committee was G. P. Goncharov, the head of the Communist Party propaganda machine. Moreover, in the fall of 1979 the government arrested dissidents and warned other people who complained even mildly about conditions. In Moscow there was a campaign to remove drunks, the unemployed, and even teenagers and children from the city during the Olympics.
Soviet sports actually survived the Soviet Union in a sense, as in the 1992 Olympics athletes from the former Soviet Union competed together on what was known as the Unified Team. Although afterward the separate independent nations fielded separate teams, the memory persisted into 1996, as some Russian newspapers could not resist a brief mention that, added together, the former Soviet republics combined for the highest number of medals of any country. Economic problems would persist for the former Soviet sports programs, sometimes interfering with athletes' training, but so would national pride and excellence, as the Russian Federation, for example, won 88 medals, second only to the United States with its larger population, in the 2000 Summer Olympics.
See also: moscow olympics of 1980
Booker, Christopher. (1981). The Games War: A Moscow Journal. London: Faber and Faber.
Morton, Henry W. (1963). Soviet Sport: Mirror of Soviet Society. New York: Collier Books.
Peppard, Victor, and Riordan, James. (1993). Playing Politics: Soviet Sport Diplomacy to 1992. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Shneidman, N. Norman. (1978). The Soviet Road to Olympus: Theory and Practice of Soviet Physical Culture and Sport. Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.