Sport in the Cold War

sport in the cold war
A propaganda poster emphasising the strength of Soviet athletes

Cold War tensions and rivalries were often played out on the sporting arena. As with technology and space exploration, sport was an area where rival powers could prove or assert their dominance without going to war. Sport in the Cold War could, therefore, be highly politicised. Western countries and Soviet bloc nations invested heavily in sports training and development, particularly in sports involving international competition. The Olympic Games became one prominent arena where this rivalry was played out. Like the Nazis in 1936, Cold War superpowers sought to exploit the Olympics for political and ideological advantage. The Olympic Games hosted many notable clashes between Cold War combatants; these competitions received significant media attention and a few ended messily or controversially. The Olympics also served as a stage for political protests, such as controversial boycotts in the early 1980s. Sport in the Cold War could also be constructive. Sport occasionally served as an icebreaker. Interest in sports provided common ground and an opportunity for political rivals to communicate and forge better relations.

The Soviet Union (USSR) did not compete at the Summer Olympic Games between the two world wars. The USSR was invited to attend the London Olympics in 1948 but declined, apparently because Joseph Stalin was concerned that Soviet athletes were not up to world standard. Moscow launched an intensive effort to prepare for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. This was validated when the Soviet Union sent almost 300 athletes to Helsinki and won 71 medals, 22 of them gold. Moscow’s continuing focus on sport paid off in 1956. The Soviet team dominated the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy, winning 16 medals. The Soviets also finished on top of the medal tally at the Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, winning 98 medals (37 gold). This was the most medals ever won by a single nation at the Olympics, dwarfing the United States’ 74 medals (32 gold). Members of the Soviet team were hailed as heroes when they returned from Melbourne; 17 were awarded the prestigious Order of Lenin.

soviet sport
Poster, “Improve the standard of Soviet football”

Moscow continued to invest heavily to ensure Olympic success. Athletes who won Olympic medals or broke national or world records were promised cash bounties or rewards in kind. Sports facilities, academies, coaching and training programs all received a sizeable amount of state funding. Between 1960 and 1980 the Soviet government invested heavily in sports infrastructure, doubling the number of stadiums and swimming pools, and building almost 60,000 new gymnasia. Successful sportsmen and women were celebrated in the state press and propaganda. Ordinary citizens were encouraged to participate in sports and sporting programs became mandatory in Soviet schools. Talent identification schemes spotted promising young athletes, who were offered state-funded coaching or scholarships. The Soviet Union joined many international sporting federations and became proficient in several sports – even those sports with a limited history in Russia, such as basketball, volleyball and football (soccer).

“What distinguished East Germans from the rest of the world’s athletes was not that some (not all) competed having taken steroids, [but that their] programme was a planned one. What must be remembered is the importance that compulsory physical culture played in East German life, the considerable number of highly trained coaches and volunteer instructors who worked in the country, and the vigilance paid to finding and training those with sports potential.”
James Riordan, historian

Other communists nations made similar investments in sport. East Germany (DDR) placed great emphasis on sporting prowess, motivated chiefly by its intense rivalry with West Germany. Neither of the two Germanys competed at the 1948 Olympics, while East Germany boycotted the 1952 Games after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisted on a unified German team. East Germany sent its own Olympic team for the first time in 1968, when its athletes finished fifth on the medal tally, winning 25 medals (nine gold). The 1972 Olympics, held in Munich, were a triumph for the East Germans. The DDR team competed in 18 sports and finished third on the medal tally (40 medals, 13 gold) – 26 medals clear of host nation West Germany. Despite its relatively small population of 16 million, East Germany became one of the most successful sporting nations of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in athletics, swimming, rowing and gymnastics. The East German team finished runners-up in the medal tally, behind the Soviet Union, at the 1976, 1980 and 1988 Olympics (like the USSR, East Germany boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles games). East Germans also finished first or second at five successive Winter Olympics. The East German sporting program was later marred by allegations of doping and widespread steroid use, though little was proven.

sport cold war
A bleeding Ervin Zador is led away during the spiteful 1956 water polo match

The Melbourne Olympics (1956) was notable for one example of political tensions spilling onto the sporting arena. Two weeks before the opening ceremony Soviet forces invaded Hungary, deposed the reformist government of Imre Nagy and killed more than 2,000 Hungarian protestors. Hungary’s water polo team was then drawn to meet the Soviet Union team in a semi-final. During this encounter, later dubbed the ‘Blood in the Water’ match, both teams traded insults, kicks and punches. The Hungarian team’s rough tactics unsettled the Soviets, who conceded four goals while failing to score themselves. Towards the end of the match, Hungarian player Ervin Zador was struck in the head by his Soviet opponent. Zador left the pool bleeding from a gash to the eye and the match was called off with one minute to play. The Soviet team was booed and spat at by the Australian crowd as the players left the arena. Hungary progressed to the final where they defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 to win the gold medal. The Soviet team had to settle for bronze.

