Cold War Olympics

Tensions are rising, but open conflicts and hostilities are prohibited. While the two blocs indirectly collide in their backyards, the Olympics are theoretically an apolitical event and fair, also become one of the main battle arenas.

Gradual instrumentalization of sports in the Soviet system

Sports did not always have a place in the Soviet system. During the interwar period, sports and the Olympic Games were considered bourgeois and capitalist practices. However, this attitude gradually changed when the leaders of the Soviet Union found considerable merit in him for their revolutionary projects.

Physical culture becomes the central moment in the creation of a new person,homo sovieticus. Under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Health, sport is becoming an engine of social change: with its help, leaders hope to fight alcoholism, illiteracy, teach different peoples to live in society, and much more. Physical culture is now an instrument of domestic politics, the purpose of which is to shape this famous homo sovieticus. Subsequently, sport also turned out to be a very useful vector of unity. By attracting athletes from the Union republics to major competitions, Moscow proved the measure of equality and fraternity of the USSR.

Sports are also exploited at the level of the international communist movement: in 1921, the Red International of Sports (IRS) was created. They set themselves the goal of spreading revolutionary ideas through their sports movement and training communist fighters. In order to strengthen the ties between the proletarians of different countries, the IRS began in 1928 its “spartakiads” in opposition to this practice of the capitalists, called the Olympic Games.

Moscow is gradually emerging from isolation and adopting a more pragmatic approach to international relations. With the normalization of relations with Western countries, the USSR also showed its interest in sports in international relations. An approach is spreading that sport is an important cultural and folk practice on which the ideology is based. Sports became a vector of power and struggle during the Cold War. And it was with the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 that Moscow finally decided to change its sports policy and joined the Olympic movement.

The Olympics: a great propaganda tool

During the Cold War, the Olympic Games were an important propaganda tool. Sports and athletes were considered symbols of national identity and were therefore used in the struggle between the two blocs. Winning on the track or on the basketball court was seen as proof of the superiority of one regime over the other. The propaganda machine was extremely well developed on both sides.

In the US, the American Olympic Committee was on the list of organizations that could be used for propaganda purposes. Many other institutions were mobilized to create a collective imagination based primarily on sports and Olympism. The American propaganda machine exploited every flaw in the Soviet system to demonstrate its own superiority. For example, the action of dissidents in the East was marked by the National Committee for a Free Europe. The same committee will help with the flight of athletes from the East. When 45 Hungarian athletes fled during the Melbourne Olympics (1956) and asked for asylum at the American embassy, ​​the event subsequently received extensive media coverage. In the United States, even an exhibition tour is organized, designed to show American generosity and strike at the prestige of the USSR.

At the same time, the Olympics gave the Soviet regime the opportunity to visualize this famous capitalist enemy and demonstrate the benefits of their system. The victories of the USSR created socialist heroes and strengthened its reputation as a great power. And we can say that on the sports ground Moscow confirmed its superiority. From the second participation, the USSR was in the lead with 37 gold medals against 32 American medals. Seven times out of nine during the Olympic performances, the Soviet Union won the medal standings. The other two times she finished second.

It should also be noted that in the end, sports and space exploration became the only areas in which the USSR could still compete with the United States. By the 1970s, Moscow began to realize how far behind they were in terms of economic development. But the Olympics gave them another field to fight the enemy, and even in front of millions of viewers. Soviet newspapers loudly declared after each victory that they were a clear proof of the strength of the Soviet system and that it was best suited for the physical and spiritual improvement of man. This was of no small importance for their propaganda, especially in the third world countries, where the conquest of influence was still ongoing.

Sports science and the Soviet championship car

Given the importance of what was at stake, every means was mobilized to ensure the superiority of the Soviet Union. The USSR creates a real machine of champions. We are moving away from the ideal of the founders of the Olympic Games, who saw athletes as amateurs who spontaneously emerged from a mass of practitioners.

Soviet sport is becoming the business of the highest echelons of the Communist Party and scientists. The party establishes a hierarchy of sports, and the major Olympic disciplines are privileged. Extensive discovery systems are built to find potential talent from an early age. Future talents are placed under the supervision of the state, in specialized educational programs. Often these children grow up away from their families, under the close attention of a coach with many hours of daily training. A high-level sport was invented there. Scientists are also at the service of the sport to improve performance. Athletes regularly use the services of the army or the KGB to further develop their abilities there. Soviet “amateurs” are not very similar to their counterparts in the West…

This scientific method, developed by Moscow, applies to the entire Eastern Bloc and to the Soviet republics. But, for example, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) goes even further, developing its own methods. This East German “voluntarism” turns athletes into hybrids of men and women (who hasn’t heard of East German swimmers who hardly look like ordinary women?). There are doping scandals. But it all has remarkable results in the rankings: the GDR manages to take first place in 1980 and 1984, despite the fact that its population is much smaller than that of the United States or the USSR.

Geopolitics of the Olympics and boycotts

The Olympic Games, despite their apolitical appearance, are a great place to address geopolitical issues. The first manifestation of these power games took place during the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952. The USSR refused to share the Olympic village with other delegations and built its own village. Athletes from the East are “protected” from bad influences and enemies with barbed wire. Access to this Otaniemi village was strictly forbidden to the public and even journalists, regardless of their nationality.

Boycotts began in 1956. In protest against the brutal suppression of the uprising in Budapest in 1956, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands boycotted the Melbourne Olympics. At the same time, these Olympics are also a historic opportunity for the countries of the Eastern Bloc to try to stand up to the Soviet Union, even if only on the playing field. The water polo final between Hungary and the USSR ended in a fierce fight between the players…

The Moscow Olympics in 1980 was also very controversial. The United States organized a general mobilization to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All countries are called upon to boycott these Games. As a result, only 80 countries were represented at these Olympic Games, which was the lowest number since 1956. In addition, the US even decided not to broadcast the events live. This deprives Moscow of the international recognition it has been counting on for its grandiose games.

Moscow wants revenge by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But it will not have the same effect and scale as in 1980. Only twelve communist countries will follow the example of the USSR. At the same time, the Americans are making every effort to isolate Moscow. Senior US officials are personally visiting several countries to convince them not to join Moscow in this decision. In addition, charter flights are organized for free travel of athletes from African countries. All these efforts increase the number of participants and therefore further highlight the marginalization of the communist countries.

Olympism was not only part of the propaganda programs during the Cold War, but also became the central tool of the new cultural and sports diplomacy of the two blocs. Victory legitimizes the regime, creates a collective identity, and is a kind of proof of strength. What else is needed to politicize the Olympics?

For further

About New Europe

In the Internet

To read

  • GYGAKS, J., “American Cultural and Sports Diplomacy: Persuasion and Propaganda during the Cold War”, International relationships 2005/3, no. 123, p. 87-106

  • HILL Christopher R., Olympic politicsManchester University Press, Manchester, 1992

  • VINOKUR Martin Barry, More than a game: sports and politicsGreenwood Press, New York, 1988

To look

  • “Szabadsag, szerelem” by Joe Esterhas (2006)

Photo source: Summer Olympic Games by familywmr on flickr.