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 And by 1937 the workers sports leagues had been superseded by the all important internationally competitive state athletics.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).
Barbara Key. “Soviet Sport and Transnational Mass Culture in the 1930s”. http://history.unimelb.edu.au/assets/pdf/keys/keys-sovietsport.pdf