cold war sport
The defeated US team in the 1972 Olympics final

Another notable Olympic clash involved the United States and Soviet Union men’s basketball teams at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Both nations had powerhouse teams with long records of success. The United States team, then comprised of college players rather than professionals, had won gold at the previous seven Olympic Games. The Soviet team was a regular Olympic silver medallist and European champion. The US and Soviet teams were drawn in different groups at Munich. Both progressed to the final with relative ease, the Soviets defeating Cuba and the American trouncing Italy in the semi-finals. The gold medal match received a great deal of media attention, given the strength of both teams and the political rivalries of their nations.  The Soviets led for most of the game, however by the final seconds, the Americans had fought back to lead by one point. Errors and confusion between timekeeper and referees allowed the Soviets to transfer play to their end and score the winning basket. The 51-50 Soviet victory caused an uproar in the US camp, which claimed the final play was illegitimate. American officials lodged an unsuccessful protest, then an appeal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The US players refused to accept the silver medal, a stance they have maintained ever since.

cold war sport
A Canadian goal during the 1972 Summit Series

The US was not the only Western nation to enjoy a hot rivalry with the Soviet Union. In 1972 Canadian and Soviet diplomats in Moscow initiated a series of ice hockey matches between the two countries. This series of eight games, four in each country, was played in September 1972. Initially dubbed the ‘Friendship Series’, it became known as the Summit Series. In sporting terms the Summit Series was a success, producing high-quality ice hockey. Canada entered the series as favourites but was shocked in their four home games, trailing 2-1 to the Soviets after four matches. The series attracted intense media coverage and aroused nationalist sentiment on both sides. On the field, it was marred by claims of biased refereeing, controversial tactics and gamesmanship from both sides. In the sixth match, Canadian player Bobby Clarke was accused of deliberately injuring Valeri Kharlamov in game six, fracturing his ankle. Canada won the series 4-3 but the high standard of the Soviet players surprised their opponents.

The Olympic Games occasionally became a platform for political grievances. At the 1968 games in Mexico City, Czechoslovakian Vera Caslavska – a world champion gymnast and an outspoken critic of Soviet communism in her home country – turned her head away during the playing of the Soviet anthem. Communist China was not recognised by the IOC, so did not compete at the Summer Olympics between 1956 and 1980. The Republic of China (Taiwan) team boycotted the 1976 Olympics after host nation Canada refused to acknowledge its sovereignty. The largest Olympic boycotts, however, came in the 1980s. In 1980 the United States and several other countries refused to attend the Moscow Olympics, a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Instead, the US hosted an ‘alternative Olympics’, the Liberty Bell Classic, that was attended by athletes from 29 countries. The Soviet Union and 14 Soviet bloc nations retaliated by boycotting the 1984 games in Los Angeles. The Soviets too organised their own alternative carnival, called the Friendship Games.

cold war sport
A cartoon showing the side effects of US-Chinese ‘ping pong diplomacy’

Sport in the Cold War was often confrontational – but it was occasionally constructive. There is no better example than the role of table tennis in restoring US-Chinese relations. In 1971 members of the American table tennis team toured Japan and became friendly with members of the Chinese team. Chinese officials responded by inviting the American team to visit their country. The invitation was accepted and the American team toured China in April 1971. This visit, which included exhibition matches and visits to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China, sparked a great deal of curiosity and media attention in both countries. While the invitation was undoubtedly engineered by Chinese leaders, table tennis served as a diplomatic icebreaker, allowing shows of trust and goodwill without signs of political weakness. This ‘ping-pong diplomacy’, as it became known, paved the way for higher-level visits and meetings and, eventually, rapprochement between China and the US. Three months after the American tour US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited China for secret talks with Zhou Enlai. Kissinger was followed by president Richard Nixon, who visited Beijing and met Mao Zedong in February 1972. China was later accepted as a member state of the United Nations, while Washington restored diplomatic communications with Beijing.

goodwill games cold war
The logo of the Goodwill Games

The Goodwill Games were another example of sport being used to heal the wounds of the Cold War. Developed by American broadcaster Ted Turner and organised by his company Time Warner, the Goodwill Games were intended to heal the acrimony of the Olympic boycotts in 1980 and 1984. The first Goodwill Games, held in Moscow in July 1986, were attended by around 3,000 athletes from 79 different nations. These games were a resounding success, both on and off the field. They were not without their political issues, however, with Moscow banning athletes from Israel and South Korea. Four more Goodwill Games were held: in Seattle (1990), Saint Petersburg (1994), New York City (1998) and Brisbane (2001). They were then abandoned due to poor television ratings, declining interest from athletes, the end of the Cold War and improving international relations. Despite losing millions of dollars on the Goodwill Games, Turner expressed no regrets, claiming his creation played a pivotal role in easing Cold War tensions.

cold war sport

1. During the Cold War, many nations used sport for political or ideological purposes, such as demonstrating the superiority of their system over others.

2. From the late 1940s, the Soviet Union invested heavily in sport, creating infrastructure and programs to identify, develop and train new sporting talent.

3. This state funding paid dividends for the USSR in its first two Olympics. East Germany followed a similar path and became a dominant sporting nation in the 1970s.

4. Cold War tensions fuelled some controversial or violent Olympic clashes, such as the notorious ‘Blood in the Water’ match between the Soviet and Hungarian water polo teams in Melbourne, 1956.

5. Sport occasionally helped heal the divisions of the Cold War, by encouraging better communications and goodwill. The US-Chinese ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ (1971-72) and the Goodwill Games (1986-2001) were examples of this.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn & S. Thompson, “Sport in the Cold War”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],