The Beginning of the Soviet Sporting Power

Soviet athletes march in May Day Parade
                               Soviet athletes march in May Day Parade


The Soviet Union was known for many things, one of which was elite athletics. While the Cold War raged, the Soviets and Americans did actual battle in the world of sports, mainly the Olympic Games where defeating capitalists in was a show of communist power and success. State sponsored athletic training in communist states was intense and created some of the world’s greatest athletes.  And this push for athletic excellence started with Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

In the 1920s-30s the Soviet Union insisted that its citizens be in great physical shape which would “increase labour productivity, prepare workers for defence, and inculcate habits of collectivism, good hygiene and discipline”(Keys). At first only non-competitive exercises, such calisthenics, were allowed because competition, and therefore competitive sports, were capitalist (Seventeen Moments).

But eventually the idea of competitive sports got a hold of Soviet leadership: “We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” said Stalin (Keys). The communist order embraced competitive team sports as a way to show how collective groups working together could be successful. Sports clubs trained elite athletes and state sponsored spectator sports became popular. Soccer “commanded the throbbing hearts of mostly male fans” who rooted for teams affiliated with state entities, such as the Dynamo who were sponsored by the state police, then the NKVD and later the KGB(Seventeen Moments). FC Dynamo Moscow is still a popular Russian soccer team and the rivals of The Spartak Club, formerly sponsored by the meat packing industry. The rivalry is so heated that  in 1942 the NKVD chief sent the Spartaks three best players to a labor camp(Seventeen Moments).

The athletic achievements of Soviet citizens was extremely important to leadership and lauded in Pravda. As part of May Day athletes were celebrated as they marched through Red Square(Seventeen Moments). By 1934, the government had decreed that Soviet sport must defeat all Western bourgeois sport and the Soviets should hold all sports records. The state trained coaches, and brought in foreign experts, in order to be able to prepare their athletes. Soviet athletes competed against the best foreign athletes although they were not invited to the Nazi Olympics of 1936. And by 1937 the workers sports leagues had been superseded by the all important internationally competitive state athletics. The increased focus on athletics in the 1930s set the base for the “sports-race” of the Cold War and sports importance as a premier setting for Soviet patriotism(Keys).



Seventeen Moments

Barbara Key. “Soviet Sport and Transnational Mass Culture in the 1930s”.

6 thoughts on “The Beginning of the Soviet Sporting Power

  1. This post was extremely eye-opening because I never thought about athletic competition as a capitalist activity. However, it makes an incredible amount of sense because under Stalin’s vision and under his ideas such as collectivization, it would appear that competing to win in a competition is the opposite message that Stalin would want to convey. It’s funny to see how Stalin molded his idea of a collective group working together to justify competing, whereas in reality, he probably just wanted to assert dominance in a capitalist dominated world.

  2. If only Sports were the only way to battle out ideologies. It is interesting that we can before any great rivals their were sports first to test the strength of the people, Athens vs.Sparta, US. vs USSR, and now China vs. US. 1936 Olympics, Adolf Hitler used this as a stage to promote Aryan nationalism for Germany with his ideological belief of racial supremacy. Hockey during the cold war was a way to promote the better ideology. During that time they began training these elite athletes at young ages and even now it seems that because China has so much to prove it also does the same. One can trace many linkages between sports and competing ideologies and their quick growth because of them.

  3. Fascinating post. Those poor meat packing team players, sent to the GULAG just for being good at soccer. One point you mentioned in your post was bringing in foreign sports experts to help train Soviet athletes. I think a common theme we have seen these past couple of weeks is the Soviet state turning to the West for technical assistance. How does these mesh with the ideology of the Soviet state? Does this speak to the continuing “backwardness” of the Soviet Union or something else?

    1. Many times sports are a reflection of the society as whole and that’s a good point about an anti-Western government looking West for innovation. But it follows the philosophy of can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Stalin understood how far behind the USSR was and knew that at the moment the West had the answers and was not so proud that he couldn’t ask for their help in multiple fields.

  4. I kinda laughed a bit about the part where the NKVD sponsored team sent 3 of Spartak’s best players to labor camps, until I realized it must have really sucked in the labor camps for them. Still, the abuse of power is so gross and unbelievable that it is almost comical. I liked this post though, it is interesting to see where the start of the Soviet sports power began. There have been many instances in international sports (both fictional and non fictional) where the USSR is seen as the big bad rival to the underdog American, such as the Miracle on Ice, or Rocky IV. It is a shame that the Soviets were not invited to the Olympics in 1936, as it would have provided an early insight as to the fitness and skill level of many of the early athletes in the USSR prior to the outbreak of WW II when many of them may have lost their lives. Cool post.

  5. Very interesting post. When I think of the Cold War, I do not often think about where it actually became “hot,” which would be sports. Cool post!

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