Cold War Olympics


Tensions rise, but open conflicts and battlefields are prohibited. While the two blocs indirectly clashed in their own backyards, the Olympics, which in theory are an apolitical event, and fair play, it also becomes one of the main battlefields.

The gradual instrumentalization of sport in the Soviet system

Sport has not always had a place in the Soviet system. In the interwar period, sports and the Olympics were seen as a bourgeois and capitalist practice. This attitude gradually changed, however, when the leaders of the Soviet Union found in him considerable merits for his revolutionary projects.

Physical culture becomes a central element in the creation of the new man.homo sovieticus Sports, closely watched by the Ministry of Health, is becoming the engine of social change: through it, leaders hope to fight alcoholism, illiteracy, teach different people to live in community, and much more. Physical culture is now a domestic policy tool aimed at shaping this celebrity. homo sovieticus. Later, sport also proved to be a very useful vector of unity. Moscow proved the equality and fraternity dimension of the USSR by including athletes from the Soviet Republics in major competitions.

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

Gradually, Moscow is coming out of its isolation and adopting a more pragmatic approach to international relations. With the normalization of relations with Western countries, the USSR also discovered its interest in sports in international relations. The understanding that sport is an important cultural and popular practice on which the ideology is based is spreading. Sport became a vector of strength and struggle during the Cold War. And with the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, Moscow finally decided to change its sports policy and joined the Olympic movement.

The Olympics: a great propaganda tool

During the Cold War, the Olympics were an important propaganda tool. Sports and athletes were considered symbols of national identity and therefore instrumentalized in the struggle between the two blocs. A victory on the racetrack or basketball court was seen as proof of one regime’s superiority over another. The propaganda machine was extremely well developed on both sides.

In the United States, the American Olympic Committee was on the list of organizations to be used for propaganda purposes. Many other institutions were mobilized to create a collective imagination based largely on sport and Olympism. The American propaganda machine used every flaw in the Soviet system to demonstrate its superiority. For example, the action of dissidents in the East was noted by the National Committee of Free Europe. The same committee will also help athletes from the East escape. During the Melbourne Olympics (1956), 45 Hungarian athletes fled and sought refuge in the American Embassy, ​​which later received widespread media coverage. In fact, an exhibition tour is organized in the United States to show the generosity of America and deal a blow to the prestige of the USSR.

At the same time, the Olympics were an opportunity for the Soviet regime to visualize this notorious capitalist enemy and demonstrate the benefits of their system. The victories of the USSR created socialist heroes and cemented their reputation as a great power. And we can say that he confirmed Moscow’s supremacy on the sports field. From its second entry, the USSR took the lead with 37 gold medals against 32 American medals. Seven of the nine times during Olympic matches, the Soviet Union has won the medal standings. He finished second on the other two occasions.

It should also be noted that eventually the conquest of sport and space made the only areas in which the USSR could still compete with the USA. By the 1970s, Moscow was beginning to realize how far behind they were in economic development. But the Olympics gave them another space to fight the enemy, and in addition, in front of millions of television viewers. Soviet newspapers loudly proclaimed, after each victory, that these were striking proof of the power of the Soviet system, and that it was the best for the physical and spiritual satisfaction of man. This was not unimportant for their propaganda, especially in the Third World, where their conquests for influence continued.

Sports Science and the Soviet Champion Machine

Considering the importance of what was at stake, all means were mobilized to ensure the supremacy of the Soviet Union. The USSR is building a real champions machine. We are moving away from the ideal that the founders of the Olympic Games, who saw athletes as amateurs, emerged spontaneously from the mass of practitioners.

Soviet sport is becoming a matter of the Communist Party’s upper echelons and scientists. A sports hierarchy is established by the party and the major Olympic disciplines are privileged. Comprehensive detection systems are created to find potential talents from an early age. The talents of the future are placed under the supervision of the state in specialized training programs. These children often grow up far from their families, with long hours of daily training under the supervision of an instructor. High-level sport was invented there. Scientists are also offered to the service of sports to increase performance. Athletes regularly use the services of the army or the KGB to further develop their skills there. Soviet “amateurs” don’t look much like their Western counterparts…

This scientific method developed by Moscow is applied in the entire Eastern bloc and Soviet Republics. But the German Democratic Republic (GDR), for example, goes further by developing its own methods. This East German “volunteering” turns athletes into male-female hybrids (who wouldn’t have heard of East German female swimmers who barely look like regular women?). Doping scandals unfold. But all this has remarkable consequences for the ranking: Despite its population being much smaller than the United States or the USSR, the GDR manages to take first place in 1980 and 1984.

Geopolitics of the Olympics and boycotts

Despite their apolitical appearance, the Olympic Games are the perfect place to observe geopolitical issues. The first manifestation of these power games took place during the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The USSR refused to share the Olympic village with other delegations and founded its own village. Eastern athletes find themselves “protected” from bad influences and enemies by barbed wire. Access to this village of Otaniemi was strictly forbidden to the public and even journalists, regardless of nationality.

Boycotts began in 1956. To protest the violent suppression of the 1956 Budapest uprising, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands boycotted the Melbourne Olympics. At the same time, these Olympics are a historic opportunity for Eastern bloc countries to try to confront the Soviet Union, albeit only on the field of sports. The water polo final between Hungary and the USSR ended with a fierce fight between the players…

The Moscow Olympics in 1980 were 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. In the end, only 80 countries were represented at these Olympics, the lowest figure since 1956. In addition, the United States has decided not to broadcast the events live. This deprives Moscow of the international recognition it hopes to have thanks to its splendid games.

Moscow wants to retaliate by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But it won’t have the same impact or the same magnitude as in 1980. Only twelve communist countries will follow the example of the USSR. At the same time, the Americans are working hard to isolate Moscow. Senior US officials are visiting several countries in person to persuade them not to side with Moscow in this decision. In addition, charter flights are organized to provide free transportation to athletes from African countries. All these efforts increase the number of participants and thus further emphasize the marginalization of communist countries.

Olympism was not only part of the propaganda programs during the Cold War, but also became a central tool in the new cultural and sporting diplomacy of the two blocs. Victory legitimizes the regime, creates a collective identity and constitutes a kind of proof of power. What else does it take to politicize the Olympics?

For more

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With you read

  • GYGAX J., “American cultural and sports diplomacy: Persuasion and propaganda during the Cold War”, international relations 2005/3, issue 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

With to watch

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

Photo source: Summer Olympic Games, by familywmr, on flickr